Lifesaving Lines: Edge, by Sylvia Plath

A cloud hovers over an empty beach in bright sunlight, its reflection caught in the wet, shining sand. (Black and white image).

But first came Plath. After Ursuala Le Guin, the only female author we studied (OK – Jane Austen). Her name was a rumour, freighted with glamour and gossip. Could it be true? What did the poems have to say? Ariel, the classic Faber black and white cover. Lunchtimes listening to recordings (from the radio? There were no audiobooks then) of someone reading the Letters, all of those notes about rationing, the cold and English reserve. Suddenly, this was literature as life, of having absolutely no choice in the matter. The beekeeping poems. Lady Lazarus. That lampshade. Coming face to face with voice as (what?) persona, mythology, as performance. As absolutely having no choice in the matter. I crawled into the library one night and took out a book of essays, which stopped with an analysis of her. The word pathalogical. (I had to look it up.) Knowing then that I would spend a good deal of my life crawling into libraries, thinking about poems, and looking up words I did not know. (‘Cut’ was one of the poems we had not covered.) Then, the weather hotting up and exams approaching like the future, those final poems at the end of the book (her life), ‘Edge’ among them. What was it Borton said? ‘A perfect poem.’ That impossible last line, ‘Her blacks crackle and drag.’ The music of that. The inevtiability. ‘A sense of something utterly completed vied with a sense of something startled into scope and freedom. The reader was permitted the sensation of a whole meaning simultaneously clicking shut and breaking open, a momentary illusion that the fulfilments which were experienced in the ear spelled out meanings and fulfilments available in the world’ (Heaney on Lowell, The Government of the Tongue). The book’s final line, about words governing a life. I knew (we all knew) nothing. But kind of prophetic. This is what it takes. This is what you have to measure up against. It got me going, like a fat gold watch.

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