Conquering the Collection: Ariel and other poems by Sylvia Plath

I studied poetry in school. Or rather, I studied poems in school. My teachers would hand out a sheet of paper with a poem on it or point to particular poem in an anthology. We studied poetic movements or themes or poetry’s form and structure. And I, unlike many of my peers, emerged from these “poetry units” actually liking the stuff.

I didn’t realize until I had finished Ariel and other poems by Sylvia Plath that I had never read poetry published, as the author intended, in a collection of poems all by that one poet. It was a new experience.

Over the course of Ariel I went on a journey with Plath. I became familiar with her distinct voice, her view of the world, her thoughts, her obsessions. “Metaphors” by Plath (not in this collection) is one of my favorite poems of all time, propelled to that status by a great English teacher and a memorable lesson. I thought that I knew Plath and knew her themes: pregnancy, motherhood, womanhood with a considerable side of darkness and self-flagellation. Getting to know Plath through Ariel shattered my clinical academic perspective. I might not have understood everything but I felt for and, perhaps more significantly, with her by the end of the collection.

Reading Ariel cover to cover was difficult. Surprisingly so, because I had expected that reading a collection of poetry would be perfect for my hectic week: I would be able to read a poem here or there as time allowed. Poems are short, after all. Instead, I found that I only picked up the book when I knew I had time to read but once I had started, I trouble sustaining my attention. One of the things that I have loved about studying poetry in school is that the compression of the language makes unpacking poetry a rigorous and exciting endeavor. Analysis unlocks the beauty of poetry, reveals its gems that are not immediately obvious. However, to get through Ariel I had to stop working so hard as a reader. I found it exhausting and ultimately untenable to read analytically each poem in the collection. By the end, I was letting them come one after another and seeing what I could get from them from just that initial read. I was waterskiing across their surface, to borrow a phrase from Billy Collins. I was capturing quick first impressions and not bothering to confirm or deny those judgements by further study.

I marked some of the poems whose first impressions intrigued me in some way. I hope that I’ll go back and read them more closely. But right now I’m feeling a little saturated by Plath’s visceral imagery – the moon, the blood, the bees – the classical allusions, the darkness and cynicism and despair about the world.

Up next? Night by Elie Wiesel
Why? With so much coverage of the fascist tendencies of this new administration, reading about the Holocaust of the Jew in Eurpose by the Nazis seems timely. Also, I hope to get caught up (Ariel is last week’s book) with another not too long book!

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