Friday, November 24, 2017

Roy Foster / Seamus Heaney remembered

Seamus Heaney, photographed at his home in Dublin in 2009: ‘Behind the unforced charm he was one of the most formidable critical intellects of his day.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos


Seamus Heaney remembered

Seamus Heaney, who has died at the age of 74, was a poet of immense power, a brilliant intellect, an inspiration to others – and the best of company


Roy Foster
Sunday 1 September 2013 00.07 BST




My first thought on hearing the immeasurably sad news of Seamus Heaney's death was a sensation of a great tree having fallen: that sense of empty space, desolation, uprooting. Heaney's place in Irish culture – not just in Irish poetry – was often compared to that of WB Yeats, particularly after he followed Yeats in winning the Nobel prize in 1995. He possessed what he himself ascribed to Yeats, "the gift of establishing authority within a culture". But whereas Yeats's shadow was seen, by some of his younger contemporaries at least, as blotting out the sun and stunting the growth of the surrounding forest, Heaney's great presence let in the light. Part of this was bound up in his own abundant personality. Generosity, amplitude and sympathy characterised his dealings with people at every level, and he was the stellar best of company. It was as if he had learned the lesson prescribed (though not really followed) by Yeats: that the creative soul, "all hatred driven hence", might recover "radical innocence" in being "self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting".



But behind the marvellous manner, unforced charm and wicked hoots of laughter he was one of the most formidable critical intellects of his day, a powerfully subtle analyst of political and social nuance, and the possessor of intellectual antennae that let nothing past them. Living in Ireland and being world-famous was not an unmixed blessing – he described the effects of winning the Nobel as "a mostly benign avalanche" – and he knew how to elegantly evade the occasional begrudgery of others and withdraw into his own resources, sustained by a beloved family life. The distinctiveness of his poetry was unmistakable: a Heaney poem carried its maker's mark on the blade. So was the immense labour that went into the deceptive simplicity of his early collections (throughout his writing career he drew terrific metaphors and images from an extraordinary range of physical work practices). And part of the impact of that early work lay in his use of violence.


That this was often done by implication made it no less shocking; the authentic lifting of the hairs on the back of the neck that I still remember when I opened North (1975), with its exploration of the archaeology of atrocity, was replicated in reading Station Island (1984), with its extraordinary title poem tracing a ghostly Dantean journey through the shades of Irish history, meeting with the dead. This culminates in a visionary encounter with Joyce ("His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers/ came back to me, though he did not speak yet,/ a voice like a prosecutor's or a singer's,/ cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite"), and Joyce spoke to Heaney in more ways than one. Listening to him on Desert Island Discs some years ago, I waited for him to choose Yeats's poems as his elected book, only to hear him demand Ulysses instead; on reflection I was not surprised. His own capaciousness was Joycean.
Like Joyce, Heaney's erudition was immense, and his lectures on literature at Oxford, Harvard and worldwide made wonderful reading and unparalleled listening. They illustrate his openness to world literature and classical history as well as his deep love of unexpected English poets such as Clare and Wordsworth – and his affinity with writers from eastern Europe, Osip Mandelstam above all. "There is an unsettled aspect to the different worlds they inhabit," he wrote in The Government of the Tongue (1988), "and one of the challenges they face is to survive amphibiously, in the realm of 'the times' and the realm of their moral and artistic self-respect." This carried – as he himself pointed out – a resonant echo for a poet afflicted by "the awful and demeaning facts of Northern Ireland's history". He lived in Dublin but never evaded those "facts" of his native territory. Indeed, part of Heaney's immense achievement was to use and expand that "awfulness" and its relation to the creative spirit and artistic commitment, using implication rather than assertion – whether in the haunting parallels and allegories of North, or in later poems like From the Frontier of Writing and From the Republic of Conscience.
The note is there also in his wonderful last collection, Human Chain (2010), where one is pulled – yet again – in the wake of a writer able to push out the boat into a limitless sea. But what struck me most in reading it, along with the almost daunting economy of line, was a whispering sense of elegy – not just because many of the poems were dedicated to the dead, but also because they looped back to his earliest images of pen nibs, farm routines, animal life, the rituals of neighbourhood, and love. This sense of an ending was perhaps a sign of poetic prescience.
At the time of his death, though, I come back to the image of the death of a tree. I remember now that he wrote about this himself – both in a marvellous 1985 essay on the work of Patrick Kavanagh, and then in a sonnet sequence, Clearances, in memory of his mother. The tree in question grew from a chestnut which his aunt planted in a jam jar in 1939, the year of Heaney's birth; it flourished, was transplanted to the garden, became a fully sized tree "that grew as I grew" and came to symbolise his own developing life – until, in his early teens, the family moved away from the house and the new owners cut it down. The absence of the tree then created in Heaney's mind "a kind of luminous emptiness". He now identified, he wrote, with "preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife". This is the thought that he put into Clearances (whose final sonnet is below), and I think of it now as I remember the marvellous spirit of a great poet who was also a great man.





