On First Reading Sylvia Plath

Poetry Ireland News September/October 2012

Gerald Dawe recalls some first impressions on reading Sylvia Plath who would have celebrated her 80th birthday this October.

Orangefield, the school I went to in the mid Sixties, had for the time a bold artistic initiative through inviting writers to address the senior forms – and in a culture which privileged practical work- orientated experience above much else, this was quite an initiative. In one of these classes, as we were preparing to sit ‘A’ (Advanced) level state exams, the playwright Stewart Parker read Sylvia Plath’s poems. Plath was ‘on’ the ‘A’ level course in English literature, represented by several poems which Parker read and discussed, along with other Plath poems which clearly had fired his own imagination, including ‘Fever 103°' and ‘Daddy’.

Nothing seemed quite the same after that. His Belfast accent was faintly inflected with an American tone drawn from his years living in New York where he had taught at Hamilton College and Cornell before returning home in 1969, the year he visited that class in Orangefield in east Belfast where Parker himself had come from and had his cultural roots, explored in his masterpiece, Pentecost. Parker spoke softly but confidently and it probably did not pass us by that he had the look and demeanour of someone who was close in age and manner to his audience. The following year Parker would begin his innovative stint as ‘rock’ columnist with The Irish Times newspaper, producing in ‘High Pop’ a fabulous record of the musical culture of the time (collected in Stewart Parker, High Pop: The Irish Times Column 1970-1976 [Lagan Press, 2008]).

There was something about the language of Plath’s poems which Parker read that afternoon that sounded familiar and strange at the same time – the interrogative, unexpected, staccato syntax; the vulnerability of the solo voice that broaches such trippy heights as ‘The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I’, came close to the music that we all listened to obsessively while chiming also with the anti-rhetoric of the peace movement and CND, ‘Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash and eating in. / The sin. The sin.’ Ariel was published in the UK in 1965, was reissued in a paperback edition in 1968 and reprinted again in 1970. That edition I bought in July that year having, clearly, become completely transfixed by Stewart Parker’s reading. Plath was the sound of the time: questioning, self- absorbed, casting her imagined mind in her poems across shifting landscapes of England, New England and the terrible recent history of post-WW2 Europe. The English she wrote her poems in – in Ariel but also in The Colossus, (a hardback copy of which I was given by a friend on February 1971, though bought the previous year in May) – quite simply sounded real, intimate and part of what felt like a cult following.

Between Parker’s reading in 1969, the purchase of Ariel the following year and the gift of The Colossus soon thereafter, it looks like Plath was on my mind a lot in that final year and a half of the 1960s. Just as things in my own life were about to take a definitive turn and as the good times were starting to turn not so good in Belfast, I read everything I could of Plath’s and about her. The year flashed by with romance, dance and nights and weekends spent in the famous Crown Bar, a few steps away from the college’s front door. My mother sold her unwieldy old house in north Belfast and moved to an apartment on the east side. My own connections with the city were loosening as boyhood friends were becoming impatient or anxious about their futures and Belfast succumbed more and more to sectarian violence and the social freedom of movement we had known growing up became dangerous. Some left and moved elsewhere – the gift of The Colossus in February 1971 had been a farewell gift.

In May of that year, the brash intense somewhat dislocated soul that I was sat in class with the great historian of Ulster, Jonathan Bardon, as a bomb exploded nearby. It must have been one of the first such bombings which would become a feature of life in the Northern Province for the next three decades. Riots had been one thing; shootings, arson attacks, vigilante groups, fights, shouts, sectarian taunting. All seemed run of the mill. But bombs left in public bars, shops and factories, that was quite another matter. It was obvious, although no one that I knew was actually saying so at the time, things were getting completely out of hand.

In May I was invited to a dress dance at Queen’s University. A friend’s girlfriend wanted me to go on a blind date with her friend. So off the four of us went and a friendship bloomed. I would meet the girl, a young woman of sporting accomplishment, and we would attend classical recitals in the Ulster Hall – no Jazz Club this time, my usual haunt – and in that brief time we spent together, barely a summer, she quoted Robert Lowell and from the house she shared with her family in Bangor, a very popular, small coastal resort, she produced his books, such as the hardback of Near the Ocean. I heard more of that contemporary ironic voice which seemed so close to nuances and inflections of what I knew but did not really hear in the Belfast out of which I was growing increasingly more impatient to be gone.

Like Lowell, Plath’s sheer unrepeatable energy ‘turned my head’. Throughout those early years of trying to write poems that matched or conveyed something of the madness engulfing the places of my upbringing, Plath constantly came to mind as a source of possibility. I was wrong but it was understandable in one so young and imaginatively vulnerable. When, thirty years later, my first book of poems, Sheltering Places was revised and republished, I used an epigraph from Plath which had stayed with me, from the haunting opening poem of The Colossus, ‘The Manor Garden’:

                       ... History

Nourishes these broken flutings,
These crowns of acanthus,
And the crow settles her garments.

In one of those quirks of fate that leave only the faintest of traces behind, in the new university we drove towards that autumn of 1971, one of the lecturers would recount how he had stayed in the same house in which Sylvia Plath had lived her last year; another lecturer, who became a dear friend, would read Plath’s poems aloud with the same telling degree of fidelity and caution that only poetry of the highest order inspires.

This is an extract from a work-in-progress, The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs. Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems was published earlier this year by Gallery Press.

« Return to listings