Sylvia Plath's Spirit Guide

Year

2014

With an "overturned brandy glass" for a planchette, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes often navigated their handmade Ouija board for inspiration. In a note accompanying Plath's poem "Ouija," Hughes describes how she "occasionally amused herself, with one or two others, by holding her finger on an upturned glass, in a ring of letters laid out on a smooth table, and questioning the 'spirits.'"1

The name of their usual spirit guide was Pan. He spelled out everything from his favorite poems by each poet—"Pike," in the case of Hughes, and "Mussel-Hunter" by Plath (the spirit admitted: "I like fish")—to what the couple should name their children or which press would publish Plath's next book (correctly: "Knopf").

As Plath recalls in her journal on July 4, 1958:

Even if our own hot subconscious pushes it (It says, when asked, that it is "like us"), we had more fun than a movie.2

The Ouija board was her husband's idea, as Plath scholar Kathleen Connors writes: "Along with compiling lists of potential subjects for Plath's poems and stories, Hughes advised her on meditation techniques, and used hypnotism and their hand-made Ouija board on a regular basis. Calling these sessions ' magnificent fun,' Plath was intrigued by the concept of 'Pan,' their main 'spirit contact' called on for advice on poetry subjects, and sometimes to get numbers for horse races."3

Many poems were inspired by this process, the two most notable being Plath's "Ouija" and "Dialogue Over a Ouija Board." The latter is a conversation between a couple, Sibyl and Leroy, about the nature of channelling itself. Ultimately, that particular verse drama ends with the two concluding:

When lights go out
May two real people breathe in a real room

Plath writes in "The Colossus" (interestingly, Pan's own "family god," was named 'Kolossus'):

Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.

Or perhaps not. Either way, for Plath, channeling was one means of coming in contact with herself.


1Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems (Faber & Faber, 1981), p. 276.
2The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Anchor Books, 200), ed. Karen V. Kukil, p. 400.
3Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual (Oxford University Press, 2007), ed. Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley, p. 111-112.