When I was a teenager – often depressed, no self-esteem, thinking of death and hurting myself – I bought a used paperback anthology of poetry by women. I had heard of Sylvia Plath, and might already have read The Bell Jar, but hadn’t yet been exposed to her poetry. The book’s introduction quoted these lines from one of her most famous poems, “Lady Lazarus”:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
From the time I read those lines, and then purchased my first copy of Ariel, no poet has affected me as much as Sylvia Plath, and Ariel is her masterwork. The despair, the anger, the frantic energy, the power and bravado, the isolation, and the way the speakers in the poems say things we don’t often let ourselves say – it is a remarkable, screaming achievement. She ends “Lady Lazarus” this way:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer,
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
I don’t memorize many poems, but there are lines from some of Plath’s poems – primarily from Ariel – that I’ve ingested, that come to my mind unbidden. “I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty,” she writes in “Tulips.” “These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill,” the closing of the poem “Elm.” These are the last lines of “Edge,” the last poem Plath wrote:
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
From another famous poem – or perhaps infamous is a better word – called “Daddy”:
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then, “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” which began as a writing exercise, but took on a life of its own. My favorite lines: “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” “The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, / White as a knuckle and terribly upset.” “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. / Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.” “The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild. / And the message of the yew tree is blackness — blackness and silence.”
Sylvia Plath’s poems, and especially those in Ariel, have influenced my thoughts, my own writing, my judgment of other writers’ work, and even my very life, as the initial reason I applied to Smith College is because she attended Smith. Her influence upon me is nearly incalculable.