Pictures and Poems : Volume 6
When I was sixteen I read a poem called ‘You’re’ and fell in love with it. The imagery was unlike anything I’d read, the vocabulary was from somewhere other than where I’d spent my formative years and the grammatical leaps were unsettling and pleasing at the same time. “A common sense thumbs down on the dodo’s mode”. As my generation were to become so fond of saying: what’s that all about? Some weeks earlier I’d experienced something similar when a friend played me Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It opened new doors, so different yet so familiar. I was drawn into both of them and spent the rest of the summer; the summer I left school to enter the real world, woefully ill-equipped, with a few unimpressive certificates, a love of Bob Dylan and cool jazz and a belief that Sylvia Plath wrote upbeat, happy poems about children yet unborn.
You’re by Sylvia Plath
Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Vague as fog and looked for like mail,
Farther off than Australia,
Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn,
Snug as a bud and as home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples,
Jumpy as a Mexican bean,
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.
It’s a wonderful piece that hasn’t lost any of its appeal. In addition to the imagery, grammar and peculiarities it is also clever enough to be impressive (in the how did she manage that…I couldn’t do that…Could you do that? sense) and its totally unique. Here is a true poetic voice singing strong and clear and full of love and love of life.
Depressives (for she was one) don’t spend their lives choosing to be half in love with easeful death. They enjoy life; sing, dance and write poetry to explore the unbelievable beauty of the world. They fall in love, experience pain and have a down side that can be almost an exact mirror image. It isn’t baggy white linen shirts and wandering around ruined medieval piles saying “Woe is me” as a once popular view of the Romantics suggests. Nor is it a desire to be seen as somehow supremely sensitive beings who, if understood properly, would open up the truth of the world. It doesn’t make them special; it’s a double edged sword that can bring higher highs but also lows that can border on unendurable.
Plath has become something of the poster girl pin-up for the angst-ridden, the misunderstood, those who wish to wear their introversion extrovertly. And the irony is that this has made her one of the most misunderstood poets in the canon.
There are two histories: one a true one that we can only view through time, the eyes of others and the poetry. Ignore the one that treats Ted Hughes as a monstrous villain. A little learning in a closed mind is a dangerous thing.We enter the churchyard through a small close where a cheerful woman is throwing a ball to the friendliest of dogs. Those who were born in Heptonstall are a lovely bunch. Those who came here have less to feel proud about. Hughes and Plath moved in the fifties. I don’t think they’d move back now.
But the churchyard is spectral; a mass of graves like a stoneyard from a gothic novel, quite splendid in its unkempt state. Plath is buried in the field across Back Lane. It’s a sad and forlorn place. It’s still in use and the sadness of the valley is reflected here in more suicides, so many young people; two brothers who didn’t make 30 both victims of heroin and a belief in drugs. Some attempts have been made to tend her plot. Some flowers appropriate and some not. For some reason pilgrims, aware of her status as a great writer, have stuck some cheap ball point pens; the sort you give out to a class who are unlikely to return them, close to the stone. It’s a gesture somewhere between tasteless and insult.Like W.B. Yeats she had written about the place where she would come to rest. Her poetry is at its best once she found the voice that gave expression to the mental torment. Her end seemed, as Germaine Greer has said, inevitable. I didn’t shed a tear as I read November Graveyard, with no-one around it seemed a decent thing to do, but I’m almost crying as I type these words the morning after.
We shared a few minutes silence and walked slowly towards Lumb Bank and the views across to Stoodley Pike.
The scene stands stubborn: skinflint trees
Hoard last leaves, won’t mourn, wear sackcloth, or turn
To elegiac dryads, and dour grass
Guards the hard-hearted emerald of its grassiness
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. So no dead men’s cries
Flower forget-me-nots between the stone
Paving this grave ground. Here’s honest rot
To unpick the elaborate heart, pare bone
Free of the fictive vein. When one stark skeleton
Bulks real, all saints’ tongues fall quiet:
Flies watch no resurrections in the sun.
At the essential landscape stare, stare
Till your eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Whatever lost ghosts flare,
Damned, howling in their shrouds across the moor
Rave on the leash of the starving mind
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.
The rest is silence…