Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Rival

Sylvia Plath

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.
Both of you are great light borrowers.
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected.

And your first gift is making stone out of everything.
I woke to a mausoleum; you are here
Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,
Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,
And dying to say something unanswerable.

The moon, too, abases her subjects,
But in the daytime she is ridiculous.
Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,
Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,
White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.

No day is safe from news of you,
Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.

I once possessed a British Council tape of Sylvia Plath in interview and performance. She read with almost hysterical alacrity, a voice from a Woody Allen movie: neurotic, shrill, all edge and self-absorption, yet also phenomenally intelligent, and distraught, weighed down, half-vanquished by the clarity with which such extraordinary intelligence is compelled to perceive life. 

I hardly ever played the tape; its harshness was detestable, its self-indulgence in self-pity nauseating. How dare this affluent, middle-class, suburban woman, how dare she compare her plight with that of Auschwitz Jews, how dare she affront bathos and hyperbole by drawing universal morals from the slicing of an onion and her finger? 

I came to suspect that, in Sylvia Plath, the spoiled-brat tantrums of every-little-princess have been raised to the pedestal, in the vain hope of mitigation-through-Art: she shrieks, she spits, she stamps her feet, she smashes all her favourite toys, but she does it in rhyme and metaphor: and thus it isn’t naughtiness, but Art: the John McEnroe of poetry, justified by genius. 

Yet the angst, the anguish, were clearly genuine: why else the suicide? Or was even the suicide mere poetry, the gas-oven mere metaphor? To kill oneself, after all, is the ultimate threat of the attention-seeker: and this sad woman, crying out for help in every line, perhaps she didn't mean it, perhaps she thought some gallant rescuer – her beloved Ted even - would come in time, to complete her marvellous dramatic gesture in an outpouring of love and sympathy that could inspire more poems. Certainly she had the spite, the spleen, the vanity, to pull off such a stunt. What a pity it succeeded. And yet, how wonderful for those of us who inhabit her posterity, that it did succeed.

There are now innumerable places on the Internet where you can hear her read her poetry. Click here for just the text, or here for Plath reading from "Ariel", her final collection.

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