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.