Monday, November 20, 2017

Chris Isaak / Wicked Game



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D3Nl1GZzuw

Chris Isaak
WICKED GAME

Chris Isaak
JUEGO PERVERSO
(1989)

The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It's strange what desire will make foolish people do
I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you
And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you

No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you.
(This world is only gonna break your heart)

What a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way
What a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you
What a wicked thing to say, you never felt this way
What a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you and

No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you.

The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It's strange what desire will make foolish people do
I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you
And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you

Nobody loves no one

Chris Isaak
"Wicked Game"
Heart Shaped World (1989)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MphTKElI-iA

The song is a cover (I guess) of Wicked Game by Chris Isaak, search it, it´s gold. And it was used on the trailer for the movie My Cousin Rachel.

Chris Isaak / Can´t Help Falling In Love With You





Sunday, November 19, 2017

Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq / Digested read




Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq – digested read


‘The first time I made love / Was on a Greek beach. At sunset / The girl ran off / Saying I was a useless shag’


John Crace
Sunday 22 January 2017 17.00 GMT

Vacations

I went on holiday with my 10-year-old son
We stayed in a shitty hostel in the Alps.
It rained almost every day
And neither of us could think of anything much to say.
We stuck it out for a week and then
Decided to cut our losses and go home.
It was the best time we ever had together.

Love, Love

In a porn cinema, wheezing pensioners
Discrete, secrete, excrete.
This is as close to love
As any of us are likely to get.

Consumption

I could hear stumps rubbing
The amputated man next door.
Upstairs the blood of disembowelled neighbours
Runs through runnels down the corridor.
The concierge grumbles and watches TV.
It would all have been different
If I had bought some furniture.
Maybe tomorrow. I add washing up liquid
To the list of things I’m not going to buy.
I know I’m human because I want to die.

Jim

My dad was a solitary and barbarous cunt
He always treated me like a rat you hunt.
The thought that I might outlive him
Caused him pain in his last days.
He bathed in his urine, incontinent
In both body and thought.
And then he died. Good riddance.

Absence of Limited Duration

If I write something down does it make it more real? If I write in what appears to be prose does it still count as poetry. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what I’m doing here. None of us is really. It’s all a bit of a waste of time. Filling in the long blanks before we die.
I pick up a book and wonder if I would have been able to solve Maxwell’s equations if I had been Maxwell. I suppose the answer must be yes because Maxwell was Maxwell and he did solve the equations. This ought to give me hope but somehow it makes me feel even more inadequate.

Variation 49: The Final Journey

The first time I made love
Was on a Greek beach. At sunset.
It sounds romantic but it wasn’t really.
My premature ejaculation rather spoiled things
And the girl, whose name I never knew,
Ran off, saying I was a useless shag.
When I got back to France I went to the hospital
Because I thought I had got a sexually transmitted disease.
I like hospitals. The stench, the terror, the tears.
It’s where life begins and ends.
On that occasion it turned out I didn’t have syphilis.
But sooner or later I will get a fatal disease.
Cancer probably. And then I won’t have to leave hospital. Good.

