Monday, 7 February 2011

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath's one of those people I knew more gossip about than poems she had written. A363 gave us You're to play with, and I've sat down and read Ariel now from cover to cover. I fell in love with Tulips. The poem is about the black and white scene of a 1960's hospital ward...
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in

...with the almost violent intrusion of the scarlet tulips:
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their swaddlings, like an awful baby. 

Plath talks about her husband and child as smiling, the smiles catching on her skin with little smiling hooks. The focus of the poem, like many of the poems written in the last months before her death, is about the relationship between rude life and the tranquillity of death. I have mainly avoided Plath - and Woolf for that matter - because the exploration of depression and suicide is something that I have experienced in my own family. But there's something powerful about Plath's poems that makes them so much more about her vivid experience of life than just about the lead up to her suicide.

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.
Perhaps it is that too vivid experience of life that created an intolerable stress for her, but fed her poetry. I often feel with writing poetry, you could be lost in it, just fall into it. As you try and describe authentically feelings that don't have words, you are forced to re-experience it, even if the poem is about something else. Your poetic palette is your own experience of feelings, including anguish and agony. I found this with life writing, too, you have to delve into memories and complex feelings. I started a poem about the children's ward my daughter was on (for most of a year) surrounded by children with life shortening illnesses, which is a polite euphemism for circumstances where you feel flayed alive, more by hope than by bad news, which are braced for, but the loss of hope... and all around your personal disaster movie, are all these others. I think it has the makings of a good poem, but I sit and cry when I edit it. As a therapist, I can see the benefits of draining that agonising collection of pain. As a poet, I suspect it would be better to leave well alone.


  1. See ...if that doesn't work, go to
    and search for plath

    Cheers, Tony

  2. I read The Bell Jar along time ago, but am less familiar with her poems. The one you quote above is so raw - am going to get a book of her poems out of the library - thanks for this.

  3. Thank you Tony, I read the article, I would love to hear her read some of the poems. I've been looking at Robert Lowell and his voice adds a layer to the poem that isn't on the page. I shall have to track down some of Plath's readings. I found Daddy at you tube:

    And Downith, I could only find Ariel at our local library, so I had to pick up a couple of other books second hand.