Tag Archives: Sylvia Plath

Playing with Poetry (or T2)

The other day I realized that I do need to be systematic to stay organized and to be organized to feel productive (thank you, Jill Weatherholt). Chaos doesn’t work for me. Neither does too much spontaneity. Some, yes, but not too much.

I keep trying to get organized around poetry, and it keeps fighting back.

I had the possibly annoying brilliant idea that I would come up with a systematic way to share poetry tidbits and trivia (called T2) on a more regular basis. But what structure to use for that systematic organization?

Heh. I tried birth dates of poets. You know, like this: it’s June 20, so I will share something about Irish poet Paul Muldoon who was born on June 20, 1951. Kinda left me cold. Not Muldoon or his work, but his birthdate as an arbitrary choice of tidbit or trivia.

I wondered what happened in the poetry world on a June 20? I found this about Sylvia Plath on Poetry Foundation:

It was during her undergraduate years that Plath began to suffer the symptoms of severe depression that would ultimately lead to her death. In one of her journal entries, dated June 20, 1958, she wrote: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” This is an eloquent description of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, a very serious illness for which no genuinely effective medications were available during Plath’s lifetime.

I’m sure I read that before because when I was Plath-obsessed I studied her journals pretty, um, obsessively. But I wouldn’t remember that she wrote that on a June 20, would I? And while this is a very important quote for anyone with or touched by bipolar disorder, many other Plath quotes speak to me much more.

What I really like to do with poetry doesn’t have a lot to do with systems or schedules (maybe poetry fights back because it doesn’t like systems). I like to write it, for one. Too hot right now for that (we’re having a dangerous heat wave in Arizona) When I taught future elementary teachers, I had them make big posterboard collages for teaching particular poems.  I like to make collages about poems, too. Too hot for that for sure. I like to read poems and write in a journal the most random idiosyncratic* responses to them.

* When I was a new grad student in Riverside, I had a meeting with a professor about a paper I wrote.  He thought it was good, but very “idiosyncratic.” I had the embarrassment of asking him what that meant. Yes, I was an English grad student and had always read a lot, but sometimes it’s clear I am not an expert on English. If you grew up like I did, this is what idiosyncratic means: “peculiar or individual.”

Yup, peculiar. Hah. Individual. It also means one-of-a-kind. My paper was one-of-a-kind. I had no idea. But I was perceptive enough to realize that it wasn’t good to be “idiosyncratic” in grad school. (It was worth it because now I love the word).

Back to the subject of what I like to do with poetry. Journaling about poetry is therapeutic and creative. It’s lots of fun.

Have I mentioned I haven’t done it in a long time? So it isn’t just the heat over here.

You can see why I want some interesting way back into immersing myself in poetry that isn’t just the poetry I’m writing. I am lazy. And easily distracted. I thought maybe if I shared a poetry T2 on a regular basis, even if it’s within a post about something else, it would be a way of playing with poetry. Like making mud pies or playing with a bucket in the sand. Maybe if it’s just fun, poetry won’t notice that there is a schedule/system in place.

For today, since it’s so hot, how about a quote from a poem I love? I posted a long portion in the fall of 2013, but this passage gets to the heart of my sweet Felix’s nature. From Christopher Smart’s (1722-1771) “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]”. The trivia is that Christopher Smart’s nicknames were Kit Smart and Kitty Smart. Kitty Smart is a good name for some of my cats! The poem is very wide, so be sure to use the slide bar to read to the end of each line if the ends are not visible to you

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary. 
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.

 

For my cat Felix

Let me know, please, if you have ideas for what kind of T2 you would like for me to share about poetry. Maybe it’s not as hot by you . . . . After all, it did get to 118 yesterday.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Arizona, Cats and Other Animals, Poetry, Writing, Writing goals, Writing Tips and Habits

The Wax Image of Myself

I inhabit the wax image of myself, a doll’s body. Sickness begins here; I am a dartboard for witches.

Sylvia Plath

If not a dart board, at least a bulletin board. 

I’m trying to recover from a hideous sinus infection. Bad sinus infections always remind me of Sylvia Plath because she was prone to them and wrote in her diary about having them. I think they snuck into some of her poems.

I’m so behind in everything, but you know what? I don’t even care except that I am behind in reading your blogs–and that makes me sad. Two days ago I made a start to try to catch up, but that didn’t last long.

