I mainly read poetry in advance of teaching it. And by and large I enjoy the poems once I’ve immersed myself in them. I’d go as far as to say I’ve become a fan of certain poets.
They’re all very mainstream, of course, because by the time any avant-garde poet worms his or her way onto a national curriculum, he or she and their contemporaries are almost surely late of this parish. But I have, as I say, come to like poetry. And to know it and refer to it as a matter of everyday life. In the same way I reference books or films or music, or a piece of journalism.
Sylvia Plath, I think, is top of my list. I think her poetry is ingenious. And I’m not prone to such hyperbole. But there is something in her poetry that is alive and relevant and brave - heroic even - without being elitist or inaccessible.
The closing stanzas of MORNING SONG contain some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve ever read. Two short stanzas, but they are tender and beautiful and ludic. Then there is THE ARRIVAL OF THE BEE BOX. A colossal poem! (Be still now, neither is this hyperbole.) Its chaos and inner turmoil. The claustrophobia of it. Impactful and immediate. It has, too, a symmetrical beauty; the themes, the contradictions, and the conceit all balance off one another. It is perfectly paced, like a dinner at a quality restaurant, it ends at precisely the point where you are full. Yes, you could always have eaten more but it would have been to the detriment of the experience. This is BEE BOX.
A lot of people reference MIRROR, of course, and it is a staple of the curriculum too. It is also very good, I might add, but it is its final image, the rising of the ‘terrible fish’ through the depths of the lake, that saves it from being simply good. I’m not sure the rest of the poem stands up without the final couplet. But perhaps this is a pointless observation – does anything stand up without its conclusion? Would a T-Rex stand upright without its tail?
CHILD, Plath’s ultimate poem, is as moving and as tender as those final stanzas of MORNING SONG, and as haunting as BEE BOX. Plath is simply one of those writers whose vulnerability is on the page, and it makes her irresistibly inviting. But what strikes me most about Plath is her immense strength. The sheer power of her will. To work and produce when all measure of other pressures, and even some of her own instincts, seemed to be pulling her away from it.
What I feel when I read Plath is an immensely human force. A power and a toughness, and simultaneously a fragility.
If I were to teach Plath free from time constraints and curricular demands, I’d begin by reading aloud to the class Al Alvarez’s prologue to THE SAVAGE GOD. In its entirety. Better than any set of notes I’ve ever encountered, Alvarez places Plath the person before us. A girl, a woman, a wife, a mother, a poet, a person just like you and me, but more at sea. An unanchored genius of a woman whose talent seemed inextricably linked to some formative despair. But one who was determined and full of wit and life and love. Vitality. That’s what Plath has, in the end.
So, here I am, finding that a blog on poetry has turned into a brief homage to Sylvia Plath. But to try and return my focus to where I began, after Plath, but in no particular order, I might place these wordy fellows (and so reveal myself to be as predictable and conservative as the curriculum itself): Patrick Kavanagh; T.S. Eliot; Emily Dickinson; Philip Larkin; Robert Frost; Seamus Heaney; the little of Dylan Thomas that I know. W.B. Yeats too, of course.
The final point I will make on poetry is this: what I think stands between me and poetry, as a leisurely pursuit, is that it requires a depth of reading and re-reading. If you want to really get it, that is. And I suppose, in all honesty, too often I am found wanting with regard to this kind of drive. Some people, I know, would say the same of some of the novels I like reading. Dismiss them as requiring too much of us, but I’m more steeped in that world. I understand the movements and references better. I’ve a better feel for the intricacies of a novel. They work me hard but, generally speaking, don’t take me too far out of my comfort zone. I’m a lazy reader, that’s what I mean. I suspect most of are, in truth.
But here’s to poetry! It’s got a lot to offer and I place it the same aspirational realm as learning a second language – I really wish I’d done something about it before now, when I was younger and more sponge-like, and I still have a nagging desire to do so in the future.