ON POETRY, WRITING AND RANDOM CULTURAL MATTERS

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Presiding Spirit 2013: Sylvia Plath


It’s a doldrum day at the slow turning of the year. It’s pouring with rain again and I am not talking the dog out in a gale. Instead I lift a slim volume of verse from my shelves. It’s one of my most precious books: a first edition of Ariel by Sylvia Plath: red hard back, simple gold lettering, edges slightly browned, pages dark cream, forty poems dedicated to her children, Frieda and Nicholas. I bought it more than twenty years ago. It doesn’t have a dust jacket and so it’s monetary value, a knowledgeable poetry bookseller told me recently, is less than it would be if it had, but I don’t care.

Its worth is inside, in those marvelous poems she left on her desk in February 1963 and which Faber published in 1965, after some reshuffling of the order by Ted Hughes. A restored edition was published in 2007 and makes for fascinating comparison. Fifty years after her death, I am reading her again for the umpteenth time. It’s a little pilgrimage. It’s disturbing, but comfortably familiar. That’s why she’s my this year’s  Presiding Spirit.
Over the coming twelve months you will find articles, essays and readings on this page on Plath. Please check back often and leave a comment on the writings you find here. If you would like to contribute to this project, you are most welcome.
The opening poem of Ariel is Morning Song, a poem of a mother’s anxiety at night, listening to her sleeping child waiting for the sound that requires her response:
‘One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.’
But it is much more than this as it starts and ends with the child claiming its voice: ‘The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry/Took its place among the elements.’; ‘And now you try/Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons.’ The skill of Plath here is to have at one and the same time an ordinary register of language, the matter of factness of the mid-wife’s action and the child’s vocalisation, coupled with the extraordinary in idea of our voices joining the elements and the strange simile of vowels rising like balloons. The image of the breast-feeding mother as ‘cow-heavy’ has stayed with me. I think it was one of the first things I’d found for myself that alerted me to the exciting possibilities of language and its physicality when I was a teenager. It’s simple, all the best ideas are.
In the tradition of reading the first and last poems in a book in order to decide whether it is any good; a habit which many people have and might be borne in mind when ordering a collection for publication, let’s look at the final poem, Words. It’s short, but full of complex imagery that begins with a startling one word line ‘Axes’ and goes on to celebrate the felling of a tree for the sound of the wood ringing and echoing ‘off from the centre like horses’, another thought-provoking simile; and for the sap that wells up like water ‘striving/To re-establish its mirror/Over the rock'. Mirrors are a frequent Plath image and I have already written about that in an earlier post - scroll down. Words then become ‘hoof-taps’ echoing the earlier horse image, but in the end ‘dry and riderless’, while the finality of the poem’s last lines is a depressing expression of pre-determinism: ‘From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life.’
In between these two poems you will find some of her most famous work such as Lady Lazarus, Tulips and Daddy. To finish this first introductory piece, just a short note, again by way of welcome, to the four bee poems, as this is a current topic in certainly British poetry with a least two collections having been published on it in the last year (Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees and Sean Borrowdale’s Bee Journal).
The Bee Meeting is a longer narrative poem on the opening of hives to locate and remove newly-hatched queens, where Plath’s existential position is as questioning outsider, at first improperly dressed: ‘I am nude as a chicken neck’ and perplexed as to what is going on: ‘Is it some operation that is taking place?’, but never comfortable, even down to the final lines: ‘Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.’
The Arrival of the Bee Box is more than an empty super: ‘...the coffin of a midget/Or a square baby’, as it is locked, dangerous and swarming with bees. This time properly attired (she is learning) in her ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ she considers whether to open the box. A kind of modern day Pandora, she hopes they will ignore her as she is ‘no source of honey’ and resolves the dilemma of action in the poem: ‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free. / The box is only temporary.’ Again control over life and death is worked though in this piece as Plath describes herself as both god and Caesar.
Stings is for me a very powerful poem, set at honey harvest and involving the scraping of the frames for extraction. The stand-out sentiment is contained in these adamant lines:
‘I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.’
and the elision of the poet with the queen bee at the poem’s close: ‘...I/Have a self to recover, a queen.’
In Wintering extracted honey is perfectly described as ‘six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar’, an otherwise forbidding place of blackness and decay for Plath that echoes the danger the all female bees are in as regards their survival, living as they have to on replacement honey (sugar) ‘the refined snow’. It ends on a positive note: ‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring.’ Thus the year turns. Have a very happy 2013.

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