In 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 breatheLightly, 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.