I have no idea how I managed to misplace my battered and beloved copy of Plath’s “Collected Poems”, which contains 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 has written an intriguing introduction to. It is short but revealing. She does not take either side but does 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 key indicator in itself. This edition also has copies of Plath’s handwritten notes on some of the poems that were originally released.
Plath’s poetry is as shocking and visceral today as it was when I first read it in school in the nineteen nineties. The words scorch off the pages and laser guide themselves into your mind. It is difficult to imagine how people read it when it was first released. To date, I have never read anyone who writes about depression and mental health issues with as much honesty and directness. It is 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 recounts a story about her burning some of Hughes poetry. “Ariel” contains a number of themes that will beguile readers as long as people continue to read.
The honesty and bravery she wrote with endures. In “Tulips”, Plath describes 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”. The use of words is extraordinary. When I first read her as part of the supposed 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 envies the fresh flowers but can only see a normal existence in “a country far away as health”. There was no escape for Plath 😦
“Cut” may have been about the mundane injury Plath sustained in her kitchen, yet I cannot 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 informs us she is “terrified of this dark thing / That sleeps in me”. Reading Plath makes me thankful I have never suffered any mental health issues and also reminds me that I have a duty to help anyone I know that is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with them.
Plath’s life as a Mother of a baby:
Is there 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 continues 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 is 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 she uses to depict her new-born is in “Lesbos”, where she wrote that Frieda was her “little unstrung puppet”. Wonderful!
Plath enunciated the resentment of 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 seep off the page. Some of this antagonism was clearly being levelled at the cheating Hughes too.
Plath is 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”. The repetition purposeful and pointed.
Life and Death:
You can listen to Plath read plenty of her poems for free on Spotify and Soundcloud. She discussed her inspiration 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 treats 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 continue in “Fever 103”, where she details, “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 nineties. 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 an 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”. A terrifying image. She dubbed her father a “Panzer-man”. It is the standout poem from a standout poet from her standout collection.