New Order

It was a starless night, the way I like it.
I had run out of butter so I went to the shops.
On my way I saw a Muslim standing alone on the pavement.
I asked him if he would blow me up in a suicide attack.
He stared blankly at me. There was no kindness in his eyes.
When I finally got to the Monoprix
I remembered it had shut down
Several months ago.

The Immaterials

The subtle, interstitial presence of God
Has long since disappeared.
With any luck, I will too.
And so will you.
We will be forgotten
At the bottom of a dark ocean
Our bodies gutted by fish.

The State of Me

My knees are crippled with arthritis
My stent is begging to fail
I feel a cancer growing inside my bowel
For I shit nothing but blood
Things are beginning to look up.
Digested read, digested: The end is in sight.






Saturday, November 18, 2017

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 4 / Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)







The 100 best nonfiction books

No 4 

Birthday Letters 

by Ted Hughes (1998)



These passionate, audacious poems addressed to Hughes’s late wife, Sylvia Plath, contribute to the couple’s mythology and are a landmark in English poetry

Robert McCrum
Monday 22 February 2016 05.45 GMT



P
oetry will be braided into this series like a golden thread, because in every generation it is the poets who replenish and tantalise the collective consciousness. As I’ve written already, this list is a personal inventory of some core texts, the books that I believe shaped our imagination and “made us who we are”. Birthday Letters fits that template, surviving Ted Hughes as a work of outrageous audacity, astonishing rhetorical and lyrical fervour, mixed with heartbreaking candour. In short, it is a landmark in English poetry.
In any age, the story of Ted (Hughes) and Sylvia (Plath) would be a chapter torn from the playbook of romantic tragedy. Furthermore, in the Anglo-American literary tradition, the marriage of two great contemporary poets from opposite sides of the Atlantic must be a source of endless fascination. At first, the double helix of love and work inspired some remarkable poems, but add the early suicide of one, and the lifelong torment of the other, and you have the makings of a myth. When, in the late summer of 1997, Hughes walked into the offices of his publisher, Faber & Faber, with the manuscript of 88 poems addressed to his dead wife, he was chiselling the synopsis of a stupendous private drama high into the north face of Parnassus. Birthday Letters, the manuscript in question, published in 1998, became the most sensational new collection of poems in living memory.





The collision of art and love, the tectonic plates of any writer’s career, creativity mingling with everyday life, must be the San Andreas fault of literature. When the two writers involved happen to be great contemporary poets, artistic equals, the material that explodes from the depths is bound to be incandescent, exhilarating, unearthly and passionate. For Hughes, addressing Plath inevitably had its mythologising dimension. He writes:
The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it.

Ted Hughes

A 1998 letter to his friend and fellow poet Seamus Heaney, describes the backstory. From the 1970s, Hughes says that he began to address his “letters to Sylvia”, exploring every aspect of their relationship. At first, Hughes reports, he wrote them on the hoof, informally; later, he tried to work at them in a more controlled way but found that he was unable. He went back to spontaneous forays: some of these Birthday Letters poems first appeared in his New Selected Poems(1995), but in correspondence with friends, he would admit that he found some of the other poems in the series too personal to publish. Birthday Letters, written over a period of more than 25 years, was Hughes’s own great reckoning – although it would turn out to be incomplete.
When Birthday Letters finally appeared, Hughes cast his extraordinary spell, and not for the first time, over an audience which, for two generations, had been brought up on The Hawk in the RainCrow and The Rattle Bag, as well as on the tale of Ted and Sylvia, one of the love stories of the 20th century. The book became an instant bestseller and prizewinner.
There are many ironies in play with Birthday Letters. First, there is the unquenchable afterlife of a tragic relationship with which Hughes himself spent half a lifetime grappling. Throughout his career, Hughes was tormented by the vociferous fans of Plath who wanted to hold him to account for Plath’s suicide in the winter of 1963, and also for the way in which he administered the posthumous publication of her oeuvre. In death, as in life, Sylvia troubled him still.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on honeymoon in Paris...
in any age, their story ‘would be a chapter torn from the playbook of romantic tragedy’.


