Earlier this year I listened to the audio version of The Bell Jar and it unleashed a whole can of worms that I posted publicly. If you don’t want to revisit it, the bottom line is that after years of being a little ashamed of my admiration for Sylvia Plath, I say fuck the haters and Sylvia Plath is awesome.
In high school, we read “Daddy” in one of our poetry units and it knocked the wind right out of me. I wrote a paper on “Lady Lazarus.” In a college class, we read “Tulips.” I loved all of these poems, and all of these poems come from Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel. Most of the poems written in Ariel came from a creative burst in the last six months of Plath’s life. In fact, the anniversary of her death—February 11—just passed.
For my staff reading challenge, I was supposed to read a book of poetry. I chose Ariel: The Restored Edition. This edition re-orders the poems to Plath’s original notes. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, posthumously edited and published Ariel after her death in two versions: one for the UK and one for the US.
I think perhaps one of the greatest assets of the restored version of Ariel is the introduction, written by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Frieda wasn’t yet three when her mother died, so she’s mostly had to live with her mother’s legacy. She argues that her parents were human beings, instead of the public’s preferred casting of her father as a villain and her mother as a saint. It can be hard to remember to think about authors as people and not as archetypes. Here’s a quote from her Foreword I found especially compelling.
I did not want my mother’s death to be commemorated as if it had won an award. I wanted her life to be celebrated, the fact that she had existed, lived to the fullness of her ability, been happy and sad, tormented and ecstatic, and given birth to my brother and me. I think my mother was extraordinary in her work, and valiant in her efforts to fight the depression that dogged her throughout her life. She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress, she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect. And here was Ariel, her extraordinary achievement, poised as she was between her volatile emotional state and the edge of the precipice. The art was not to fall. (xix-xx)
But then there’s the poetry in the collection, too, of course. And Ariel is like a good blow to the solar plexus.
Someone told me that Plath’s poetry in particular is very autobiographical—to the point where someone not privy to certain details is unlikely to understand them. I read in the introduction, for example, that the poem “Lesbos” was omitted from the original British publication because the people Plath spends the poem scorning would recognize themselves. Part of me thinks that’s fair because “Lesbos” contains some of the most scathing language I’ve ever read. Before I knew more about Sylvia Plath than that she had committed suicide, I kind of thought of her as a wilting flower. Now I view her as one of the Furies.
Mostly, after reading this collection I wish I’d taken more than my required Intro to Poetry and Poetics. I’ve always been afraid of poetry and I still kind of am. I had an amazing professor for that class (and for my Renaissance lit class, which involved a lot of sonnets and whatnot), so it wasn’t the instruction. I see my anxiety as two-fold: first, most poetry I’ve read just hasn’t spun my wheels. Every once in a while, a poem will grab me. For example, I got really stuck on “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” in a crazy way. But I have also enjoyed Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and Frank O’Hara.
So there is poetry out there for me. Mostly, though, I often see poetry is scary. It’s dense, it’s rich, it goes deep. I’m much more comfortable with a lot of text to chew on. With poetry, it feels harder mine the riches just from the page. Sparse stanzas and profound metaphor give me headaches. One of my friends took a class on poets like Wallace Stevens and just hearing about it was rough. I’m not smart enough for poetry and I’m not a person who does well outside my comfort zone. (Which then brings me into a bunch of stuff I don’t like about myself that there’s not even enough room on the internet to talk about.)
I’m ashamed to be as undereducated on the subject as I am. But I would also eat Sylvia Plath if I could, even though at best I understood about 50% of what these poems even could possibly be about. I still felt drawn to them because Plath’s diction is so exacting and precise (the sign of reading too much nineteenth-century lit?), but I felt really stupid for not understanding them. It wasn’t just not understanding them…it was feeling like I was looking for gardening tools in the kitchen.
But the power of Plath is that I relate to her work with so much of my heart and soul. Is it her confessional mode? Is it the moods she invokes? Is it that the critics are right, that I am a depressed piece of shit wallowing in my depressed shittiness in any way that I can? I don’t know. I really don’t. What I know is that when I read Ariel I could see things I’ve felt but beautifully on the page before me. And what I know is I want to read more poetry. And I know I want to know more.