This is the last week of my online reading course for the Poetry School – for ten weeks we have been looking at Plath’s Ariel poem by poem, to mark 50 years since its publication. It’s such a remarkable book. Having fallen in love with it at 16, I was concerned that rereading it as an adult wouldn’t be the same, but exploring it with my students has only deepened my sense of Plath’s mastery. It’s just so unique. The perpetual repetition of words and motifs for example – most editors today would see that as a major flaw in a collection, but it becomes almost hypnotic. One of my students, Emma Simon, described it as being like a game of ‘three dimensional chess’. And the openness of the poems – the way it is still possible to read them in new ways. My class have suggested that ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ is about slavery, that in ‘The Birthday Present’ she’s talking to her oven, that ‘Lady Lazarus’ references Kubla Khan… every week poems I thought I knew have yielded fresh riches.
The course has also made me reread Plath’s journals and Letters Home. The discussion often drew on her life. Was Ted’s mistress Assia ‘The Rival’? Who was being stung in ‘Stings’? Does ‘Morning Song’ suggest post-natal depression? I know a lot of people find this way of reading poetry uncomfortable – I studied English Lit when the idea of the ‘death of the author’ was at its peak, and the text was supposed to be read without any consideration of authorial intention. A lot of critics consider that the blurring of the poet and the poem’s speaker is always dubious, and the picking over of details of a poet’s life rather grubby. But I love biographical reading. Artists’ biographies might be one of my greatest pleasures – as a teenager I pored over the lives of Maya Angelou, Diane Arbus, Frida Kahlo, Anne Sexton and Simone De Beauvoir, as well as Plath, and as an adult I can think of few novels I’ve enjoyed half as much as Roy Foster’s life of Yeats, Claire Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield, Jenny Uglow’s Elizabeth Gaskell, DT Max’s David Foster Wallace or memoirs by Joan Didion or Geoff Dyer or Patti Smith or Rachel Cusk or Alison Bechdel. Often – especially with the classics – I haven’t even got why they are good until I read the context. I need the history as a way in. It was only after reading Richard Holmes’ stunning biography of Coleridge that I got Coleridge.
Does this make me a rubbernecker, only interested in grimy gossip? Well, I prefer to think that I love art and literature because I love life. I’m interested in other people – how they live and think and feel, all the possible ways of being. I’m greedy to live more lives, and through books I can almost do this. I’m not really interested in a free-floating text on which I can project my own thoughts and meanings. I’m reading because I want to know what it is like to be someone else. Almost all my favourite writers, like Plath, kept drafts and diaries and wrote copious letters – they shared the process of how their work happened. And they were incredibly generous with the most intimate truths of their lives – bore brave witness to them, invited us in…
As did two female singers who I have watched documentaries about this week. First, What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix. I’m ashamed to say before watching this I only owned a cheap best-of CD and knew hits like ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me.’ I had no idea how deeply Nina Simone threw herself into the civil rights movement, and how much it cost her. This song just took my breath away – so tense and true it could have been written yesterday (Hound dogs on my trail / School children sitting in jail /Black cat cross my path /I think every day’s gonna be my last):
And then last night, I saw Amy. There’s been so much written about it, so many think-pieces and blogs, I won’t say much more except I think the director, Asif Kapadia, has done a remarkable job with the footage (particularly the old videos where her face pixellates into something half-destroyed or half-forgotten). Back to Black was in many ways Amy Winehouse’s Ariel, a perfect piece of art with that same strange euphoric mixture of destruction and creation.
And here is my poem for her, written the week she died.
The Day Amy Died
After Frank O’Hara
It was a Saturday in July 2011. Coffee and papers,
which is usually a treat but there’d been this shooting
in Norway. Did you hear about that even?
Then the pub, where I heard about you.
Ash had run the Race for Life and I was five ciders down.
A woman came at 16.30 and said:
‘Amy Winehouse is dead’,
and everyone at every table checked phones or Blackberries,
BBC or Twitter; muttering ‘tragic’
and ‘her dad doesn’t know yet’,
and the skin on my face went very chill and tight,
and it was a warm Dalston night–
you could see the Gherkin and hipsters eating
Turkish chopped-salads and a girl in vintage polka-dots,
black kids, Tesco full of lesbians –
and when Rich and I took a back-route, smoking weed,
looking at the pavement and sky, I was feeling my
blood. I was thinking of you and if it’s better to live
to 27 than never live,
and then at Luke and Suzi’s we said ‘tragic’ and
they fed me curry and, okay, more wine,
and when I came back, 00.30, I couldn’t help logging in
to look and it said 92 feared dead now in Norway and
all over facebook there were links to your videos –
your stopped face, but we could press play
and you’d jerk to life: tiny, feral, your arms
vandalised like toilet cubicles. Our cartoon.
Underneath they’d written OMG and tragic and like Janis
or like Billie and stupid selfish overrated bitch
and it’s easy to say that shit is inevitable,
but I won’t, Amy.