Back in December I pledged my intent to bring poetry back into my life. Poetry was something I read much more of in my late teens and early twenties, but it is a habit that I grew out of somewhere along the line. Perhaps because of my own youthful flirtation with poetry part of me associates it with grumpy teenagers wallowing unsociably in back bedrooms.
Back then, still living at home, typically monosyllabic and unimpressed by life, I read Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, following that up with Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams – I may have to revisit these books one day – they made an enormous impression on me at the time. I went on naturally enough to read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry – I always found it challenging – but there was so much in the imagery of her language that spoke to me back then, that Sylvia Plath has remained somewhere at the back of my mind ever since. A couple of months ago – I treated myself to a lovely little hardback copy of Ariel – I suspect I once had a paperback copy at some time but where these old books disappear to nobody knows.
I am very aware that I haven’t a clue how to review collections of poetry – I have never done so before. Perhaps all I can do is share some of Sylvia’s beautiful imagery – and some of my own thoughts about it.
Ariel; published posthumously in 1965, two years after Plath’s suicide – was her second collection of poetry – and it is deeply personal, often intimate, and frequently challenging. Her themes are those of marriage and motherhood, sexuality, depression, death and suicide. Plath’s poetry is lyrical and though often dark there is a strange luminosity to many of her images.
“The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are”
(from Tulips 1961)
Hospitals feature several times, not surprisingly – and I do love how Plath captures the white, stillness and other worldness of a hospital room. The speaker has yielded her identity to the nurses and doctors, the violent colour of the tulips – presumably a gift – interrupting the white calmness of the hospital environment.
One of her most famous poems ‘Daddy’, with its images of war and holocaust appears an angry railing against her father, a Nazi sympathiser who died when she was a child – scholars apparently differ on just how biographical it is.
“Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time ”
Probably her most famous poem in this collection is Lady Lazarus, a poem I must have read dozens of times in my teens. It is a poem that talks about Plath’s own previous suicide attempts, and her subsequent resurrections, it is also another poem containing images of the holocaust – looking back I find myself a little disturbed at my seventeen year old self’s fascination with it.
“I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –”
(From Lady Lazarus –
I particularly discovered, how one reads poetry entirely differently to prose – I hadn’t thought about that much before, but it is inevitable though; poetry is such a different art form. I enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection, most of the poems I had to read over and over – allowing the language and the imagery to wash over me. I realise I probably chose a quite challenging collection to begin my renewed poetry reading – but I enjoyed the challenge, although I don’t pretend that I understood completely every word – sometimes I suspect I only gained a vague sense of what lies behind Plath’s words. I have to admit that the title poem Ariel remained a frustrating enigma – despite re-reading it countless times – I looked it up on Wikipedia for some enlightenment – it’s about a horse.
One of my favourites – another one concerned with death – is Edge – it isn’t cheery stuff, although strangely perhaps I don’t find it depressing – but the imagery is perfect, the lines flow into each other effortlessly.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
(From Edge -1960)
Sylvia Plath was a complex, intelligent, damaged woman, and this is very much reflected in her poetry.