You had to be there, they said. And I was.
Last Sunday night I was at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to forty women–poets and performers–reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. It is not an experience I will forget in a hurry: intense, searing, overwhelming, cathartic, at times scandalously intimate, it offered a view of Ariel and its author that went far beyond any one reading or analysis.
Introducing the performance, Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes pointed out that in the years since her death, Plath has been analysed, dissected, re-interpreted, fictionalised, re-invented in any number of ways. (I paraphrase. I didn’t take notes.) This, said Hughes–this reading of the restored edition of Ariel (as distinct from the 1965 edition edited by Ted Hughes)–is the closest we can come to what Plath herself wanted to say.
It is not necessarily what we might expect to hear. The restored edition is a very different collection to the one I know. How interesting that in this ordering, despite the darkness and despair of the poems, the sequence opens with birth, with “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” (‘Morning Song’), and ends with a faint message of hope: “What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” (‘Wintering’).
Listening on Sunday to these forty voices of Plath, though, I found myself wondering just what it is about poetry that speaks to us so powerfully and personally. At the risk of suggesting I know the answer, I’d like to put forward three ideas: introspection, ambiguity and individuality.
Sunday reminded me of my last visit to the South Bank, for the premiere in April of John Pickard’s magnificent fifth string quartet. Pickard spoke beforehand about the introvert nature of chamber music, the string quartet in particular, as distinct from the extravert nature of larger-scale orchestral composition. (He was talking about the Myers-Briggs definitions of ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’, which I’ve referred to elsewhere. And I’ll be listening to his quartets again in a new light after reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, with its insights into the introvert nature.)
I wouldn’t dare to try to explain or interpret Sylvia Plath’s poetry (in any case, no one interpretation or explanation could possibly be adequate), but what came across to me on Sunday night, above all, was a poet who was speaking both for herself, and by and large to herself. Juliet Stevenson’s unforgettable reading of ‘Tulips’–so soft, so understated, and for me the highlight of the evening–was the internal monologue of a woman whose reality begins and ends with her own being. That one poem took me to a secret place within myself, that place to which we all need to be able to retreat, but from which we (most of us), unlike Plath, must emerge, knowing ourselves more clearly, to re-engage with the world.
There is a long and honourable tradition of this kind of introspection in both poetry and music: one obvious example is Eliot’s Four Quartets, with their much-debated parallels with Beethoven’s late quartets. Thomas R. Rees, in his 1969 article The Orchestration of Meaning in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, discusses the inner tension of the poems in terms of the tensions between the two contrasting themes of sonata form–themes of estrangement and reconciliation, despair and hope, time and eternity, and the wonderful, paradoxical image of “the still point of the turning world”:
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Rees hears multiple voices in the Four Quartets, but they are “variant manifestations of a single voice in different moods. …As B.H. Fussell remarks, the poem is a dialogue that reveals the profoundly subjective experiences of “a single consciousness in the act of thinking and feeling…”; it is an interior dialogue involving the fusion of opposing voices”.
John Pickard’s fifth quartet does just the same thing: it draws its energy from solitude, and creates a tense and demanding internal dialogue (or monologue) between its four homogenous voices. Even its final unison note leaves questions hanging in the air, not in the sense of the piece being incomplete, but in the sense that the internal debate is never over.
Nor should it be, of course. Even within the single consciousness there is always something more to see. We are too quick to draw conclusions, to look for neat and convenient and “satisfying” (or simplistic) explanations, to define things based on habit or caution. But to quote Francis O’Gorman, “some things…are simply too important to get right.” We have a crying need for ambiguity: for the layers of meaning upon meaning which add depth and colour and dimension to our understanding.
Ambiguity is there in Ariel all right–ambiguity of language, of meaning, of character, of symbolism, of self. Such is the richness of language, that a couplet like “I survive the while, arranging my morning” can, particularly when spoken aloud, conjure the mourning that silently underpins the daily routine.
Again there is a musical analogy: think for example of all those pieces, from the sixteenth century to the present day, which forge a new tonality from the fusion of major and minor keys, or of two keys a semitone or a tritone apart. I wrote about this a while back under the title Expanding our Vocabulary, with particular reference to Gesualdo, Britten and Pickard; but examples of tonal iconoclasm are everywhere, from Beethoven’s symphonies to the first movement of Schubert’s string quintet, where the modulation from C major to Eb major rather than the “traditional” G major for the second theme (1:50 in the following clip) is perhaps one of the most sublime moments in music.
From this rich tonal vocabulary, as from Plath’s equally rich semantic vocabulary, there stems a still richer emotional and spiritual vocabulary–one which is broader than anything we have at our everyday disposal, and a great deal more ambiguous beside–one which is large enough carry our emotions when we cannot articulate them for ourselves, without being so vast that it swamps them and drowns them out.
After all, we are complex creatures. We embody complexity and ambiguity and paradox in our decisions, our values, our aspirations. And if we don’t, or if we think we don’t–if there is no complexity in our choices, no ambiguity or paradox between our daily lives and our most cherished desires–then we really are wasting ourselves.
That, too, was clear on Sunday night, not least with Ruth Fairlight’s haunting reading of the poem Sylvia Plath dedicated to her, ‘Elm’; or Victoria Hamilton’s equally memorable ‘Fever 103’ (“My selves dissolving…”). Here is a poet wholly unafraid of the contradictions and complexities of the self.
Which reveals another paradox about poetry: that it is at once personal and universal. You cannot get away from the “I” in Ariel, but though it is a fiercely personal voice, it is not an autobiographical “I”. Christina Britzolakis has observed that the narrative persona is best viewed
as a doubled discourse, which, while it may well draw upon autobiographical materials, withholds from both poet and reader any secure identification. …In spite of its apparent centrality, then, the location of the ‘I’ in these texts is unstable and duplicitous…
Perhaps more important, though, is the way in which the poetic “I” becomes something shared. Though its message, or its layers of messages, may be intensely personal to the poet, and though the reader may not see their own experience or character directly mirrored in the poem, the power of the medium is that it allows the reader to see their own self more clearly. This was Sylvia Plath’s gift to me, fifty years after her death, last Sunday night.
And this is one of the most powerful gifts we can receive, for our own selves are under constant assault. As John Eldredge writes in his book The Sacred Romance:
Starting very early, life has taught all of us to ignore and distrust the deepest yearnings of our heart. Life, for the most part, teaches us to suppress our longing and live only in the external world where efficiency and performance are everything. We have learned from parents and peers, at school, at work, and even from our spiritual mentors that something else is wanted from us other than our heart, which is to say, that which is most deeply us. Very seldom are we ever invited to live out of our heart. If we are wanted, we are often wanted for what we can offer functionally. If rich, we are honored for our wealth; if beautiful, for our looks; if intelligent, for our brains. So we learn to offer only those parts of us that are approved, living out a carefully crafted performance to gain acceptance from those who represent life to us. We divorce ourselves from our heart and begin to live a double life. Frederick Buechner expresses this phenomenon in his biographical work, Telling Secrets:
“[Our] original shimmering self gets buried so deep we hardly live out of it at all . . . rather, we learn to live out of all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather”
Poetry, then–and music–at least remind us of our original shimmering self. It is then for us to start to live out of it, to live as ourselves, as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.