Sylvia, we hardly knew ye

November 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

Arthur Rackham, illustration from The Tempest (Ariel)

As I walked around the Cathedral during the sound check for the Celebration of Sylvia Plath, I realized again how much I love this building when it’s nearly empty: the huge columns like ancient trees escaping Zeus’s attentions by becoming stone, the vaulted ceiling far above, and mostly the delicious space, something my indoor life is sorely short of.

The past doesn’t seize my imagination here, as in European Cathedrals, but the gothic ribs and stone rosettes, the burnished wood of the choir far behind me and the great bronze doors coming closer usher me into that state of calm happiness I most desire. I was walking to the front to get a copy of the brochure (about the American Poets’ Corner) that I’d written, but mostly just to walk. After a morning of depression, an afternoon at the gynecologist—a new one, and I somehow managed to get locked in a vestibule for a few moments—then dinner with Deborah and meeting a few of the evening’s participants, it was nice to gather all the threads of the day together, to feel my depression fled and my body eagerly eating up distance. (Not much distance, true, but I’d been sitting a lot.)

The Dean opened the program, talking about how he’d had to overcome the feeling shared by many young men of his generation—a feeling he didn’t quite specify but we can guess—and learn to hear her voice. It reminded me of college; I studied many contemporary poets in class, but not Plath. The male teachers either didn’t appreciate her work or didn’t know how to teach her. Things have changed. It was very satisfying.

Karen Kukil, the archivist of the Plath papers at Smith, spoke about Plath’s life and work. Her talk was titled, The Hot, Steamy Drench of the Day—a phrase from Plath’s journals. She reminded us that though Plath was admittedly obsessed with death, she also ”lived every moment with her pores wide open.” That struck a nerve. I can tell the difference, reading her journals, between how she threw herself at life in her early 20’s and my own retreat from it. Perhaps I saved myself by hiding. I don’t know.

After Kukil, the louderArts poets (Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Lynne Procope, Corrina Bain, Elana Bell and Sean Patrick Conlon) took turns reading the poems. It took me awhile to settle into the spell, but then it was mesmerizing. The only time I ever heard Plath read was in a scratchy recording of her on the radio, and that was not her late, best work. Spoken in different voices and dramatic styles (sometimes duets) by a group of young poets, the poems seemed much airier and colorful, more exuberant than I had imagined they would. I’ve read—and written—about the dependence of poetry on the body and breath, but in fact I’ve communed with it mostly in silence.

The poet/scholar Annie Finch spoke about Plath’s meter and music. She got into a little technical talk about anapests and dactyls and I felt like a baby bird opening its beak wide demanding more food. Later I mentioned to someone that people never talk about the technical side of Plath’s work and she disagreed. Of course, I haven’t kept up. I was embarrassed but mostly just wanted to hear more. It makes me angry that there’s not a more mainstream place for poetry in our society—not as mainstream as, say, nude mud wrestling, but at least a place in the intellectual mainstream. Instead it feels like a poor relation, an old crone given lip service to as the 10,000-year-old mother of all literature, but shunted off the pages of any publication not solely devoted to poetry and short fiction.

Toward the end of the program, when special guest Paul Muldoon was reading “Daddy” in a very quiet manner that at first I thought wrong, and then immensely right, as he unlocked all the wit and tenderness in that poem (much more than you think), I felt that Plath’s spirit was somehow at rest, that she was complete. I didn’t feel my usual tantalizing…if only… I was talking to Plath’s brother afterward and I tried to explain this, because he was being so open, telling stories of their childhood, how Sylvia used to make her own paper dolls and all their dresses. I said; “There will never be enough of her, but after tonight it’s a little bit more enough. “Yes,” he said slowly. “A little bit more.” I wanted to say that I knew what it’s like to lose a sibling too young, but didn’t presume.

Sylvia is honored, as she should be, for her work. But I miss my brother, who would also have been great. Was great. He’s famous to me.


It struck me every day
The lightning was as new
As if the cloud that instant slit
And let the fire through.

It burned me in the night,
It blistered in my dream;
It sickened fresh upon my sight
With every morning’s beam.

I thought that storm was brief,–
The maddest, quickest by;
But Nature lost the date of this,
And left it in the sky.

Emily Dickinson


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§ One Response to Sylvia, we hardly knew ye

  • Gina Heiserman says:

    Thank you for this. I so wanted to be there but now I have a taste of it. I love Paul Muldoon reading Daddy–just thinking of it throws it into a gentler light, but devastating, still.

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