Germless hugs to all! xo

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Filed under Dolls, poems about dolls, Poetry, Writing

A Poem to Be Sick By

If I’m feeling gloomy, trapped by the confines of daily life, I like to read Sylvia Plath poems. For some reason it makes me feel better to read them.  I have no idea why reading such angry and angst-filled poetry does so. Maybe it’s like listening to sad and beautiful music.

Her poems “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are well-known for a reason. They temporarily crack open the bell jar we all live under. But there’s another poem from that same period, the fall of 1962, a few months before she died, that I love. It uses similar techniques to “break glass.”

The poem captures the feeling of being ill with a high fever: “Fever 103.”

Just count the amazing images used to describe feeling so heated from fever that the speaker is no longer purely human.  Below you will find both a video version and a text version.

One thing about poetic images. There are a lot of wonderful 20th century poems that use images of pop culture that are remembered by fewer and fewer people. It’s a sad fact that what makes the poetry immediate and vivid can also be what ages it. For readers who don’t know what Isadora’s scarves refers to in the poem, let me share this before you listen to the poem.

Isadora Duncan was an American modern dancer–very famous– who bought a new open (like a convertible) car. She was given to dressing dramatically, so she wore a long scarf that blew out of the car, trailing after her. Unfortunately, it caught on a wheel and killed Duncan.

Duncan death

 

Isadora Duncan death

 

Without further ado, listen to Plath’s marvelous voice reading this exquisite poem. Be sure to listen for the movement from Hell to Paradise.

Fever 103′

 

by Sylvia Plath

 

Pure?  What does it mean?

The tongues of hell

Are dull, dull as the triple

 

Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus

Who wheezes at the gate.  In capable

Of licking clean

 

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.

The tinder cries.

The indelible smell

 

Of a snuffed candle!

Love, love, the low smokes roll

From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright

 

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.

Such yellow sullen smokes

Make their own element.  They will not rise,

 

But trundle round the globe

Choking the aged and the meek,

The weak

 

Hothouse baby in its crib,

The ghastly orchid

Hanging its hanging garden in the air,

 

Devilish leopard!

Radiation turned it white

And killed it in an hour.

 

Greasing the bodies of adulterers

Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.

The sin.  The sin.

 

Darling, all night

I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.

The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.

 

Three days.  Three nights.

 

Lemon water, chicken

Water, water makes me retch.

 

I am too pure for you or anyone.

Your body

Hurts me as the world hurts God.  I am a lantern–

 

My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

 

Does not my heat astound you.  And my light.

All by myself I am a huge camellia

Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

 

I think I am going up,

I think I may rise-

The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

 

Am a pure acetylene

Virgin

Attended by roses,

 

By kisses, by cherubim,

By whatever these pink things mean.

Not you, nor him

 

Not him, nor him

(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)–

To Paradise.

 

20 October 1962

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Filed under Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

Performing My Life: Writing Memoir

Now that I’m writing a memoir of my life, I have to admit that sometimes as I write I feel that I am performing my own life.  You know: like a performer up on stage singing or dancing with emotions blazing.

I wrote a dissertation years ago called Performing Identities.  Actually the full title is Performing Identities:  The Spectacle of Multiple Identity in American Women’s Poetry.  Although I once lived and breathed this project, I had to look up the title for you as I no longer remembered it.  Searching online, I discovered it’s available at three whole libraries–in their archives and, in one case, in their “rare book room.”  (Even writing that I am laughing at the thought). I don’t know if the durn thing has ever been read (other than by my dissertation advisors and my friend Wilma Kahn who edited it), except by my parents who thought there were some disgusting passages (especially quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journals about–and I kid you not–nose picking).

That thought reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend dumps him because she suspects him of picking his nose.  Actually, there is a Seinfeld episode for almost everything, and I am always quick to remember them.  I think of comedians as writers who take performing to the nth degree.

Back in grad school, as I read poetry, I saw that poetry seemed to be the performance of identity–where the poet tries out masks composed of bits of her own identities.  I studied the work of symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner who argued that our very lives are performative, so it wasn’t a big step to notice the performance aspect of writing.

But I never felt like I was performing when I wrote poetry or lit crit.  Writing my memoir I am engaged in the act of performing my life.  It’s as if I stand on stage acting out a part written by myself which I have already lived.  What an odd feeling.  And yet it’s a feeling of engagement and with it comes a little hint of stage fright.

I started thinking about this subject after blogger Michelle at The Green Study  wrote a post which features this marvelous quote: “Writing is a marvelous human endeavor, but to try and suss out the actual human is an exercise in futility.”  She argues that we shouldn’t believe that a piece of writing is the writer herself.  And I agree with her. For instance, it ticks me off when people read Plath’s poetry as “the true story of Sylvia Plath.”

