Ariel: The Restored Edition

ArielIn high school, I loved reading poetry. I had lots of poetry anthologies and old textbooks, and I would read from them all the time, often aloud, loving the way the words felt as they spilled out of my mouth even when I had no idea what the poem meant. I copied poems I especially loved into a blue spiral notebook, which also included song lyrics and quotes I ran across. I was in love with the words.

I’m not sure when I got out of that habit. Perhaps it was in college, when I learned to mine poems for meaning, squinting at each line to extract the truth behind the words. I see the value of that type of reading, but it wasn’t joyful for me, and I may have decided I’d been reading poems wrong all along. At any rate, as an adult, I haven’t spent nearly as much time with poetry as I did as a teenager.

Last month, I was wandering through the library and happened to catch a glimpse of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel as I walked by the National Poetry Month display. Having read Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, about Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, earlier this year, I was curious about Plath’s poetry. I remember that she was a poet I loved in high school. (“Mirror,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy” are three poems that stand out in my memory, even though I’m sure I didn’t understand them, “Daddy” in particular, when I was in high school.) I had listened to her reading a few of her poems, such as “The Applicant,” online, after reading Malcolm’s book, so this collection came into my line of sight at a good time.

Although some of the poems in Ariel were published in magazines or broadcast on BBC radio before her death, the collection of poems written in 1961 and 1962 was published posthumously, edited by Hughes. When putting the collection together, Hughes eliminated some of the poems Plath had listed in her contents list for the collection and added others written after the manuscript was finished. This version, edited by Plath and Hughes’ daughter, Frieda Hughes, restores Plath’s original selections. In her introduction, Frieda Hughes does not express anger or resentment toward her father—she seems to understand his choices, and she writes with some exasperation about the public reaction to the poems and the way her death seemed to dominate the conversation about her life.

But what about the poems themselves? The collection includes many of the poems that Plath is famous for: “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “Fever 103°.” They’re filled with images of birth and death and domestic life and how things that are supposed to bring joy often bring pain. Take, for example, this stanza in “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 white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

This poem was apparently written shortly after a hospital stay for an appendectomy and possibly a miscarriage. (The sources I’ve found online aren’t clear about this.) The blood-colored tulips seem to represent life, but a life that steals life from the poem’s speaker: “The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.” There’s death and life and loss of life and of identity. Could the tulips represent the children she brings to life or life itself? It’s difficult not to read autobiography into this poem, but even without the autobiographical connection, the poem’s ambiguity about life seems clear.

One poem I especially liked that I don’t think I’d encountered before is “The Detective,” which includes these stanzas:

Did it come like an arrow, did it come like a knife?
Which of the poisons is it?
Which of the nerve-curlers, the convulsors? Did it electrify?
This is a case without a body.
The body does not come into it at all.

It is a case of vaporization.
The mouth first, its absence reported
In the second year. It had become insatiable
And in punishment was hung out like brown fruit
To wrinkle and dry.

This poem, it seems, is about a not-so-literal death, a death that is really a disappearance, a death that begins with the silencing of an insatiable mouth. Yet again, there’s a dark side of domesticity.

Plath’s language is spare and stripped-down, but remains vivid. The poems are pleasing to read aloud. When I read them aloud, I could feel the vigor and passion in her language, and, just as when I was in high school, I could appreciate her poems even when I didn’t understand them.

And some of the poems are difficult. “The Courage of Shutting Up,” is filled with striking images, but what do they mean?

So the discs of the brain revolve, like the muzzles of cannon.
Then there is that antique billhook, the tongue,
Indefatigable, purple. Must it be cut out?
It has nine tails, it is dangerous.
And the noise it flays from the air, once it gets going.

There’s wartime imagery and once again the idea of a tongue that needs silencing. Later, there’s a mirror. Is it about a soul at war with itself? I don’t know. With some of the poems, I would have appreciated a word or two to put me on the path, not because there must be one right reading but because I struggled to make a start on a reading that pulled the whole thing together. One of the appendices includes Plath’s introductions for a BBC radio broadcast reading of her poems. They’re brief and to the point but sometimes helpful. It was here that I learned that the speaker in “Nick and the Candlestick” is a mother nursing her child. I missed that altogether, but once I saw that, the almost (to me) meaningless poem made a lot more sense.

