50 Years of Ariel
Sylvia Plath: Poetry I feel is a tyrannical discipline. You’ve got to go so far so fast in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals.
Curtis Fox: That was Sylvia Plath from 1962 and this is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, 50 Years of Ariel.
Sylvia Plath: Does not my heat astound you? And my light?
Erica Wagner: We don’t often think of women speaking out in this way.
Curtis Fox: Sylvia Plath’s book Ariel was published in the United States 50 years ago, in the spring of 1966, three years after her death. It had come out in England a year before, and it’s been in print ever since.
Craig Morgan Teicher: There are very few truly popular poets and she is one of them.
Curtis Fox: Today on the program we’re going to listen to a few poems from Ariel with poet and critic Craig Morgan Teicher
Erica Wagner:: She really figured out how to make language do a whole bunch of stuff that it didn’t otherwise do.
Erica Wagner: Ariel is a book that I never cease to be amazed by.
Curtis Fox: Writer Erica Wagner
Erica Wagner: Every time I go back to it I’m shocked by it’s power.
Curtis Fox: And poet, Dorothea Lasky.
Dorothea Lasky: I think there’s a kind of fear that you feel to realize just how great she was.
Sylvia Plath: I think I’m going up, I think I may rise.
Curtis Fox: Ariel the book is complicated by Sylvia Plath’s biography, which is almost too well known. Many books and articles have bee written about her troubled marriage to poet Ted Hughes and about the meaning of her suicide, and there’s even a movie, Sylvia, about Path and Hughes starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. I don’t recommend it. There probably would not be so much interest in her life if her poetry weren’t so good, but even so, over the last 50 years her poems have often taken a back seat to her story. Erica Wagner wrote a biography of Ted Hughes, so she knows a lot about Plath, so I asked her about it.
Erica Wagner: I agree with you that that has often either pushed her poetry into the background or made the readings of her poems exclusively biographical.
Curtis Fox: And distorting the meaning of the poem, can you give me an example of a reading of her poetry that is sort of a distorted reading?
Erica Wagner: Well I think what happens is not so much distortions as reductions. She became very interested in mythology, in putting deeper meanings into the personal stories that we tell, or rather, seeing those personal stories as part of a larger story. So I think then what happens with a poem like “Daddy”…
Sylvia Plath: … Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.
Erica Wagner: … It becomes either specifically attached to her relationship with her own father who died when she was a little girl or her relationship with Ted Hughes.
Sylvia Plath: … I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw. / And I said I do, I do.
Erica Wagner: The poem becomes closed down and just attached to her biography.
Sylvia Plath: … They always knew it was you. / Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
Curtis Fox: And biographical reductions of her poems have gone on for 50 years, often narrowing them to peep holes into her psychological issues, yet some biography is helpful in understanding the phenomenon that is Aerial. Can you tell us about the writing of the book? What was going on in her life when Aerial was written.
Erica Wagner: Well, when she was writing Ariel she had really separated from Ted Hughes, and was living on her own in North London. It was a very very difficult time for her. She was struggling to look after her children, she was struggling to find the time to write, but she did find the time to write usually very early in the morning. She seems to have had a period really of extraordinary, quite hot composition.
Craig Morgan Teicher: She was having a real seizure of writing activity. Curtis Fox: Craig Morgan Teicher says the Ariel poems were a breakthrough for Plath.
Craig Morgan Teicher: And was aware of it, found herself to really be lucid in a way that she knew was different than she had been before.
Cindy Kats: “Morning Song”.
Curtis Fox: The first poem in Ariel is about the experience of having a new baby.
Craig Morgan Teicher: It’s one of the few poems about how ambivalent new parents often feel.
Curtis Fox: In it’s time, it was one of the few poems about motherhood from a female point of view.
Erica Wagner: It’s a very good example of an understanding of domestic life, motherhood, love, combined with an austere distance from that life.
Curtis Fox: Let’s listen to “Morning Song”, stanza by stanza. Plath never recorded this poem. The reader here is Cindy Kats.
Cindy Kats: Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Craig Morgan Teicher: “Love set you gong like a fat gold watch”. And those last three words, fat gold watch have a sense of ticking but also have a sense of time accelerating.
Cindy Kats: Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
Erica Wagner: “New statue”, so this child is not a baby.
Craig Morgan Teicher: Because this is not quite a person yet, it’s a thing.
Erica Wagner: “In a draft museum”
Craig Morgan Teicher: “Your nakedness shadows our safety”. So suddenly, she makes the house into this drafty museum. They’re out of time, and you’re there as a kind of tourist. Then we have this amazing third stanza, which is just one of the best stanzas I can think of. How can you tell what poetry is? This is it.