But the memoir writer does take bits and pieces and large swaths of herself and uses them to create the personae or identities she uses in her work.  The work itself performs these identities, making the identities live just as a puppeteer brings the puppets to life.

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I wanted to share something I found when I searched online for my dissertation.  There is a website called Classify, an experimental classification web service.  It made a pie chart of the contents of my dissertation.  That means a little scrap of all that work resides on the internet ;).

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

For the Peanut-Crunching Crowd

It’s true that I own a lot of books. I don’t like the word hoarder, but once a book comes into my possession, I don’t care to give it up. I take good care of them, so why shouldn’t they gravitate toward me?

I don’t steal books, though. When I borrow a book from a friend, I put it in a large Baggie so that I don’t damage the cover, and I eventually give it back.  I can’t say that for everyone who has borrowed from me.  You know who you are.

So it’s very unusual for me to damage a book.  That said, I own a book I have read far too many times, and it looks it.    I purchased my version of Sylvia Plath’s The Collected Poems at least two different book designs ago, probably in the 80s.  I’ve damaged this book by loving it–the spine is broken and sections of poems spill out by accident. Old post-it notes, marking poems I’ve studied or researched or just love more than the others, hang out the top.

For my master’s in English, I explicated (def: rip apart with intentions to destroy an indestructible poem) a Sylvia Plath poem “Fever 103.”  At the time I was working on it, I found an old LP in the university library with Plath reading her own poems.  I also ordered earlier drafts of “Fever 103” from the Smith Library and discovered excised lines which tickled me no end.

Today the recording is readily available, but back then I felt as if I’d discovered the Holy Sylvia Grail.

Disclaimer:  I am not, nor have I ever been, a Plath groupie.  Thank you for understanding and accepting that fact.

Have you ever heard Plath read her own poems?  If you haven’t  you are in for a treat.  Here are “Fever 103,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy.”


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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, Vintage American culture

Poetry for Christmas

Before I could read I owned a picture book which looked like a Little Golden Book, but might have been published by a different company.  It was an illustrated version of the lullaby, “All the Pretty Little Horses.”  I begged my mother to read me that book every night, wanting to re-imagine all the different colors of horses.

A couple of years later, my mother gave me my first volume of poetry for Christmas, called Sung Under the Silver Umbrella.  I treasured that book, even through the middle-school years when my friends made fun of poetry.  I still have the book.  For years I felt as if the book were my own little secret–that it had a readership of one, and that I was alone in the world with the poems.IMG_5338

Imagine my surprise to learn that one of Sylvia Plath’s favorite childhood books was the same one I loved This book was first published for children in 1935, when Plath was three years old.  When I got it, the book had been out for a full generation.

The poetry in this book isn’t very edgy by today’s standards.  There isn’t even any Shel Silverstein in it.  But it’s still a great foundation for building a poetic life.  Here’s a sample from the book:

***

GENERAL STORE

Some day I’m going to have a store

With a tinkly bell hung over the door,

With real glass cases and counters wide

And drawers all spilly with things inside.

There’ll be a little of everything;

Bolts of calico; balls of string;

Jars of peppermint; tins of tea;

Pots and kettles and crockery;

Seeds in packets; scissors bright;

Kegs of sugar, brown and white;

Sarsaparilla for picnic lunches,

Bananas and rubber boots in bunches.

I’ll fix the window and dust each shelf,

And take the money in all myself,

It will be my store and I will say:

“What can I do for you to-day?”

Rachel FieldIMG_5341

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Poetry

From Coincidence to Serendipity

Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste.  They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.

Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.

At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.

“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?”  I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.

“In an airplane.  You’ll see.  You can come with me when I take him.”

The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket.  His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour.  He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side.  He kissed the top of my head.   I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes.  Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.

She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane.  As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.

The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly.  As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.

I’ve never been able to leave this image behind.  The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.

I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.

It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently.  I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.” 

Why was this memory so important?

Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.

Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother.  The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss.  Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life.  After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.

Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss.  I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.

Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment.  But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.

When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy.  I had him back.  That part I don’t remember.

When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day.  When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine.  When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self.  That stanza felt ready-made for me.

But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading.  My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water.  I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.”  These are the final lines:

Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know

you were entered by incomprehensible light

in the hour of lemon & water

###

& the great wound of the world has slipped a code

into your shoe

###

A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground

###

It is the wing

It doesn’t abandon you

What serendipity.  The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me.  The plane I wanted to follow behind.

***

Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Poetry