Archive for February, 2013

Sylvia’s Death


There’s been lots of poetry in the last four weeks. I’ve been to hear feminist poetries at a Binders Full of Women event, bringing home a starry, handmade binder. I’ve listened to Deryn Rees Jones read from Burying the Wren for Poetry London (I’ve been reviewing the book alongside Kathleen Jamie’s for the next Poetry Review, and it’s devastatingly good). I’ve attended the launch of Hannah Lowe’s Chick – the first student from one of my beginners’ courses at the City Lit to take it all the way to a full collection (it’s incredibly assured, especially the poems about her father, a gambler and card-sharp). I was pleased to see Clare Shaw’s Head On arrive in the post today, and tomorrow is the launch of my friend Luke Wright’s Mondeo Man, which will be fun: his poems are smart and metrically tight, and manage to be both satirical and generous. They go totally against the grain of current poetic fashion, which, ironically, makes them cool.

Otherwise – aside from discovering porridge – it has been a fairly grim month. Too much teaching, grotesque amounts of stressful commuting (DELAYED flashing on board after board after board), unpaid invoices, a very cold house.

The bitter weather has seemed appropriate this week though, as on Monday it is 50 years since Sylvia Plath’s suicide. It is probably about 20 years since I first read about it: the vicious winter, the two small children asleep, wet towels around the kitchen door, her head in the oven. There is something about the scene’s domestic detail that haunts us. It is unheimlich – the homely made horrific.

Plath was the first poet I truly loved, and it is that ability to make the everyday Other which I fell for. She is above all an image-maker, transforming everything around her into something rich and strange. A finger sliced whilst chopping an onion leaks out the whole of American history; a Sunday roast becomes a holocaust.

Pregnant, I have recently found myself returning to her poems about motherhood – lines catch in my mind as the baby turns (‘bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn / snug as a bud and at home / like a sprat in a pickle jug.’). It’s a subject that can be hard to do well, without tipping into sentimentality or smugness (there’s no bore like a proud parent), yet if there is an argument for the ‘pram in the hall’ helping, rather than hindering the muse it has to be Ariel. Motherhood seemed to give her work, too often fusty with gloom and the thesaurus, a new balance and brightness:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing. / I want to fill it with color and ducks, / The zoo of the new (‘Child’)

There will be many, many think-pieces about Plath’s depression and death this week, but for me her best work is redemptive, finding beauty in the darkness, which is something we all need help with in these winter months.

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