As someone who tends to avoid poetry (with a few exceptions, such as the British Romantics, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman, all of whom I love), this new year has found me reading quite a bit of it! I’ve spent time with Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath. I’ll also be spending the next 15 weeks reading poetry in Old English (think Beowulf) as well as seventeenth-century poetry (John Donne, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Ben Johnson, John Milton, etc.). So, I guess you could say… I’m not shying away from poetry anymore?
Anyhow, my first “review” of the year is for Sylvia Plath’s 1965 collection of poems, Ariel. This book is on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list, and boy am I glad to have finally read it. It is coincidental that I read it within days of reading Lowell’s Life Studies, which I knew little about. As it turns out, Plath was a great admirer of Lowell and both of them were “Confessional Poets.” This seems to be a style I respond to, because I adored both collections.
Plath herself, as many know, suffered from clinical depression. She married the infamous Ted Hughes and would eventually separate from him, after having two children. She committed suicide two weeks after publishing her now-classic novel, The Bell Jar.
Ariel was published posthumously in 1965, two years after her death. It was originally edited and compiled by Hughes, who apparently dropped twelve poems that were intended for the collection and inserted twelve others. He also altered the arrangement — fortunately, a restored version was published in 2004. I look forward to reading that edition, eventually.
Ariel is intensely personal, which is to be expected from confessional poetry. The darkly lyric poems address issues of sexuality, motherhood, marriage, depression, suicidal thoughts, family and depression. These deeply personal poems, delivered with such raw directness, were perhaps too much for publishers of the time. Despite the positive critical reception of her first book, Colossus, the poems in Ariel were roundly rejected by many publications. Even The New Yorker refused to publish more than a few lines (it’s worth noting that The New Yorker also shied away from some of J.D. Salinger’s darker pieces).
Nevertheless, this later collection includes what would become some of the best-known poems in the English language, including “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” and “Morning Song.” I was moved by many of the poems, deeply touched by their personal and emotional expressiveness.
In addition to the famous poems mentioned above, some of my favorites of the collection include, “Nick and the Candlestick,” “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “The Rival,” and “Edge.” The intensity of these poems is at times difficult to bear. Take, for example, the first stanza of “The Moon and the Yew Tree:”
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue. / The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God, / Prickling my ankles and murmuring their humility. / Fumey, spiritous mists inhabit this place / Separated from my house by a row of headstones. / I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
This is a stunning example of awareness of self-in-the-world. Plath is applying direct symbolism to her surroundings and illustrating how the environment she’s in directly affects her mood and state of mind. She’s also expressing, in this poem, the realities of her masculine and feminine natures (the yew tree and the moon) in a way that is somehow divine but also dangerous. There’s a nod to Mother/Female and Father/Male figures, but where one would expect the Mother/Female symbols (the light, the moon) to be soft, warm, and nurturing, here it is cold, dark, distant. Similarly, the Father/Male symbol (the tree) is akin to Eden’s “Tree of Knowledge” – there is wisdom in it, but the tree is black, its fruit poisonous.
I could go on and on about this poem, and others in the collection, but suffice to say I found myself wholly absorbed with Ariel as a whole, though some poems spoke more to me than others. Plath had an uncanny ability to make her poems equally about the self and about the universal. Anyone who has experienced self-doubt, loneliness, and depression, or a terrifying love (like the love of a parent for a child they fear they might lose, fail, or corrupt) will find Plath’s poems deeply affecting.