Posted by: chartroose | February 15, 2008

In Praise of Sylvia Plath

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As an undergraduate, my major was English Lit., and my dream was to get a PhD in comparative literature and immediately become a fully tenured professor at a top-rated university like Oxford or Harvard.  Once I began teaching at this great institution, I would quickly be published and receive the highest accolades from my peers.  I would be considered to be the preeminent lit scholar of my generation and become a household name among the literati.  At literary functions, I would be hounded by adoring fans.  Whenever I opened my mouth to speak, people would crane over to listen to my brilliant words as if we were in one of those E. F. Hutton commercials.

Some of my classmates felt the same way.  We were the elite of the liberal arts college.  We ambled around campus nonchalantly and smoked nonstoppedly and argued about Eliot nonsensically.  We wore black clothing and black expressions, for we were way too cerebral to enjoy the more colorful aspects of living.  The only colorful thing we carried was a pink book of poems entitled Ariel.  Nearly all of the girls and a few of the boys toted Ariel to almost everything.  We had it with us in coffee shops and lecture halls and at sporting events.  Some of us probably slept with it under our pillows.  When we were pretending to be bored at college functions, we’d make a show of pulling it out of our bags and flashing it so that everyone would see that we were very deep and introspective and sad.  Everyone would know that we were an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

We never discussed the book with each other, which seems incredibly strange in retrospect.  Why didn’t we?  Sylvia Plath was our goddess; don’t people usually like to worship in groups?  Perhaps some forms of spirituality are too personal to share.  Perhaps I ran with a bunch of pretentious nincompoops who didn’t really care about Plath, but only wanted to seem like they did.  Perhaps my classmates went through the motions of reading her poems, but were really thinking about sex or shopping while they were doing it.  Yep, I’ll bet that’s it.

Whatever the case, I enjoyed the Ariel poems many times during my undergrad experience.  Eventually, rereading them started to seem like a bad job you dread driving to every day.  Sometime during my senior year, I put the book aside and never picked it up again.  I don’t think I have it anymore. 

A couple of days ago, I was listening to a podcast of “Poetry off the Shelf” at this website: http://poetryfoundation.org.  In this podcast, Sylvia Plath reads “Fever 103°” and a Seattle poet named Carrie Wayson interprets it.  Ms. Wayson does an excellent job, by the way.

Sylvia’s voice is downright scary, and I mean totally frightening during this reading, and it fits in perfectly with the cadence and meaning of the poem.  It gave me the shivers, and I began to remember what it felt like to connect with her back in college.  I’d forgotten how amazing her poetry is. She was and always will be one of the best poets ever.

Fever 103° by Sylvia Plath
Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the tripleTongues of dull, fat Cerebus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,

But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
The weak

Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,

Devilish leopard!
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.

Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.

Three days. Three nights.
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch.

I am too pure for you or anyone.
Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern —-

My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

I think I am going up,
I think I may rise —-
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

Am a pure acetylene
Virgin
Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him.

Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) —-
To Paradise.

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Responses

  1. Sylvia Plath was an amazing and unique poet. I think some of her hipster status may have come from the circumstances surrounding her suicide. Not to trivialize it-but it seemed to elevate her from housewife/poetess to feminist icon. Thanks for posting this.

    Paulie11 from inside the Snakepit

  2. You’re right, Paul. It was the suicide that elevated her. How come we can’t celebrate life and the living?

    I remember hearing quite awhile ago that she really didn’t mean to die. She thought her neighbor would smell the gas and rush in and save her. I wonder if this is true.

  3. I listened to exactly the same podcast and have to admit to being a bit of a Plath fanatic.

    Great job with the post, every engaging.

  4. that’s how they portrayed it in recent Gwendolyn Paltrow movie about her life. In the movie, she times her suicide to coincide with her next door neighbor’s morning walk. I don’t know if that is true but it is in the movie.

  5. Thanks jaffacake! Did she kind of scare you too when she read that poem?

    Paul – There was a movie about Sylvia Plath? Where have I been? Going over to check your blog right now…

  6. My favorite Sylvia Plath poem is “Cut.” I can even recite it.

  7. I go a little nuts when I think about her. If she was writing like this in her twenties and early thirties, what could she have produced had she survived into her sixties? After all, it seems like writers usually do their best work later in life. What a loss for all us poetry nerds!

    If you like her work, you might appreciate Dorothea Lasky, a new poet to the scene who consciously – and effectively – places herself in Plath’s tradition. Try reading Lasky’s ‘Awe: A Dialogue’ after reading Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree.’ The poem by Lasky can be found here, towards the bottom:

    http://www.kickingwind.com/082407.html

  8. T Y–
    I love “Cut” too, but goodness, I can’t recite it! I think my favorite is “Death & Co.” How depressing; I might as well slit my wrists right now!

    Dawn–
    I often wonder that too. If you look at some of the more venerable poets, i.e. Frost or Roethke–they did some of their best work as old men. It’s sad, isn’t it?

  9. Hey Dawn, I just looked at the Lasky page. “Boobs are Real” is pretty disturbing. I’ll have to keep an eye on her.

  10. I agree totally; I too was listening to the “Poetry Off the Shelf” and Plath’s recitation was chilling. I also find this true of her reading of “Daddy” – it occurs to me that perhaps (and I don’t necessarily think this is true of all poets) hearing her read the poems is the *optimal* way to absorb their full effect.

  11. Yes, I just listened to Sylvia recite it again the other day, and it still gave me the shivers!. Ms. Wayson was correct when she said it sounded “incantatory.” I love this poem, and every time I listen to it, I get something new from it.

    I think poetry is definitely meant to be read aloud, especially if it is recited with feeling.


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