This volume also contains a copy of Plath’s original typed manuscript, which I didn’t find particularly interesting because there are few handwritten changes. It’s basically the same poems presented in a different format. The in-progress handwritten drafts of the poem “Ariel” are more informative because they show something of how Plath worked on an idea, but I’m more interested in the finished product. For the most part, the appendices, aside from the brief BBC scripts, didn’t add a lot of value. The collection, however, is worthwhile, and I’m glad that Plath’s original contents were restored, and I’m glad I read it. I don’t know whether I’ll make poetry a habit the way it used to be for me, but it’s good to be reminded of its power.

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10 Responses to Ariel: The Restored Edition

  1. Rachel says:

    I loved Ariel when I was around 17 or 18!! I responded to the sharp edges in Plath’s poetry, but like you I am not sure how deeply or well I understood it. I will have to look into this. Thanks for sharing!

    • Teresa says:

      I really love how her language plays up those sharp edges. The sound of the words fits the feeling–you can really sense that in the recordings of her reading.

  2. Like you, when I was younger I literally plastered my walls with poems, fragments of play dialogue, quips, proverbs, etc., i.e., other people’s words. I fell in love with them to the point that I more or less memorized most of them. Recently (a year or two ago), thinking to cover the front of my huge computer desk, which was so boringly blank, I posted 3 of my favorite poems (Conrad Aiken’s “Morning Song of Senlin,” Seamus Heaney’s “Weighing In,” and Carol Ann Duffy’s “Prayer”). From your discussion of Sylvia Plath, I can tell you that it seems to me that a lot of us pick up on her “sharp edges,” as your commenter Rachel did, but Plath was so painful to read (her sharp edges just the problem) that I never got really accustomed to giving her much of a chance. I read several of her most famous poems, like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” but felt too much hurt by the words to continue. Now maybe that I’m getting older, I can try again with her. Thanks for your sensitive post.

    • Teresa says:

      I used to memorize poems and other quotes, too. I still remember a lot of them because they got embedded in my brain at an age when stuff sticks. Maybe posting some favorites over my desk would get them back in my mind.

      And I found some of Plath’s poems quite painful. But some were also bracing in their anger. “Lady Lazarus” is like that for me. Painful, but invigorating.

  3. I had just the opposite experience of yours — poetry did nothing at all for me in high school, and I came to it later. I remember particularly reading “Tulips” for an American Lit class in college and being blown away by it. It remains one of my favorite of Plath’s poems.

    (Actually, you know what really brought me back in on poetry? Reading the random poem of the day over at poetryfoundation.org.)

    • Teresa says:

      I think what happened in college is that I got so into close reading of poetry, which can be great, that I forgot that close reading isn’t required for every poem every time. I didn’t have that problem with novels, probably because my professors had to do guide us through both widescreen and close reading. I never studied Plath in college, and I don’t think I encountered “Tulips” before finding it here.

      Maybe I’ll start looking at the Poetry Foundation site more. I listen to their Writers’ Almanac broadcast some mornings, but it’s only with half an ear because I’m focused on getting ready for work.

  4. What a wonderful edition – I didn’t read much of her poetry until my mid-20s when I lived in the same house she lived in when she was a student at Cambridge (UK). I was a bit of a modern poetry snob up until I made that first connection.

    • Teresa says:

      That is such a cool connection!

      I’ve always liked modern poetry. Modern poetry and sonnets seem to be what I’m most drawn to. I should look through my old notebooks and see if I can find any where I copied out some of my favorites when I was younger.

  5. Jeanne says:

    oh, I hope you can continue reading poems and feeling the words in your mouth until you can bring back at least some of your early joy in them. Ariel does seem like a good volume to set you back on that path–just the quotations you give here, like “a dozen red lead sinkers” are wonderful in the mouth.

    • Teresa says:

      These were really satisfying to read aloud (and to listen to–Plath’s delivery is amazing). I really got into a few and wondered if my neighbors could hear me and what they might think! I also wonder if reading a collection by one poet helped. After reading a bunch, I started to feel her voice in my mouth. I’m definitely going to try the readaloud approach with some others to see how it goes.

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