After attending that literature conference earlier this month, I made a decision to read more poetry. I’d seen feature articles on Sylvia Plath coinciding with the 50th anniversary of her death last month, so when I spotted the new restored edition of Ariel, including facsimiles of her original typescript, I couldn’t resist. This collection contains the last poems she wrote – the ones she left on her desk when she committed suicide.
I’m not a good poetry reader; that is, I don’t read a lot, and that’s because I don’t really understand much of it. Well, I have been led to believe so, and I’d like to blame it on my patronizing Survey of English Literature professor at university, who used to wince with distaste every time I suggested an alternative interpretation or attempted to solve the symbolism during class discussion on poetry. (She had her favourite students who seemed to know all the right answers). Now I’d like to apply to myself the democratic approach I adopted in my research on the consumption of art. And here I am, reading facsimiles of Sylvia Plath’s hand-corrected poetry.
I like the idea of facsimiles. But I equally enjoyed reading the foreword written by Plath’s daughter, Freida Hughes. I found her comments on her mother’s career and their family life mature and considered. Apparently, many reacted to Plath’s husband Ted Hughes after she committed suicide because it was widely believed that the revelation that he had an affair with another woman aggravated Plath’s depression. Also, people were not happy with the way Hughes took the liberty to make his own decisions on what to include in the posthumously published collection, Ariel. In this preface, daughter Hughes doesn’t really defend her father, but tries to present an impartial account – this is a deeply personal account though. She says, for example:
“But the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them. The collection of Ariel poems became symbolic to me of this possession of my mother and of the wider vilification of my father. It was as if the clay from her poetic energy was taken up and versions of my mother made out of it, invented to reflect only the inventors, as if they could possess my real, actual mother, now a woman who had ceased to resemble herself in those other minds” (xiv).
Such a compelling evocation (I think I can empathize with her – maybe as someone who’s lost a parent) and in its literariness, a fitting preamble to such fine poetry. This is a more optimistic comment on the Ariel collection: “My mother described her Ariel manuscript as beginning with the word ‘Love’ and ending with the word ‘Spring’, and it was clearly geared to cover the ground from just before the breakup of the marriage to the resolution of a new life, with all the agonies and furies in between” (xii).
So after this preface comes the first poem in the collection, I understand it’s about baby Freida (or I hope so). This is my favourite thus far:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons (5).
This poem is not overly romantic about the baby, but still affectionate in its own way. (Well, she compares it to a statue – this website explains everything for beginners like me). Here, she wants us to listen for the sounds, in addition to seeing the imagery. I like the images Plath draws with her words (I am a visual person): “You are blue and huge, a traffic policeman” (A Secret), “It petrifies the will” (Elm), “The milk came yellow, then blue and sweet as water.” (The Detective), “The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine.” (Lesbos), “Is it for this you widen your eye-rings?” (The Other), “The candle / Gulps and recovers its small altitude” (Nick and the Candlestick), “Electrifyingly-colored sherbets” (Berck-Plage). And of course, I can’t get my head round to how compact the language is, with the puns, the connotations and everything.
The three “Lesbos” poems, I find them… “forceful” could be an apt adjective. I must admit I didn’t enjoy them that much, I guess they reflect a particular moment in Plath’s fluctuating mood. I liked “The Other,” (it mentions foul-smelling knitting in a handbag) and “The Courage of Shutting Up” (it tells of blue grievances being tattooed and of mirrors that can kill and talk).
I’m halfway through the book, trying to read at least a few poems a day. Let’s see how it goes.