Burning Down the Page with Plath

“My night sweats grease his breakfast plate.”

The line caught me, stopped me from flipping the page.

I whispered it to myself. Rolled it around on my tongue. Tasted it.

This line is from the poem “The Jailor” which appears in the poetry collection, Ariel. Ariel was the manuscript Sylvia Plath left behind when she killed herself in 1963. Her husband, poet Ted Hughes, published the book after her death.

I first read Plath in junior high, after a teacher recommended her work. Her language was dark and beautiful. Her voice was strong. Her words burned down every page. She was the first writer I really fell in love with.

I have Ariel The Restored Edition. It includes Hughes’ original version of the book, Plath’s version of the manuscript, and her notes throughout the writing process. It also includes a foreword from Frieda, Plath and Hughes’ daughter.

Plath and Hughes’ relationship was tumultuous, to say the least. Some people think having Hughes edit Ariel was a disservice to her work. He was, after all, a subject of scorn in many of her poems.

You see the tension in their relationship in the first line. Plath is angry, and she is angry at Hughes.

“My night sweats grease his breakfast plate.” Try saying it out loud.

That is part of what I love about Plath. Her poems aren’t filled with flowers and sunshine, but that doesn’t make her words any less stunning. Her phrases have a musicality, a flowing of sound.

Two stanzas later:

“Something is gone.
My sleeping capsule, my red and blue zeppelin
Drops me from a terrible altitude
Carapace smashed,
I spread to the beaks of birds.”

My favorite sound here is the “Carapace smashed” line. The phrase is musical, even if the image described isn’t conventionally beautiful. But that is one of Plath’s best tricks. She turned ugly images into beautiful sounds. This juxtaposition is part of what makes her poetry so arresting.

The poem ends with this stanza:

“That being free. What would the dark
Do without fevers to eat?
What would the light
Do without eyes to knife, what would he
Do, do, do without me.”

The language is simple, but no less stunning. What a clever way to describe light, as something that knifes your eyes.

But it is the ending that grabs me.

“What would he/Do, do, do without me,” she writes. The repetition of do, do, do sounds almost like a pop song. But in this context, it is a fiery question aimed at Hughes. A question that suggests he needs her as much as she needs him.

Reading Plath at a relatively young age shaped the way I write. Her style helped me develop an my ear for language. My stories inevitably have a few sentences that sound like lines from a poem. I strive for the musicality of Plath’s language.

A year or so ago, I was working on a story, and I wrote, “A man is a man is a jet plane is a rusted fire escape.” I knew what I meant, but maybe the reader wouldn’t have known. But more than anything, I liked the way it sounded. This line contained some of the mystery and beauty of poetry. It has since hit the cutting room floor, but I still love the sound it, the way it rolls off my tongue.

Plath also helped me learn how to channel my ferocity in my writing. I want my words to burn down the page like her’s.

In the foreword to Ariel The Restored Edition, Frieda writes, “Her own words describe her best, her ever-changing moods defining the way she viewed her world and the manner in which she pinned down her subjects with a merciless eye.”

Ariel contains Plath’s final words. Here we see her at her most fierce. Her eye most merciless. Her language most stunning.

What would he do, do, do indeed.

This week’s video is “Husbands” by Savages. They are an all female London-based rock band. And they rock hard, my friends.

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