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I know of no other book of poetry published in the
twentieth century that has garnered as much critical attention and praise as
Plath’s groundbreaking book of poetry, Ariel.
This book was created during the last year of her life. During this time, Plath
worked at a white heat that can only be compared to Keats’ own last year when,
sensing his own impending death, he was able to produce a stunning body of work
that has outlasted him. Likewise, several of Plath’s Ariel poems as well as Keats’ finest work will undoubtedly be read
centuries from now.
The three poems of
Plath’s that I want to discuss are Morning
Song, Words, and the poem Wintering. All these poems have that
wild energy that is soprominent in this
last book of poems. This collection marks a departure from the formal technique
she perfected in the Colossus poems.
In the Ariel collection (the title
was the name of her horse) raw energy is coupled with a deep understanding of
language and a fascination with sound that blends to create remarkable lines,
memorable verse that takes risks and shocks the reader with each page.
The first poem I want
to look at is the opening poem, Morning
Song, which seems a fitting way to open the book as it is about a birth—the
morning symbolizing a new beginning, a new life, really and that is exactly
what the reader senses as Plath moves into this new chapter of her writing,
which also mirrors her real life. One the surface, the poem seems to be about
the birth of her child. Plath’s opening line: Love set you going like a fat gold watch has a gaudy undertone to
it, we can visualize this object trying to seem lovely and nice, but of course,
it comes across as cheap and tacky. In short, she is turning the familiar
notions of motherhood upside down early in this poem to reveal how uncommon,
how shocking, the event of a birth can be: how bright and big this event can
This poem is divided
up into six sets of tercets. Plath blends end-stopped lines with enjambed lines
throughout the poem. Perhaps my favorite line break occurs in the penultimate
stanza where Plath writes: Your mouth
opens clean as a cat’s. The window square/ whitens and swallows its dull stars.
Here we have the child’s mouth being compared to the window square, but technically
the window square, of course, is meant to be read with the following line.
The title of this poem
could also be read in conjunction with the last stanza of this poem where we
see the child trying to speak: And now
you try/ Your handful of notes;/ The clear vowels rise like balloons.Therefore, the title work on several levels,
I think. Not only is it a great introduction to this collection of poetry that
heralds a new way of writing, it is also a child’s cry, the poet’s cry too, if
you will. The reader senses this new beginning of life and the collection
delivers on that promise.
The next poem in the
collection I want to look at is the poem, Words.
This poem consists of four five line stanzas. There is no strict meter apparent
here. Instead, Plath is interested in presenting us with metaphors and symbols
of words. Her interpretation of words themselves is at the heart of this poem.
The first stanza reads: Axes/ After whose
stroke the wood rings,/ And the echoes!/ echoes travelling/ Off from the centre
like horses. Plath’s strength of metaphor is on display here: axes are the
words, the wood rings with the message and the effects of the writing being
likened to horses that run off in waves. In the second stanza Plath uses the
line break to mirror the subject, that is, what is happening with the words is
informing the line break: The sap/ Wells
like tears, like the/ Water striving/ To re-establish its mirror/ Over the
rock. What seems like an odd line break after like the can be interpreted
as the form mirroring that attempt to re-establish itself. It’s clear there is
a struggle to achieve balance and unity here that you could argue, strengthens
this line break.
The next section of
the poem turns from the literal to the more grotesque and figurative. There has
been a transformation, the words no longer bright and new as previously
mentioned, but rather unspectacular and as Plath writes “riderless”they seems to be shells of the writing that
was so alive and vibrant at the beginning. Of course, I am only trying to make
explicit what I think is implicitly there in the poem. The hooftaps in the last
stanza seem to reflect the lasting effect, the memory of verse.
The last image is one
of the most fascinating images in this poem. Plath writes: While/ From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life. This
is a wonderfully provocative line that, though I am not sure I completely
understand it, I like how it is direct and memorable and, I want to say,
honest. When I think of fixed stars I don’t think of these elements of the
modern world, I think of a religious certainty that will exist past language
and human kind. Therefore, I think Plath, at the closing of the poem wanted to
illustrate the dichotomy of language and eternity. We get hints of this earlier
on with lines: Years later/ I encounter
them on the road/ and the indefatigable hooftaps that make one think that
time has passed, that something has aged in this poem that doesn’t have the
same luster it once did. Of course, as is the case with all Plath’s work, it is
wonderfully dense and complex. My interpretation is just one of many, I am
I’d like to focus on Plath’s poem “Wintering.” It’s
interesting to note that this poem was the true final poem of the Ariel
collection. It was actually Ted Hughes’ reorganization of the manuscript that
placed the poem “Words” as being the final poem in this collection. I think the
correct edition of Ariel, that is, Plath’s original order for these poems was
published in a 2004 Harper edition.