Cindy Kats: I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
Craig Morgan Teicher: Here’s a sentence that really doesn’t make sense, you really can’t paraphrase it except that it’s absolutely accurate, and could only be said this way.
Erica Wagner: “I’m not more your mother than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.
Craig Morgan Teicher: The baby is the mirror in which she can see herself dissolve.
Erica Wagner: One thing that mothers can feel is that your own self is effaced.
Craig Morgan Teicher: She’s trying to figure out the extent to which or the way in which she identifies with the baby.
Dorothea Lasky: See for me, I find that very much a sweet moment, because then it follows in to the mother that’s carefully watching the baby breathing, and making sure it’s not going to die in the crib.
Cindy Kats: All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
Craig Morgan Teicher: “I wake to listen”. Any parent will know that you’ve spent time listening not to but for your baby, and then you kind of become interested and raptured.
Cindy Kats: One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.
Craig Morgan Teicher: Cats mouths are so strange. They are clean but they smell funny. Again, this is an other, not something she can identify with.
Cindy Kats: The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Erica Wagner: That final image of balloons, the notes of the cry drifting away out of the parent’s grasp, out of the grasp of the voice of the poet; you’re kind of left as the reader drifting off, I feel, not knowing where to place yourself within this poem.
Craig Morgan Teicher: I don’t know, when you let a balloon into the air it just goes and goes and goes and it’s gone. It’s such a strange and an ambivalent way to end the poem.
Dorothea Lasky: It might not be as sweet to the baby as we want it to be, but it’s caring in it’s own way. That is kind of the feeling, it’s very much in awe of the baby and what has just happened. In that way, it’s very reverent.
Curtis Fox: So that’s the first poem in Ariel.
Craig Morgan Teicher: It’s also one of the great first poems in a book.
Curtis Fox: It leads into a sequence of poems that would ultimately make Plath’s reputation. Let’s dip into a few of them to give an idea of the depth and breadth of Ariel.
Sylvia Plath: The Applicant.
Curtis Fox: “The Applicant” is a satirical poem in the guise of an interview.
Sylvia Plath: First, are you our sort of person?
Erica Wagner: The applicant seems to be someone looking for something.
Sylvia Plath: Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Erica Wagner: And a wife is what he’s going to be given.
Sylvia Plath: Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
Curtis Fox: The applicant, with it’s sardonic take on marriage has become something of a feminist anthem. Let’s skip a few pages in Ariel to a poem in a very different register, one of the most shocking things Sylvia Plath ever wrote.
Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
Curtis Fox: In the poem, the speaker boasts about coming back to life after attempted suicide.
Sylvia Plath: I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Craig Morgan Teicher: It’s performative, is I think fundamentally what it is. She’s aware every time that she throws something in there that’s sort of a no no, that the speakers going to recoil a bit.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Curtis Fox: Much has been made over the autobiographical elements in this poem, for good reason. At various points in her life, Sylvia Plath tried to kill herself before finally succeeding. But where’s the biography here in this ending?
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Curtis Fox: “And I eat men like air”. That there is the distinctive voice of Aerial, that proud, aggressive, rude, distinctly female voice that animated so many of the poems. But what is that voice?
Erica Wagner: Oracular. The voice of Aerial is one of a seer who has a kind of planetary distance.
Dorothea Lasky: I’m trying not to say what might be considered sort of typical clichés about her work, but it is a voice … I think all good poetry that’s going to last is a voice that’s kind of beyond the grave. It’s a voice with the knowledge of someone that’s gone back and come back and maybe lived several lives, and is here to put that in language.
Erica Wagner: Where did the voice come from? I think that’s one of the most remarkable things about it. It really seems to come from herself. When you say it’s rude, when you say it’s aggressive, I think one of the things that’s interesting is we don’t often think of women speaking out in this way. What is striking is if you then talk to or read the generation of particularly women poets that came after her, they will say that they felt very freed by reading this voice.
Dorothea Lasky: It did give me this sort of empowerment, because I think that a lot of people make a big deal about the dark emotions in her work, but the biggest thing that I’ve always felt is that she does find a place for emotions. Really, really, really intense emotions that one is going to harness and bring into a very precise light. That empowered me that I could do that too.
Curtis Fox: Now let’s go deeply again into another poem in her book, one of the most famous and one that seems to fully embody the shocking and outrageous and other worldly voice of Ariel.
