Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) won the Pulitzer for a posthumous publication of her "Collected Poems"
So many things come to mind when I hear the name Sylvia Plath: A comment a poetry teacher made once about reading Plath in the bathtub and dropping the book in the water because she felt haunted by Plath’s presence; the 2003 movie Sylvia with Gwyneth Paltrow; a conversation I had with W.S. Merwin about Plath and her husband Ted Hughes when Merwin and his wife at the time, Dido Milroy, lived in London near them; a reading of The Bee Meeting by James Tate as he marveled at Plath’s ability to keep a voice all the way through a poem.
I think of the comment by A. Alvarez in the clip from the Voices and Visions video below: “[In 1962, Plath’s] poems had become unstoppable. She had hit the motherload. . . . She had gone through and found the reservoir. She was writing poems of an order that seem to me quite extraordinary for this century, not just one a month or one every two months which is what she’d done before. She was writing two or three a day as though she’d tapped the motherload to end all motherloads of her creativity.”
I think of the dialogue between Plath and Peter Orr in the 1962 interview and Plath’s comment about toothbrushes:
Plath: In a novel, for example, you can get in all the paraphernalia like toothbrushes one finds in daily life. I find this more difficult in poetry. Poetry is a tyrannical discipline. You’ve got to go so far so fast in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals. And I miss them. . . . I like trivia, and I find that in a novel I can get more of life, perhaps not such intense life but certainly more of life. And so I’ve become very interested in novel writing as a result.
Orr: This is almost a Dr. [Samuel] Johnson view of poetry isn’t it. What is it he said that there are some things that are fit for inclusion in poetry, and there are others which are not.
Plath: Of course as a poet I would say poof, I would say everything should be able to come into a poem, but I can’t put toothbrushes in a poem. I really can’t.
Plath with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes
I think of the large vinyl records I listened to when I first studied poetry at the University of Memphis in 1989. I was amused by her voice and tried to imitate the cackling, witch-like quality I heard in the recording of her poem Ariel.
I think of reading her novel The Bell Jar on the beach in Florida as a young girl when I was first married.
I think of a comment Plath made about finding her voice as a poet as she looked at the moon through a tree one night. I thought she found her voice that moment in some magic, serendipitous way. Similarly, I misunderstood my mother when I was five years old as I stepped out of a swimming pool and she wrapped me in a towel. She said, “It turned winter,” and I thought she meant it turned winter that instant and wondered it could happen so quickly and my mother knew when.
As a baby poet, I too wanted my moon tree experience, that moment when I would be standing in the right place at the right time, the light would be shining through the trees just so and I would find my voice.
What is the voice we hear in Plath’s poetry? It is theatrical and dramatic and solitary. When the voice cackles, it echoes in a room alone. This is a voice spotlighted on a stage in a dramatic monologue. Each Plath poem seems like a precursor to a death scene, This is my dramatic monologue on bees before I die. This is my dramatic monologue on horses. I see her standing beside a dug pit with a skull in her hand like Hamlet:
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! — The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,
Berries cast dark
Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Hauls me through air —-
Flakes from my heels.
Godiva, I unpeel —-
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Plath did commit suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. When a person commits suicide, there is a point they realize they can’t reverse the process. They feel a terror the living don’t understand. That’s the voice I hear in Plath’s poetry, the terror of a woman wanting to return to life and unable to. It’s there in every detail of every poem, in the cheesecloth and the bee boxes, the candles and poppies and pearl buttons. It would have been in toothbrushes if she had chosen to write about them.
Peter Orr Interview in 1962:
Voices and Visions documentary:
Other Pulitzer finalists in 1982 were Charles Wright for his book The Southern Cross and Dave Smith for his book Dream Flights.
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