At the start of this
poem we encounter a line that operates like Gluck’s first line in the poem
“Nostos.” The first line of “Wintering” states “This is the easy time, there is
nothing doing.” This line makes complete sense and ends with a natural pause
that seems to be holding nothing back. There is a sense of quietness and a
feeling of stability that works well with the subject matter.
The third stanza seems
to be more annotated in nature, though the first two lines are end-stopped,
which gives the impression of assuredness:
This is the room I have never been in.
This is the room I could never breathe
The black bunched in there like a bat,
But the torch and it’s faint
We have a variety of line endings here and they all
contribute to make a complex thought process that, I think speaks to what James
Longenbach mentioned when discussing great poetry, “…when a poet creates a
relationship between the syntax and the lines of her poems, she is trying to
organize the language on the page so that it corresponds to what she hears in
her head.(14)” As a result the reader experiences the two syllable line “No
light” more directly because of how dissimilar it is compared to the longer,
end-stopped lines earlier in the poem. When Plath says “No light” we absolutely
believe her and there is no room for discussion. What is more interesting is to
note that this completely dark space (physical, mental) is a place she writes
she has never been in, could not ever breathe in.
Stanza five is equally as interesting. In discussing
the winter and how the speaker must hang on, stanza five states:
This is the time of hanging on for the
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin
The line that
jumps out at us is that extra long second line, but look at how it works with
the subject matter, which is “hanging on for the bees.” The enjambment works
well. There is mention of bees and later on syrup and the lines seem to spill
out onto the other creating a stanza loaded with parsing lines. What is
interesting too is the momentum gained in that long line. When I read this line
I feel myself looking for a place to settle and by the time I rest on that
syrup tin I feel like Plath has turned me (the reader) into a bee that has finally
found a place to land. Longenbach talks about lineation determining the pulse
of thought. In this stanza I feel as though Plath wanted to make the reader
feel like they were looking for a place to land. When we get to that last line
(5 syllables) we realize the steadiness has returned, (notice the first line of
this stanza is 5 syllables as well). As a reader, I feel like I can relax.
But in a Plath poem that feeling never lasts long.
Perhaps one of the great pleasures in Plath’s poetry is the giving and taking,
the unexpected turns her poetry affords us.In the very next stanza she writes:
To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
Tate and Lyle keep them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on,
instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.
In this stanza we have primarily end-stopped lines
again. There is something deeply confessional about these lines. It is worth
remembering that the Ariel collection
was now essentially complete, that Plath was looking at her collection as
something stored, the honey tin, essentially. This collection is a tin of
things past, a tin of honey that she has completed. The final end-stopped lines
only reinforce what has been given and the fact that this period of quiet
reflection is natural to the process. Plath doesn’t seem to be fighting
anything here. There is only stillness and acceptance.
It is the last stanza that reveals a steadfastness in
regards to her art. There is an unmistakable quality of faithfulness to the
craft that is especially apparent at the end:
Will the hive survive, will the
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas
The bees are flying. They taste the
It is so interesting that the collection as Plath had
ordered it ends with this poem that seems to be so attuned to the nature of art
and where it comes from, where it goes, and how we are to experience life in
the moments it has escaped us for whatever reason. Though the last stanza
consists early on with parsing lines that ask the question will the hive
survive? The stanza ends with the bees flying, tasting the spring. Above all
here there is faith. Faith in the future and above all, life. This last stanza
seems incredibly wise and mature, but also hopeful. What this poem leaves the
reader with is hugely different from the resigned and less optimistic ending that Ted Hughes had chosen to
end Ariel with, choosing the poem
“Words” rather than “Wintering.” The last line stating “from the bottom of the
pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life.”
Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line: Graywolf
Press. 2008. Print.
Tasha Cotter is the
author of the poetry collection Some
Churches (Gold Wake Press, 2013) and the chapbooks That Bird Your Heart (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and Girl in the Cave (Tree Light Books, 2016).
Winner of the 2015 Delphi Poetry Series, her work has appeared in journals such
as Contrary Magazine, NANO fiction,
and Thrush. A graduate of the
University of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Writers Studio, she frequently teaches
college and community courses on topics such as creativity and creative
writing. A recipient of grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, The
Kentucky Center, and the University of Kentucky Women's Forum, she makes her
home in Lexington, Kentucky where she works in higher education and serves as
the president-elect of the Kentucky State Poetry Society. Tasha is represented
by Alice Speilburg of Speilburg Literary and can be contacted at tasha dot
pedigo at gmail dot com.