Cindy Kats: Fever 103
Craig Morgan Teicher: “Fever 103” is a poem about literally having a fever as a kind of access to unfettered power.
Erica Wagner: It’s a fever dream.
Craig Morgan Teicher: The fever makes her both extremely in her body and extremely out of her body. So then she just narrates the process.
Dorothea Lasky: I think this poem is very much about hell.
Craig Morgan Teicher: She does the whole divine comedy in one poem.
Cindy Kats: Fever 103
Sylvia Plath: Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
Curtis Fox: Cerberus there is a hound in Greek and Roman mythology that guards the gates of hell.
Dorothea Lasky: I love the way that she’s able to use classical mythology, and I think make it consistently fresh.
Sylvia Plath: The tinder cries.
The indelible smell
Of a snuffed candle!
Craig Morgan Teicher: She’s in part sort of simulating for us, without quite telling us what’s going on, what it’s like to have a fever.
Sylvia Plath: Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright
One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel,
Dorothea Lasky:: She’s able to put in details and references in this very very not snotty way.
Curtis Fox: The reference there was to the great modernist dancer, Isadora Duncan.
Dorothea Lasky: Yeah, Isadora Duncan wore really long, beautiful scarves. One caught in a car’s wheel, and she died.
Curtis Fox: And then the poem returns to the low smokes rising from her body.
Sylvia Plath: Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,
Craig Morgan Teicher: She loves rising here, throughout these poems. Rise is one of those words for her.
Sylvia Plath: But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,
Craig Morgan Teicher: She likes also cats and plants that become cats.
Erica Wagner: And that sudden switch into the devilish leopard, after we’ve had Isadora and the scarves and the smokes, that’s a complete transformation. Again, the way that you have hallucinations in a fever.
Dorothea Lasky: I really love that hot house baby. We were talking about her twisting and turning our expectations of the maternal, but I love that even the baby isn’t safe from burning in hell.
Sylvia Plath: Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
Craig Morgan Teicher: So again she’s in hell, and she’s pulling in World War 2 stuff that is just really not fair. Her situation is not commensurate to her metaphor, but that’s her plan.
Sylvia Plath: Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.
Dorothea Lasky: She’s talking to someone who has done her wrong, yet she’s talking to that person, that “you”, with such an overwhelming desire. And that idea of flickering off, on, off, on. We think of a light in a brothel, like a busted out red light that’s going off, on, off, on. I’m in here, I’m available.
Sylvia Plath: Three days. Three nights.
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch.
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Hurts me as the world hurts God.
Craig Morgan Teicher: In a literal sense when you’re sick, you don’t want anyone to touch you. It feels gross. But she’s trying to find a way to make that meaningful, and make it a kind of access way to transcendent power.
Sylvia Plath: I am a lantern——
My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
Craig Morgan Teicher: This is where the poem gets really interesting to me. “Does not my heat astound you”, what an interesting thing to say. Of course, the heat doesn’t astound us, it concerns us because it means she’s sick. It’s a self-aggrandizement but it’s a knowing one.
Sylvia Plath: All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise—
Craig Morgan Teicher: There’s that word again.
Sylvia Plath: The beads of hot metal fly, and I love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean!
Dorothea Lasky: I really see that as this kind of idea of melting flesh. That this person has been completely consumed by a fever, both erotically, spiritually, and then actually physically. The “I” is being completely burned to the core.
Sylvia Plath: Not you, nor him
Nor him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)——
Erica Wagner: Where do those “old whore petticoats” come from? They come from nowhere. That’s what makes them so spectacular.
Craig Morgan Teicher: Really one of the subjects of the work is that if a person can’t transcend their circumstance bodily, then can they transcend it in some other way in language.
Dorothea Lasky: Sylvia Plath had faith that as poets that’s all we can hope for, is that the “I” can get free of whatever has trapped it in this lifetime. One has a sense, I have a sense that she knows that, that she’s created an immortal “I” that has gone past whatever the stuff was that’s sort of miring it in it’s every day existence. It’s like a timeless “I”. Knowing that is what gives it it’s power. The “I” knows that it’s succeeded, and I think it really has in that point of the poem.
Cindy Kats: I think I am going up,
I think I may rise——
The beads of hot metal fly, and I love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean!
Not you, nor him
Nor him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)——
Curtis Fox: That’s Cindy Kats with that reading. The commentators were Craig Morgan Teicher, Erica Wagner and Dorothea Lasky. You can read poems by Sylvia Plath on our website. There’s also a new restored version of Ariel with a foreword by Sylvia Plath’s daughter Frieda, out from Harper Perennial. Let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. All the music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.