Birthday Letters became a painful, at times self-lacerating, tribute to the radioactive power of that legacy, as well as a monument that inexorably reminded readers of Hughes’s contemporary status. It was also a career-defining volume. Now, approaching 20 years after his death, Hughes the poet, so often teased and parodied in his lifetime, is emerging as one of the towering literary figures of the past century, to be spoken of in the same breath as Eliot, Yeats, Auden and Larkin. As the Observer put it recently, “he has become the once and future king of the English literary imagination”.
With Birthday Letters, Hughes also winds Sylvia inextricably into his own literary afterlife. Perhaps she would not have been disappointed. Plath was a mesmerising and tormented figure, who was only too willing to play her part in any drama. “She wrote her early poems very slowly,” Hughes once said of their early days together in the 1950s. It was, he said, “as if she were working out a mathematical problem, chewing her lips, putting a thick dark ring of ink round each word that stirred her on the page of the thesaurus”.
Birthday Letters (together with Plath’s letters and diaries) describes a now familiar tale. If her beginnings were slow and desk-bound, Plath was soon soaring beyond her lover’s reach. But it was a fatal trajectory. Theirs was a tragic match and the relationship turned sour. By 1963 the instability that had dogged Plath’s whole life was becoming painfully dominant. The question that feminist critics have endlessly debated is: was she so obsessed with her dead father that her suicide was almost predetermined, or did Hughes’s behaviour, particularly his decision to leave her for another woman after six years of marriage, push her to the edge?
Who will ever know? In Last Letter, a poem with the traumatic line “Your wife is dead”, released by the poet’s estate after his death, Hughes himself gets sucked into that vortex, declaring that the explanation for suicide is “as unknown as if it never happened”. So Plath’s tragic death remains a mystery that has already inspired one masterpiece (The Savage God by Al Alvarez, the Observer’s former poetry editor) and numberless words of exegesis.
Hughes himself went to ground, living in Devon, writing about nature and keeping his counsel. It did not do him much good. “My silence seems to confirm every accusation and fantasy,” he once wrote. With Promethean stoicism, he held his ground. “I preferred [silence], on the whole, to allowing myself to be dragged out into the bullring and teased and pricked and goaded into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia.”
But he was still wounded. I remember once awkwardly broaching the Sylvia question with him, after several glasses of wine, and being touched and amazed at the flood of loving recollection released by a simple – and tactless – inquiry. He was, in his prime, as compelling a figure as Plath: an unforgettable physical presence with fathomless reserves of feeling and humanity, and a gentle Yorkshire voice that seemed to remake every sentence it uttered.
Birthday Letters was also an attempt by Hughes to nail shut a Pandora’s box of prurient, often vicious, speculation. It’s easy to forget the vehemence of the opposition. The poet’s readings were sometimes interrupted by cries of “murderer”; the American feminist poet Robin Morgan published The Arraignment which began with the lines “I accuse/Ted Hughes...”
Having explored the passage of Plath’s short life, Hughes stopped short of revealing the circumstances of the suicide itself, about which there had been endless gossip. He had been wrestling with that lost weekend in the frozen midwinter of 1963, especially the horrifying, almost macabre, detail that Plath had reassuringly burned her suicide note, which had reached Hughes prematurely, in front of him. He distilled the horror of this moment into repeated drafts of Last Letter in a “blue school-style exercise book” that contained versions of several other poems that also appear in Birthday Letters. The only person who knew of this poem’s existence, because Hughes had given her a typed fair copy of it, was the poet’s widow, Carol.

