Remember that time I reviewed Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus and Other Poems? Remember how I walked away disappointed–almost confused as to why so many teachers and fellow poets had recommended Plath to me?
Well now I understand why. Plath’s Ariel, her last book of poetry, is decidedly among the best collections of poetry I’ve ever read.
Ariel requires a bit of background, as it was published posthumously. Plath wrote many of the poems in Ariel very near the time of her suicide in 1963, and was, in fact, working on putting it together for publication when she took her own life. She even had a table of contents put together, which is one of the reasons why there was such outrage when her husband, before publishing the book in 1965, decided to remove some poems from the collection and add others to it. The rest of the outrage is largely summed up by the fact that Plath’s husband was having an affair around the time of her suicide and that many of the poems in the collection refer to it.
In 2004 Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, republished the collection as Plath had originally intended it, along with a sentimental introduction, a facsimile of the original manuscript, and a few other scholarly bits like articles about the collection and a biography of Plath. This is the version I read and will be reviewing.
Lets start with the poetry. As I said, it’s stellar. I love the beauty of Plath’s imagery and the sharp metaphors and images she creates, like:
“Salutary and pure as boiled water,
Loveless as the multiplication table.”
“The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine,”
“Circle a womb of marble”
from The Other
That last quotation is from a poem about her husband’s lover. Isn’t it fantastically cutting? And she does all this with such few words. I find it truly impressive.
My favorite poems, Morning Song, The Rabbit Catcher, Barren Woman, Tulips, The Jailor, Ariel, Magi, Poppies in October, the Courage of Shutting Up, Nick and the Candlestick, The Moon and the Yew Tree, The Rival, and Daddy all do a great job of conveying a clear image/message/emotion in a poetic, lyrical way that transported me as I read. Gone were the sophomoric attempts at sounding erudite and intriguingly cryptic that had so frustrated me in The Colossus. These poems have a crystal clear purity to them. I could see Plath pacing around her house in furied anguish while her husband slumbered unperturbed; I watched her watching her baby wake up with the sunrise; and I truly understood her frustrated relationship with her father.
Speaking of that, I think Daddy is a poem that deserves particular praise. When comparing it with The Colossus, the other poem she wrote about her father, there is so much less useless metaphor and so much more actually being said throughout the poem that its almost hard to tell they were written by the same poet.
That said, Plath hasn’t entirely gotten away from writing poetry that is too abstract, and metaphors that are unintelligible to all but the author. This is the only shortcoming of Ariel, and I found the bee poems to be the most affected with it. Her daughter, in the introduction, tells us that the bee poems were Plath’s way of striking out at neighbors and acquaintances she had grievances with. As a reader removed from the situation, I found those poems largely unintelligible. I could tell Plath was saying something, and that it was negative, but I didn’t understand exactly what was being said or why.
I think this is a passing flaw in an otherwise remarkable and haunting collection of poetry. The Colossus depicted the mind of a morbid young woman obsessed with death. Ariel is a journey through the landscape of a woman’s life who is crippled by grief and jealousy and on the verge of taking her own life. It is a profound, serious, frightening, even troubling collection–and I couldn’t put it down.
I found the introduction helpful on an academic level, however I found her daughter’s defense of her father a bit trite. Certainly she would be filled with affection for and willing to forgive the father who lovingly raised her. As a third-party observer, however, I can’t condone his behavior or his decisions to alter Plath’s collection from what she had originally intended.
I did quite enjoy seeing the facsimile of Plath’s manuscript and the different iterations of Ariel. It’s fascinating to see how another poet works, even if I did feel a nudge of guilt at just how many revisions that poem went through–a good deal more than any of mine have ever undergone.
Are you a poet? Do you enjoy reading poetry? Then read this collection. And if you want to do it right, I suggest reading Plath’s work in the order it was published. It’s delightful to see the growth of a writer over time. If only Plath had stayed with us, I can only imagine the beauty she would have penned to paper. Rest in peace.