Friday, March 16, 2018



Three Ariel Poems by Sylvia Plath

as first published in

Like a Fat Gold Watch - A Sylvia Plath Anthology edited by Christine Hamm
(fat gold watch press, Brooklyn, New York, 2018)

Explication of Three Ariel Poems

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 so  prominent 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 be.

            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 sure.

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 in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
No light
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:

Only ignorant.
This is the time of hanging on for the bees—the bees
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 gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

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.”

Works Cited

Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line: Graywolf Press. 2008. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 2004. 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.