This is where a concluding and redemptive chapter in this story begins. Carol Hughes, with impressive dignity, has chosen never to speak publicly about her husband. For any literary estate, the question of what it is right to publish is always fraught. The second Mrs Hardy burned her husband’s correspondence with her predecessor, enraging generations of scholars. Hughes himself had been criticised for his destruction of Plath’s last journal. Carol Hughes, however, has always tried to do her best by her husband’s work. She had always known about this “last letter”, and what it revealed. Biding her time, she chose the right moment to release it, in the pages of the New Statesman. On publication, Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, observed that this last poem, the coda to Birthday Letters, is “a bit like looking into the sun as it’s dying. It seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written.” Time will tell if Sylvia Plath’s spirit has finally been laid to rest. Birthday Letters has already become part of the canon.

A signature line


That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.
From The Blue Flannel Suit, Birthday Letters.

Three to compare

Al Alvarez: The Savage God (1971)
Sylvia Plath: Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (1975)
Janet MalcolmThe Silent Woman – Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1993)
  • Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber, £12.99).


Friday, November 17, 2017

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 11 / North by Seamus Heaney (1975)




The 100 best nonfiction books: No 11 – North by Seamus Heaney (1975)

This raw, tender, unguarded collection transcends politics, reflecting Heaney’s desire to move ‘like a double agent among the big concepts’

Robert McCrum
Monday 11 April 2016 05.45 BST



A
longside his friend Ted Hughes (No 4 in this series), Seamus Heaney was among the finest late-20th century poets writing in the English language. Heaney’s greatness was cultural as well as lyrical: he saw it as his inescapable duty to attempt a mood of reconciliation among his community. His work, rooted in his native Ireland, always had to navigate the murderous vicissitudes of the Troubles, the civil war that traumatised Northern Ireland for 30 terrible years, from the civil rights march of October 1968 to the Good Friday agreement of April 1998.
To be a writer, especially a famous poet, in this war zone was to confront a challenge that was political, artistic and tribal. Both Heaney’s parents came from Roman Catholic families in Protestant Ulster. Throughout his life, his origins placed him at the lethal crossroads of sectarian conflict and Irish nationalism. That was an unenviable and dangerous location at the best of times, and he learned to become highly attuned to the history and heritage of oppression. He always contrived to move, as he put it, “like a double agent among the big concepts”.
Heaney’s North, published during one of the darkest times in a vicious war, reflects this instinctive ambivalence while being, at the same time, one of his most passionate collections, acknowledging both his roots and his loyalties. Crucially, whatever his deepest feelings, Heaney is never strident. Throu ghout this volume there’s a steady undertow of irony. For the poet, that is fundamental to Ulster life. When I interviewed him in Dublin for the Observer in 2009, he spoke about the “articulate mockery” deployed by all the combatants in the Troubles. “The irony is so important,” he said. “In the north, northern irony has allowed people to stand at the edge of the rift and shout across to each other.”
Mixed with the politics, there are also some wonderfully tender passages, notably the tender dedication to his wife, Marie:
Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal bin.

Rereading North, more than 40 years on, in the 21st century, it’s surprising to discover how raw and unguarded some of its emotions turn out to be. In North, an early collection, Heaney is not as diplomatic as he would later become, especially after winning the Nobel prize in 1995. In Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, he notes with dread the fearsome “eructation of Orange drums”, and describes the “crater of fresh clay” left by a roadside bomb, and the “machine-gun posts” set up by the British army. This, he says, is “our little destiny”.
Heaney’s own destiny was to steer a middle path. “I am,” he wrote in Exposure, the concluding poem in North, “neither internee nor informer.” He would remain an “inner émigré” for the rest of his life, steadily articulating a vision of Ireland that, finally, coheres into a most resonant and seductive myth. He never denied the tragedies and violence that blighted the lives of an Irish generation, but he linked the darkness of his own times to memories of English and Scandinavian invasions from the past, as if to suggest that lives conducted in extremis, on the edge, have more to teach than visions of the pastoral.
Indeed, Heaney finds a kind of consolation in the savagery of the past, and locates this in the narrative of PV Glob’s The Bog People, published by his Faber editor, Charles Monteith. This popular but scholarly account of the discovery of Tollund Man, and many related victims of prehistoric rituals and forgotten atrocities, was notable for its graphic black-and-white photographs of bodies that had become perfectly preserved in the peat bogs of Denmark. Glob’s Bog People directly inspired four poems: Bog Queen, The Grauballe Man, Punishment, and Strange Fruit, as well as references to primitive violence in Funeral Rites and North, the title poem. These follow Tollund Man, which had appeared in Wintering Out(1972). In North, these horrific images have begun to acquire a much deeper meaning for the poet, supplying what he identified as “symbols adequate to our predicament”.

