Tag Archives: nithya narayanan

Poetry Shelf Friday talk spot: Nithya Narayanan on getting into poems through Sylvia Plath


It was Sylvia Plath’s poems that really got me into poems.

I managed to get through most of high school without much contact with poetry. Not many people I knew wrote poetry, or read it. While I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home filled with books, poetry wasn’t really something that featured. The only poets I could name were the dead British ones: Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Southey. My grandmother—who was educated in freshly post-colonial India—would often bring them up, and remains shocked that I have gotten three years into an English major without encountering the canon.

In my final year of high school, I sat the Scholarship English exam and decided it would be more interesting (true) and easier (not true) to study poetry for one of the essay questions. I didn’t really have a clue who Sylvia Plath was. I knew only that she was American, and that she had written a novel called The Bell Jar. It’s funny how far you can get into a writer’s work without knowing the first thing about them. I got through about four of Plath’s poems—and meticulously annotated them—before I found out their author had gassed herself in an oven at the age of thirty.

There is a lot of commentary out there that will discuss Plath’s suicide alongside her body of work, as if her death is what makes her legendary. While I find this deeply problematic, I also think that it is difficult to read Plath’s work without an awareness of how she lived and died. She battled clinical depression for most of her life, a condition acutely worsened by the discovery that her husband (poet Ted Hughes) was in love with another woman. In 2003, a film was released on Plath’s life. Quite apart from its terrible casting (with Daniel Craig horribly miscast as Hughes), it reduced the problem of Plath’s life to a love triangle, and chose largely to skirt over the allegations of physical violence that Plath made against Hughes. Plath did not lead an easy life by any standard—a reality that is endlessly reflected in her poems.

I was initially drawn to Plath’s poetry because I thought she was God’s gift to feminism. There’s this wonderful line at the end of ‘Lady Lazarus’: “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air”. I remember reading that at seventeen and trying to interpret the entire poem as some sort of tirade against men. In retrospect I think this was a rather reductive interpretation although, in my defence, the average seventeen-year-old girl will concoct a feminist reading out of almost anything. When I read ‘Lady Lazarus’ today, I read it more as a poem about survival. One of the things I admire most about Plath’s poetry is that it expresses the feeling of not being okay without being dramatic, sentimental, syrupy or self-indulgent. In ‘Tulips’ she contrasts—almost clinically—her body’s determination to live with her mind’s desire to leave: “I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes/Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me”. The poem isn’t about moving on. It’s about endurance; about sitting with your not okay-ness until you are ready to move on.

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they “don’t get” poetry, I wouldn’t have a crippling student loan. The way we’re taught to read in school puts an inordinate amount of emphasis on extrapolation: what something means as opposed to how it makes you feel. While this is helpful in terms of learning how to express an argument, it can be really counterintuitive when it comes to poetry. So much of what makes a poem worth reading is the sensation of it—its texture; its shape; the way it feels on the tongue. I think it’s possible to love a poem without ever really figuring out what it means. I struggled—and still do struggle—with a lot of Plath’s poems. I have never quite managed to figure out ‘Daddy’. I can’t reconcile its various parts, but I still love the way it sounds. Poetry isn’t algebra; you’ll never be able to solve it. Most of the time, the unknowability of the ‘x’ just hits you repeatedly in the face.

The last time I told someone I liked Sylvia Plath, they asked if I was into confessional poetry generally. The term “confessional” is defined as “the poetry of the personal”, and could include anyone from Plath to Anne Sexton to (arguably) Hera Lindsay Bird—yet Plath is a different animal to Sexton who is a completely different animal to Bird. My love for Plath is specific; I struggle to label, generalise, or explain it. I feel a little fraudulent even writing this because, while I love a good poem, poetry doesn’t make up the bulk of my reading material. My passion for Plath is the exception rather than the norm, the way some people claim to avoid dairy but have a special affinity for cheese.

I’m not sure why Plath isn’t taught more widely in New Zealand schools, but I really wish she was. I think we’re perhaps a little scared of poetry that addresses mental health so explicitly. I don’t really have anything to say to this, except to point out that we have the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD. Poetry isn’t a substitute for conversation or treatment—but it might well be a beginning.



