Doubt too many people at your local supermarket have ever heard of Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, or Anne Bradstreet.

But mention Sylvia Plath's name and you're likely to get a reaction.

Plath, who committed suicide 50 years ago at the age of 30, is a rarity: a famous poet.

She remains popular, and retains a certain sex appeal in an age when poetry, and poets, have become increasingly academic, insular, and marginalized. She has even been immortalized on celluloid by Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2003 biopic Sylvia.

West Chester University's acclaimed poetry center will celebrate Plath's life and work with a program of poetry readings and discussions by seven women artists and writers Sunday, on what would have been Plath's 81st birthday. Participants include Plath scholar Jessica McCort, poets Anna M. Evans, Angela O'Donnell and Jane Satterfield, and visual artists Jo Yarrington and Holly Trostle Brigham.

Poet Kim Bridgford (Epiphanies), who organized the event, said Plath had become an indelible part of American pop culture because of her dramatic life, her complex, almost epic relationship with husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes, and her tragic death.

"In many ways, people think of her as the Marilyn Monroe of the literary world," said Bridgford, who is director of West Chester's poetry center. "They died a year apart and they both have this tragedy around them." Sadly, Bridgford added, Plath's "personal mythology often obscures her work."

Born into an academic household in Boston in 1932, Plath distinguished herself at Smith College, even winning as a student a guest-editor gig at Mademoiselle magazine. She met Hughes when she enrolled at Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship, and married him in 1956.

By this time, Plath already had survived one suicide attempt (in 1953), which landed her in a psychiatric hospital for six months.

If Plath is famous, it is often for the circumstances of her life. Some fans know her principally through her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, a harrowing account of her experiences as a mental patient.

Others are fixated on Plath's death - she gassed herself at the oven in the kitchen while her two children slept in the bedroom.

But what renders Plath's case all the more interesting is that as a pioneer in the art of confessional poetry, she makes it difficult for us to separate her life from her work - she used her fantasies and aspirations, her relationships and her inner demons as grist for the poetic mill.

Plath appeals to readers with a power rarely seen in other writers, said O'Donnell (Waking My Mother), who teaches contemporary poetry at Fordham University.

"I think there is an urgency and an immediacy to Plath's work [that my students] respond to," she said. "We are reading 12 contemporary women poets this semester, and Plath is their favorite."

Critics of confessional poetry claim Plath's work could not stand on its own without the drama her life story provides.

Evans, whose chapbook Selected Poems of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is due this year, begs to differ.

What makes Plath a great poet, said the British-born Evans, is how she molds personal material into extraordinary art.

"I first encountered her when I was a teenager writing miserable teenage poetry in England," Evans said from her home in Hainesport. "I could see the massive gulf between what I was producing and what she had done."

O'Donnell said Plath's mastery of the form is overlooked by her critics.

"She is a game-changer," O'Donnell said. "She uses language in ways that are fresh and new. . . . She's a lot like John Donne and the metaphysical poets with her ability to make language, metaphor do amazing things."

 Plath's work has never been out of print, and she continues to draw admirers, fans, and acolytes, said Bridgford, because she wrote powerful verses and because she died young.

"She gets up the pulse of life with the vibrancy of her work. And because she dies so young, that pulse beats with more vibrancy for us," Bridgford said. "She reminds us . . . we have a limited amount of time on earth and if we want to live on, whether through a book, a poem, a statue, or our effect on other people, we need to do it. Now."


Sylvia Plath Birthday Party

2 p.m. Sunday at West Chester University's Poetry House, 823 S. High St., West Chester. Free.

Information: 610-436-3235 or poetry@wcupa.eduEndText