Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath. For those that don’t know me, I should tell you she is one of my favourite poets and I have read her throughout most of my life. In my final year of my directing degree, I chose as my final thesis a difficult play that featured five Sylvia Plath’s all converging in a sort of mind-bending, 72 – scene orgy of screaming poetry. Only a fourth year theatre student would choose such a difficult play but Sylvia’s words hold no less power for me now decades later.
I am reading a book about her and her husband, Ted Hughes, called Ariel’s Gift. It is a tough subject: two poets who just happen to be the heavyweights of their time in an intense marriage that ends in wrenching tragedy. Sylvia Plath killed herself by placing her head in an oven. She had carefully put towels under the door and left snacks for her children. Heartbreaking. As ever, she was torn desperately between the power, indeed the harrowing haunting drive, that fueled her fierce poetry and being a mother and wife. It didn’t help that her husband was sleeping with someone in their close circle and had left her in the English countryside in an old, very cold rambling house. She had moved to the city where Ted lived, hoping to shake the sinusitis that plagued her and escape the damp farm, but found no comfort in being closer to her husband. It is critical, however, not to get too caught up in the high drama of their marriage, but rather, stay focused on Sylvia’s electric, crackling clear voice and listen for the music that only Plath could produce. If there was ever a writer whose voice was cut short, it was Plath’s. I can’t even imagine how she would have been writing at 40, 50 and on. A staggering loss.
I have to go lightly in and out of Sylvia’s work, as I must do with Seamus Heaney because it is incomprehensible to me that they are so good. And then I read them and want to jump off a cliff. (Kidding..kind of). So I read and listen to their voices in small bits. Like taking small sips of very, very expensive wine and swirling it in your mouth or nibbling on wildly decadent dark chocolate. You must go slow to savour.
One thing I noticed while reading Ariel’s Gift is that I am now longingly wanting to write poetry all the time. Reading Plath and Hughes has re-ignited something I feel is immense, like a wide, low wave coming towards me of poems I never even knew were there. Waiting all this time.
Here is a quick draft of one I’m working on today. It’s about coming into touch, into full view, with your actual self — not the made-up one you filled with air and paraded around like a balloon when you were twenty — no, this is the one you sink into as a woman in your forties. It has weight. There’s a lot of power to it. I think my poems will be exploring that more in the coming months, what it means to come awake to your essential self and be free of self-judging and the paralysis of contorting yourself to be something else for anyone. I can’t crackle like Plath, but better to let the waves come in and do my best to capture them anyway.
At Last, The End of The Fairytale
I wonder how long it takes
before you go feral and leave
A month? A year?
I’ve done that and more.
How do you know when it’s complete?
When all the sugar-spun cotton candy
Of romance is sloughed off?
You’ll see your actual self —
bred, a witch-like intent bent, bent into your
own towering shadow of life aching to live
before you are dead.
(copyright Margaret Doyle, 2013)