I have no idea how I managed to misplace my battered and beloved copy of Plath’s “Collected Poems”, which contained all the missing compositions that Hughes omitted from the original 1965 edition of “Ariel”, released after Plath’s untimely death. I came across this 2004 release of “Ariel”, in which her daughter Frieda had written an intriguing introduction. It was short but revealing. She did not take the side of either parent but did make a point of reproducing “Ariel” with the twelve poems that Hughes had taken out and also reproduced them in the order that Plath had originally planned, a revealing indicator in and of itself. This edition also had copies of Plath’s handwritten notes on some of the poems that were originally released.
Plath’s poetry remains as shocking and visceral today as when I first read it during the 1990s. Her words scorched off the page and laser guided themselves into my mind. It was difficult to imagine how people read it when it was first released. To date, I have never read anyone who wrote about depression and mental health issues with as much honesty and directness. It was disconcerting at times. Throughout her life, Plath observed “unmiraculous women, Honey-drudgers” before pointing out that “I am no drudge”. You can say that again! In the introduction, Frieda recounted a story about how Sylvia burnt some of Hughes poetry. “Ariel” contained a number of themes that will beguile readers as long as people continue to read.
The honesty and bravery she wrote with endure to this day. In “Tulips”, Plath described her experience in hospital, “My body is a pebble to them” she wrote. “They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep”. Plath’s use of words was extraordinary. When I first read her as part of the pantheon, her confessional style struck me as being completely separate to anything else out there. It still does. I do not think there has been a better articulation of the struggle with mental health than Plath’s thoughts about how “the vivid tulips eat my oxygen”. She envied the fresh flowers but could only see a normal existence in “a country far away as health”. There was no escape for Plath 😦
“Cut” may have been about a mundane injury that Plath sustained in her kitchen, yet I could not read it neutrally, “My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone”. She wrote with an airy sense of detachment, as if her body was not her own. Maybe it was not. When she depicted her physical pain, it seemed to pale in comparison with her mental health issues. In “Elm”, Plath informed us that she was “terrified of this dark thing / That sleeps in me”. Reading Plath made me thankful that I have never suffered any mental health issues and also reminded me that I have a duty to help anyone I know that is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with them.
Has there been a better opening line to a poem and book of poetry than, “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” from “Morning Song”? It is a line that has stayed with me. She described her new born baby as a “new statue in a drafty museum”. This museum theme continued in a poem that Hughes excluded in 1965, “Barren Woman”, “Empty, I echo to the least footfall, / Museum without statues”. This concept of her living life in a museum was revealing. She elevated her daily life with her child to that of a permanent work of art. The isolation and timelessness of the museum.
She expressed life with her young baby directly in “Thalidomide”, “All night I carpenter / A space for the thing I am given, / A love / Of two wet eyes and a screech. / White spit / Of indifference!” I adore this image of Plath trying to fit this screaming human being into her life as a curator in her museum. My favourite single phrase that Plath used to depict her new-born was in “Lesbos”, where she wrote that Frieda was her “little unstrung puppet”. Wonderful! Plath enunciated the feeling of resenting a baby too, “We’re here on a visit, / With a goddam baby screaming off somewhere. / There’s always a bloody baby in the air”. The frustration and anger seeped off the page. Some of this antagonism was clearly being levelled at the cheating Hughes too. Plath was devastating about her married life with Hughes in “The Applicant”, “It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”…”Will you marry it, marry it, marry it”.
You can listen to Plath read plenty of her poems for free on Spotify and Soundcloud. She discussed some of her inspirations on “Comments On Poetry”, speaking about how she liked to draw inspiration from personal events that she experienced and then relate them to global situations such as the Holocaust or Hiroshima. In “Lady Lazarus”, she treated her life like the Nazis treated their prisoners, “My skin / bright as a Nazi lampshade”. Aside from the dramatic effect, it is sad to think that Plath viewed herself as inhuman.
The fascist overtones continued in “Fever 103”, where she detailed, “Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash”. It must be pointed out how shocking the word “Nazi” was even when I read it for the first time in the 1990s. For a person to describe their life in these terms was unheard of. The word “Nazi” is now so utterly overused that it has lost all meaning. Godwin’s law is something that irritates me immensely. I cannot scroll Twitter without seeing the term being misused. As Orwell put it, the term fascist has lost all meaning. Did Plath add to that by normalising it when writing about her life?
In “A Birthday Present”, she wrote “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all, I am alive only by accident. / I would have killed my self gladly that time any possible way”.
I have only covered a tony number of topics that Plath dealt with in “Ariel”. It really is all-encompassing, with each poem as intriguing as the one before it. “Ariel” is undoubtedly her poetic masterpiece. I did not even go into detail about “Daddy”! One of my favourite poems. “I could never talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw”, she wrote of her relationship with her father. “I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe”. She dubbed her father a “Panzer-man”. It is the standout poem from a standout poet from her standout collection.