I think my first bout of Poetry Exhaustion occurred sometime after my A levels. Our English paper was quite advanced for its time (at least, we were told that it was). Alongside two Shakespeare plays and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath we also had Hopkins, Stoppard’s Jumpers, As I Lay Dying and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. That might look a bit staid now, what Ian McMillan calls ‘twist and reek’, but I think it changed my life.
In the way that we were instructed, perhaps because of the pressure of time, we worked through a selection of Ariel poems rather than the whole book. Among others we did: ‘Morning Song’, ‘The Applicant’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Fever 103º’, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’, ‘Stings’, ‘Balloons’ and ‘Edge’. I still have my copy of the book now. It contains phrases like ‘utter failure’ (next to the final stanza of ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’) and ‘beginning to doubt her own specialness’ (next to ‘Stings’).
Do not tell me you have not done this too.
I remember asking for (and getting) the then newly-published Collected Poems for my eighteenth birthday, just before the exams, and poring over Ted Hughes’s Introduction, both marvelling at and puzzled by its restraint and lack of useful biographical information. Unprompted by any teacher I remember taking myself to the school library to find a book which contained an essay about Plath. It centred on poems which had been off piste for us: ‘Cut’, ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, ‘The Night Dances’ and ‘You’re’.
I was intrigued, because the poet that emerged from these pages was unlike anything I had encountered in lessons. The voice, self-dramatisation and stunning facility with words were recognisably Plath, but the setting and subject of the poems seemed more explicitly domestic than what I had come to believe was ‘real’ Plath territory. That they were full of tenderness troubled me.
In the way that you do, I mugged up on these new discoveries, probably replacing old knowledge about the rest of the poems in the process. The exams came and went, as they do.
I did not look at the poems again for another two years. By this time I had progressed to studying them for an undergraduate degree. I am not exactly sure that ‘progression’ is what was taking place, however. Two key new ingredients had now come into play. We were directed towards a great deal of biographical information about Plath, in the form of speculation, especially regarding her marriage to Ted Hughes. Equally forceful was our professors’ open dislike of Hughes and his work. (One of them suggested reading Philip Larkin’s ‘Horror Poet’, his review of the Collected Poems. It is a decision I still regret). While I had been dozing at the back, it felt as though territorial lines had been drawn up around interpretations of both poets’ life and work, complete with trenches, supply networks and gun turrets.
Neutrality was not an option. I ducked and stumbled and hedged. I re-read my now useless A level notes and wished I was studying History. Though I knew I still loved the poems, I did not read Plath again for years.
A period of not very fruitful drifting followed. I worked for a small publishing firm for a while, then kind of collapsed. All this time I had been writing, as it were in the dark, knowing no other writers, but sensing there was a group of people out there to whom poems mattered as much as they did to me. Still living at home, I began working for a community arts project. For the first time I found myself going to, and then conducting, writing workshops. To my immense surprise, my colleagues were very encouraging about these. From percussion to drama to improvisation, I became emboldened by the way my fellow-practitioners would lead their own workshops. I noticed that they would often begin a session with the very briefest of outlines of what they wanted us to achieve. They seemed to possess an extraordinary capacity for letting things evolve, encouraging participants to think of their discoveries as though they had created them on their own.
Before long I found myself taking part in reminiscence workshops, in part scaffolded by the reading aloud of poems. This took place in a hospice in North London. I used to take along my copy of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes’s The Rattle Bag and open it kind of at random, like a poetry jukebox: ‘John Clare? Who wants a bit of John Clare?’ If no one did, we would choose something else.
One week I remember reading out Plath’s ‘Pheasant’. In particular I loved its dying fall of challenge and acceptance: ‘let be, let be’. This triggered a memory of discovering, just prior to A levels, that ‘other’ Plath of hushed, domestic tones and subdued hues. I wondered if there were others I had missed out on.
This is how I came across ‘Mushrooms’. It may well have developed an afterlife as a ‘workshop poem’ (I can think of at least two anthologies it appears in), but in those days it did not feel well-known at all. For a while it helped me subscribe to my batty binary theory that there were two Sylvia Plaths: one, the monster beloved of (some of) my university professors, and the other an ordinary woman staring in wonderment at every little thing.
It sent me back to my yellowing Collected. Nervously I found myself ditching my preconceived ideas. Even more tentatively I found myself nodding in agreement with Ted Hughes’s view of Sylvia Plath as possessing an ‘artisan-like’ attitude towards writing poems: ‘if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.’ Whatever else we know (or think we know) about Hughes, this practitioner’s eye-view seems extraordinarily tender to me. I wished I’d paid attention to it when the book first arrived in my life as an under-appreciated gift, but a gift nevertheless.
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
Sylvia Plath, from The Rattle Bag (Faber, 1982)