Critics will doubtless continue to argue about the focus and subject of that “predicament”. Was it addressed to “the north” as a whole, or just the Roman Catholics of Heaney’s province? The poet himself never wanted to be drawn into that argument. Now that he is dead, too young at 74, the question is academic. Besides, shading into art, North transcends politics. Some readers will prefer his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, but for me it’s the brilliant reconciliation of art with politics that sets North apart from the rest of Heaney’s oeuvre and gives it a kind of dark majesty.
In Death of a Naturalist, he found his voice; in North he put that voice to the service of his people. He told me: “Your language has a lot to do with your confidence, your sense of place and authority” and added that speaking his own language, Irish English, was to acquire a trust in the pronunciation and in the quirks of vocabulary, and “to go through a kind of political reawakening”.

A signature sentence


Ulster was British, but with no rights on 
The English lyric: all around us, though 
We hadn’t named it: the ministry of fear. 
– from The Ministry of Fear, North


Thursday, November 16, 2017

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 17 / Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)




The 100 best nonfiction books: No 17 – Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)



The groundbreaking collection of work that established Plath as one of the last century’s most original and gifted poets

Robert McCrum
Monday 23 May 2016 05.44 BST


W
ith Birthday Letters (No 4), this series has already identified the radioactivity buried within the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and recognised their place in the canon. With Ariel, Plath’s second volume of poems, we approach the catalyst for 20th-century poetry’s thermonuclear explosion.

First, the terrible circumstances surrounding the first appearance of Ariel are essential to any reading of Plath’s work. In the early years of her marriage to Ted Hughes, Plath had been the junior partner. She was known as the author of The Colossus: and Other Poems (1960), a well-received first collection, described by the Guardian as an “outstanding technical accomplishment”, but not yet indicating the extraordinary power locked within Plath’s literary psyche.
The key to Plath’s final years, on top of the disintegration of her marriage to Hughes, lies in her lifelong fascination with her own death. As she expresses it in Ariel, her title poem, “I am the arrow… that flies. Suicidal, at one with the drive. Into the red eye...” Everything she wrote now was shadowed by this obsession.


Between 1961 and ’62, working fast and urgently, she completed her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, writing to her mother that what she had done “is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour – I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown… I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.”
The Bell Jar was released by William Heinemann (publisher of The Colossus) in London on 14 January 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. This was a decision inspired by Plath’s desire to spare the feelings of her mother and a number of real-life characters in the novel. Plath’s first novel appeared in the midst of the most bitter English winter of the century, and aroused virtually no comment.
Meanwhile, Plath had begun to put together the manuscript that became the framework for Ariel in early 1962. Restlessly focusing her poetic intention, she had changed its title from The Rival to A Birthday Present to Daddy to The Rabbit Catcher and finally to Ariel and Other Poems. She was now separated from Ted Hughes, whose affair with Assia Wevill had precipitated their break-up, and living alone with her two small children, Nick and Frieda, near Primrose Hill, London, in a house, 23 Fitzroy Road, once occupied by W B Yeats. By November 1962, she was done.