Nithya Narayanan was born and bred in Auckland, and is currently studying a BA/LLB conjoint at the University of Auckland. She works on the editorial team for Interesting (the Faculty of Arts’ undergraduate journal) and her essay on Don Mee Choi’s ‘Shitty Kitty’ will be published in this year’s edition. Her poetry has previously appeared in Starling.








































































Poetry Shelf review: Starling 8 Winter 2019

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Read the journal here

I have poetry interviews on the go, poetry reviews on the go, a leaning tower of poetry books to read (this morning it toppled), questions for me to answer for my new books, a study that needs sorting after four years of intense work ( it needs to be like the clean sheet before I begin again), a house that needs spring cleaning, a veggie garden that needs weeding, fruit trees that need planting, novels that call to be read, doodles that need doodling ….. and after being awake for hours with the marine forecast and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s pilot memoir on RNZ National all I feel like doing is making a lemon honey and ginger drink and reading the brand new Starling.

Starling is edited by Starling founder Louise Wallace and Francis Cooke and publishes the work of writers under 25 which is a very good thing. Starling always exposes me to new voices that I am dead keen to read more from.

This issues includes the work of 20 writers, an eye-opening interview with Brannavan Gnanalingam and the extra cool cover art of Jessica Thompson Carr. It is women rich, there is fire and cut and lyricism. I loved every piece of writing – no dull grey spots. Just an inspired and inspiring celebration of what young writers are doing


Here are a few tastes to get you linking.

Tate Fountain is a writer, actor and student in Auckland. Her tour-de -force poem ‘Dolores’ busts up form, ‘you’,  expectation and what good is poetry. It gently kicks you in the gut with ‘ashes in the back of a car’ and shakes your heart with ‘maybe craft is love and love is attention’. The pronouns are adrift as the lines stutter and break;  F Scott Fitzgerald makes an appearance, and Kandinsky. Sheez this poem electrifies. I am now on the hunt for Tate’s Letters; she describes it ‘perhaps [..] blasphemously as an extended chapbook’.

Nithya Narayanan is currently doing a conjoint degree (BA / LLB) at the University of Auckland. Her poem ‘Hiroshima’ held me in one long gasp as the mother / daughter relationship links the title to the final ‘bomb’ stanza. This is confession at its most radioactive (excuse the pun) with a rhythm that pulls and detail that hooks.

Rose Peoples is a student at Victoria University. Her poetry has appeared in Mimicry and Cordite. Her extraordinary poem ‘The Politics of Body Heat’ begins with a woman pegging washing on a line, then moves through cold and sexism, female syndromes and disappearances. You just must read it.

Think –
Have they forgotten the fear
of a cold hand on the back of the neck?
The dread of an icy whisper?
Remember this –
It is easy to disappear in the cold.


Morgan McLaughlin is an English lit graduate and describes herself as a fierce feminist. It shows in her poem ‘1-4’, four prose-poem pieces that subvert numerical order as clearly as they lay down a challenge to patriarchy. The writing is lucid, sharp as a blade and deliciously rhythmic.  I would love to hear this read aloud. I want to read more.

Meg Doughty recently completed an Honours degree in English at Victoria University of Wellington. She says she is a reactionary writer who is fascinated by the everyday mystic. Her poem is like two heavenly long inhalations that pick up all manner of things, herbs, birds, cats, fire, and I am caught up in the idea of poetry as breath (again, see today’s Herald!!). Then I reach the end of the poem and here is the poet breathing:

I stir
hover over the steam
and breathe in
I know how to live in this world


Mel Ansell is a Wellington poet whose brocade-like poem ‘Cook, Little Pot, Cook’ (I have used this term before) shimmers and sparks with surprise arrivals as I read. Ah poetry bliss where food and love and place and home rub close together.
Rebecca Hawkes is in the recently published AUP New Poets 5 with Sophie van Waardenberg and Carolyn DeCarlo. She has a cluster of poems here that show her dazzling word play, the way images and detail build so you are swimming through the poetic layers with a sense of exhilaration (it was like that when I heard her read at the launch). Her poetry is so on my radar at the moment.

I want to read more from Danica Soich.

Joy Tong is a Year 13 student at St Cuthbert’s College. ‘Tiny Love Poem‘ is pitch perfect.

Hebe Kearney is from Christchurch but is currently studying to complete her Honours in Classics at the University of Auckland. Her poem ‘Bukit Ibam, 1968’ is so divinely spare but opens up inside me, like an origami flower that unfolds family:

a story in a cage. dad,
you recount my grandmother
through the mosquito netting baking
tiny raised cakes.


Thanks Louise and Francis. This is a terrific issue. Now I need to head back to my long list of jobs to do before I head back down to Wellington for National Poetry Day.