Last night I received my (hardcover!!) copy of the "restored version" of Sylvia Plath's Ariel. I immediately dug into it, reading first (in a very uncharacteristic fashion for me) the entire forward by Freida Hughes and then plunging into the first poems, many of which I hadn't read before because they'd been replaced in the Ted Hughes version.

What I'm not going to talk about here is whether or not I think Ted Hughes committed some kind of crime against poetry by altering Plath's original manuscript. There is no way to know if, upon reflection, Plath would have revised it further had she lived, and there's no reason these three versions (the US version, the UK version, and the "original") shouldn't exist simultaneously.

The first line of the book, which I shared yesterday, blows my mind. That whole poem blows my mind. A friend of mine once quoted a line from it in a poem of her own ("cow heavy and floral in my Victorian nightgown"), and that line, too, has always stuck with me and spoken to me.

Plath is a poet whose deep influence on me is not something I readily understand. I tried to convey her power to my poetry students when I was teaching. I had several students read "Cut" out loud and then read it to them myself, trying to expose the power of her irregular rhyme scheme and the harsh hardness of her rhythm. Her work, to me, seems nearly unfiltered from the subconscious—undistilled, pure, raw—but beautiful.

I think it's so unfortunate that people respond most immediately to Plath's seeming confessions in this work, without really getting into her language, which sits on the page in a tight, suspenseful coil. Her work makes me nervous. It makes me feel tense and uncomfortable, but I understand it and believe in its honesty. I also think it's unfortunate that she is so often lumped into a category with Anne Sexton. From the perspective of language, their work is oppositional: where Sexton is an enforcer, completely controlled and deeply artificial, Plath is an explosion, uncontrollable. Indelicate. Sexton's work to me always seems on the verge of breakage, like an expensive vase set too near a table's edge. Plath is the bomb that goes off from under the table—the one you didn't even realize was there.

I'm eager to rip through the collection again—it's been some time since I first read and reread Ariel. I'm going to commit some of these poems to memory. One stanza that never leaves me is

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
and I eat men like air.



  1. Agreed . . .

    Hot and less than 10 bucks through Amazon (found that this morning).

  2. "Edge" (her last poem written, I think?) is my fave. Imagine if she had been treated for what was probably post-partum depression . . . and lived to write even more?

  3. I've read some serious speculation, based largely upon THE BELL JAR, that schizophrenia is actually the most plausible diagnosis of her illness. Regardless, I agree; she'd have been staggeringly good. (Not that she wasn't already.)

  4. Someone researched a bunch of her journals and papers (many held at the Lilly Library here in Indiana, in fact -- we have a very nifty collection of Plathiana) and came up with the theory that she may have had premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which is basically PMS run amok; apparently the worst of her depressive episodes did seem to coincide with her menstrual cycle. I suspect it was probably a combination of several things that did her in. So freaking sad -- to think that maybe she could have been treated & gone on to write more. What would her fully mature poetry have been like? Maybe she would never have topped the best of what she'd already written, but I like to think she would have kept getting more and more amazing.

  5. I spent some time with her manuscripts when I was an undergrad at Smith College. They have the Ariel poems in the rare book room. She was meticulous about her revision work, sometimes typing up a poem 7 or 8 times in order to see the changes she made by hand, and sometimes revising 2 or 3 poems a day this way. It was the first time I'd seen a poet at work, really at work. And it gave me a sense of how hard she worked at her poems. Plath the watch maker. "Love set you going like a fat gold watch."

    I tried to teach her in an upper level Mo/Co poetry lit course recently. The entire class--with the exception of a few dissenters--rolled their eyes. They couldn't read the poetry for the "Plath."

  6. Gina: re the class rolling their eyes at Plath: what a shame, they've really missed out.

  7. I keep coming back to your blog to look at that picture . . . I can't imagine eye-rolling.

  8. I always thought it was Sexton getting lumped into Plath's confessional category, and not vice-versa.
    You should check out "Live or Die" ... or whichever volume contains "To John, who begs me not to enquire further." I don't think Sexton's any more artificial than Plath. If anything, her work (because we get to enjoy a greater quantity of it than Plath's, who had less years to write) suffers from a loss of control, as she waffles in and out of formal style.
    It's always been my contention that if you put Sexton and Plath in a battle, aliens vs. predator style, Sexton would edge out the competition, because when her verse isn't totally disgustingly sloppy, it's sublime.
    That having been said, "The Bell Jar," is a fine bit of prose - a kind of Salinger for the depressed 1950's New England waif sort.

  9. She's amazing. I've heard the criticism, too, that she's 'confessional', ie that it's a BAD THING to write that way. That's crazy. Poetry should be judged on its own merits.

  10. Sexton is the reason I am a poet. And I do agree, that has her mental state deteriorated, so do the poetry, but oh, man..."Live or Die," "The Book of Folly" (I have an autographed copy of this...I'll save it in from fire before anything else)and "To Bedlam and Part Way Back" are masterpieces.

    I do love Sylvia, but Sexton was the genius.