Then, in the early morning hours of her last few weeks, she wrote those poems that, as she herself predicted, would “make my name”. All the poems written during the autumn of 1962, and into the new year, had been inspired by the intense solitude of her situation, and many of the final poems in Ariel are attributable to her predicament as a young single mother, but also to her clinical depression and the incipient breakdown that culminated in her suicide in the early morning of 11 February 1963. (Al Alvarez’s account of this tragedy in his study of suicide, The Savage God, remains the indispensable portrait of this psychodrama.)
The poignant circumstances of Plath’s death, as they became known, intensified the Anglo-American literary interest in the poet and her work. In 1965, The Bell Jar was republished under her own name and quickly recognised as a dark classic of contemporary feminism. But it was the publication of Ariel in the same year (1966 in the US) that set the seal on her posthumous fame and reputation. Here was a collection of strange, disturbing, and confessional poems whose wild and exhilarating ferocity exerted a remarkable grip on the imagination of a new generation.
Robert Lowell, in his preface to the first edition of Ariel, describes these as poems that are “playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder”. He was acknowledging what countless subsequent readers would discover for themselves: that Ariel is the volume on which Plath’s reputation as one of the most original, daring and gifted poets of the last century rests.
The manuscript Plath had left behind on her death was titled Ariel and Other Poems. But that manuscript would not appear for more than 40 years. Instead, a rather different book called simply Ariel (published by Faber & Faber) reached bookshops in the UK in 1965 and sold a phenomenal 15,000 copies in 10 months. In the US edition (varying slightly from the UK edition), 12 of Plath’s chosen poems were cut, 15 new ones added in their place; and several other poems moved from their original order.
Ted Hughes – of whom, towards the end of her life, she had written “I hate and despise him so I can hardly speak” – had made the changes, inviting many searching and explosive questions about his apparent conflict of interest as Plath’s executor and also the subject of her poetry. A generation would pass before an enraged feminist critique softened into a belated recognition that Hughes had fulfilled an almost impossible task with remarkable sensitivity and understanding. After all, the manuscript left behind at her death was still a work in progress.

Among these groundbreaking, and often difficult, poems are numbered several classics: Lady Lazarus, Ariel, The Moon and the Yew Tree, Daddy and Stings. Plath’s fierce interrogation of herself and her feelings, and her unflinching honesty, came as a shocking revelation to poetry readers in the mid-1960s. Eventually, the Ariel of 1965, edited by Ted Hughes, was complemented in 2004 by a new edition, masterminded by Frieda Hughes, Plath’s faithful daughter, which for the first time restored the selection and arrangement of the poems as her mother had left them.
In addition, finally, there is Ted Hughes’s own response (in Birthday Letters) to his dead wife’s phoenix-like resurgence. One of the most disturbing poems here is Suttee, his record of Plath’s emergence as a poet, in which Hughes casts himself as a midwife delivering an “explosion / Of screams” and before being “engulfed / In a flood, a dam-burst thunder / Of a new myth”, a birth that “sucked the oxygen out of both of us”.
Many of the poems in Birthday Letters address the conundrum of Plath’s other self. Hughes had already rehearsed this line of thought in his 1982 foreword to the first edition of Plath’s journals, claiming that, although he had “spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time”, he had never seen “her show her real self to anybody – except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life”.
Despite the unreconciled dialogue between husband and wife, in many conflicting registers, Ariel survives the obsessive extra-literary attention directed towards Plath and Hughes in the more than 50 years since Plath’s suicide. For many readers, it is likely to remain one of the great volumes in the Anglo-American canon.

A signature sentence

“Dying
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.”
From Lady Lazarus, Ariel

Three to compare

A Alvarez: The Savage God (1974)
Sylvia Plath: Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-63 (ed Aurelia Plath) (1975)
Sylvia Plath: The Unabridged Journals (ed Karen V Kukil) (2000)
Ariel by Sylvia Plath is published in a Faber Modern Classics edition (£10.39).