Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sylvia Plath & The Collected Poems

Last night, our parents took Acton, Victoria and I out to a wonderful dinner at Remi. Over an assortment of shared appetizers, the most tasty being a mushroom polenta, Sylvia Plath came up. I realized that, after reading Ariel once in highschool, I had somehow neglected to ever pick up the Bell Jar.  Nor had I ever read the Pulitzer Prize winning Collected Poems, which Ted Hughes published on behalf of Plath posthumously in 1981.

I stopped by Greenlight this morning and picked up a copy of both books. In the Collected Poems,  Hughes has written a five page introduction. The Hughes-Plath relationship was, of course, famously fraught. Hughes cheated on Plath. And the couple separated just six months before the author fell in to a deep depression and took her life in a kitchen oven. Plath fans have oft-sighted Hughes's mistreatment of his young wife as the catalyst for her suicide.

Hughes's introduction feels a little perfunctory for my tastes. He touches mostly on the decisions he had to make in order to give a chronological rendering of Plath's poems. But he does offer this one insight:

 "Her attitude to her verse was artisan like: if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a succesful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity."

That idea of writing because it's pouring from you really struck me. And I kept it with me while I read through the poems this afternoon. Here's one of my favorites from Collected Poems thus far. I think it so perfectly captures the listlessness of depression.

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil.
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unkowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but non of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them-
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation.
And I shall be useful when I lie fown finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.
-28 March 1961

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