I reject the idea that Sylvia Plath – any Confessional poet, diagnosis actually – is not worthy of the same level of respect and admiration as any other poet. Confessional poetry is the most personal, the most real and raw kind there is. You will find, once you begin, that you are not simply reading a poem about a rainy day or a broken vase, you are reading something much deeper than that – you are reading a part of the poet. A part of their soul, their mind, their little world – whatever you want to call it. Confessional poetry has been dismissed as frantic diary entries and tears, the scribblings of non-poets, and that is just entirely untrue.
‘The Colossus’ is a book of poetry written by Sylvia Plath that firmly swipes that idea off the table. It commands to be taken seriously. Mostly written in free verse style, the poetry here is dynamic and striking. Plath did not limit herself to the boundaries of what-one-must-and-must-not-write-about, with poems such as “Maudlin” making sly references to sex and the female body – “Hatched with a claret hogshead to swig / He kings it, navel-knit to no groan.” As with all poetry, there is always another meaning behind seemingly benevolent strings of words, and with Plath there always seems to be many sides to the one face. The poem “The Times Are Tidy” intensifies and exacerbates the social and political climate of the mid-20th century, but it does so in a way that is not at first clear. Plath uses metaphors to portray the times she was living in as a child’s story, where everything ends happily. During this time, “The last crone got burnt up,” and “The cow milk’s cream an inch thick.” This poem reflects the stale and sterile state of the USA and it does so in a sharp, harsh and shrewdly satirical voice.
I’ve probably come across as a ‘die-hard’ Plath Fan, so I have nothing to fear about what I’m about to say next, which is that I believe there is a quiet but very present notion surrounding Plath (and other confessional poets around her time) that in order to obtain the words for your poem, you must first acquire personal experience, no matter how dangerous or harmful it may be. This idea that Plath encouraged violence and recklessness is absurd and wrong. I can prove it as follows: first, in an interview, she stated specifically that she did not condone that type of behavior. She claimed that one must be able to manipulate one’s own experiences and use them in whatever way they need. The second way I can prove it is by looking at her poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” In short, it is a poem about the connection between humans and nature, and more specifically, artists and nature. Plath has spotted a bird in a tree, and with rain falling all around her, she is witnessing what you might call an inspiring sight – nature doing her thing. It’s clear that she does not find this method of sniffing out creative inspiration terribly effective, stating “I do not expect miracle / Or an accident / To set the sight on fire / In my eye,” but she does decide to allow it to happen, whatever “it” may be – “But let spotted leaves fall as they fall.” Perhaps she might be minding her own business and suddenly “A certain minor light may still / Leap incandescent / Out of kitchen table or chair.” It certainly does not seem to be a reliable source, but if it’s worth waiting for, then that must count for something – “The wait’s begun again / The long wait for the angel / For that rare, random descent.” Although this collection might pale in comparison to her later work ‘Ariel’, this one should not be underestimated. The imagery is rich and vivid and, at times, unforgettable. You might find a poem in here that will leave a lasting mark.
“The Disquieting Muses” was inspired by the painting of the same name by Giorgio De Chirico. It is a surrealist painting that depicts three figures with misshapen heads and long, ever-extending shadows. The painting is unnerving. The poem is disturbing. The poem unfolds through the voice of a child, presumably Plath, and it begins with a plea. Plath asks her mother what she could have possibly done to upset a relative, “that she / Sent these ladies in her stead / With heads like darning-eggs to nod / And nod and nod at foot and head / And at the left side of my crib?” I have always thought of the figures as being a representation of the irrational, the ‘otherness’ of the mind. Like other parent poems, Plath blames her mother for the presence of these “three ladies / Nodding by night around my bed, / Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.” The poems that carry the most weight are the loudest ones, the ones that keep going, even after you’ve finished reading. While reading through this book, I noticed a common trait shared by a lot of the poems. It’s this slight, almost invisible moment of clarity, inserted quietly into the poem like an aunt slipping you a twenty euro note when your parents aren’t looking, and it’s just for you, your own little possibility. These moments pop up in most of her poems, such as “Blue Moles”, a poem detailing the harsh truth of nature – that strife and violence and death are unavoidable. The last line reads, “What happens between us / Happens in darkness, vanishes / Easy and often as each breath.” What’s fascinating about this is that you could easily alter the meaning behind it. You could say it describes the relationship between two lovers or you could even say it describes people in a poorly lit room – what matters is that you give it meaning. You give it clarity of purpose. Without you, the poem wouldn’t exist, it would just be another ‘thing’, but since you came along and made it real, it is now ‘something’.
Poetry is not something to shy away from or mock or ignore. It is something to treasure and enjoy and experience. Go, buy a book of poetry by someone you’re familiar with, or pick up someone you’ve never heard of, read their words, know their words, and bring them back to life.
– John Vaughan