Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I've been spending time with Sylvia Plath lately. Fairly often I find myself rereading her collection Ariel, usually at moments when I feel as if I'm teetering on the knife-edge of an as yet unwritten poem. When it comes to poetry creation, I frequently have to endure the aura of "about to write." The sensation is not so different from an incipient migraine: something inarticulate is about to require language, yet I do not have a subject, not even a sound. I merely have an almost-imagined pressure, a near-invisible frame, a flickering. This might seem ridiculous, but so do the premonitions of illness seem petty; so do the signs of sudden, mutual, physical desire.

For me, reading Plath can be a way of shifting an embryo poem from its cavern into the articulated air. Between the terrible furor of her imagination and the stiletto precision of her language there remains, always, a palpable, vibrating cord. It is alive; its tremors are frightening. Here, for instance, is a stanza from "The Arrival of the Bee Box":

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

"Furious Latin." "Box of maniacs." "Simply." Here is a poet who comprehends the infinitesimal powers of her grammatical elements. Without using a single unusual verb, she nonetheless composes a stanza that is crammed with frustrated energy. Reading Plath is, if nothing else, a lesson in the subtle ancient art of the modifier.

So this week I copied out Plath poem after Plath poem. I avoided all the famous hysterical ones: "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," etc.--those pieces in which topic overshadows linguistic substance. I didn't want the tabloid Plath; I wanted the poet. They are, of course, the same woman; but her legend often leads readers to cloak the drama of words with the drama of anecdote . . . as if the words themselves aren't her true sword and blood.


Maureen said...

Great post, Dawn.

An instructor I had at Vassar was a Plath expert. Sometimes it was scary being in her class, she seemed to so imbue Plath.

Have you ever heard a recording by Plath? I included in a post a while back a link to one in which she reads "Daddy". Her voice was not as I had thought it might be.

Dawn Potter said...

I keep meaning to write an essay about what it feels like to grow up in the "daughter generation" of writers such as Plath and Sexton, who, had they lived, would be only slightly older than my own mother. I haven't yet found my angle into that piece, but I hope I'll manage to write it someday.

rss said...

Your personal assessment of Plath's modifiers is a tribute to living through language and imagination -- even where, as Robert Lowell writes in his foreword to Ariel, other readers may be left "feeling empty, evasive, and inarticulate." I know that's how my daughter felt, reading Plath, before she left Smith. I know that's how I have felt, too, in the past, yet, writing out her "Morning Song" this morning, I can appreciate your own animated "drama of the words" response as well.

charlottegordon said...

I never noticed those maniacs before. I hope you write this essay on the daughter generation.