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.