...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

April 26, 2006

Wednesday Is Poetry Day

Something different this week. Fifty-three years ago tomorrow, Sylvia Plath attended a party at which W.H. Auden gave a reading. Using her own distinctive style, Plath described the great poet in her Journal.*

To set the scene, Plath was 20 years old, and a junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Auden was 46 years old and a visiting professor at Smith, although I don't know whether Plath took his class. 1953 was also the year that Auden moved in with his longtime companion, the poet Chester Kallman.

The party took place at the home of Sylvia Plath's English professor, 66 year old Elizabeth A. Drew. That semester, Plath was enrolled in Drew's Modern English Poetry class.

Finally, a bit of foreshadowing. Four months after this party, Plath would survive the first of her many suicide attempts. Despite missing a semester after her near overdose of sleeping pills, she graduated in 1955, summa cum laude. She would go on to study at Cambridge, meet and marry poet Ted Hughes, and the rest is history.

But here's what she thought of Auden:

April 27 [1953] - Listen and shut up, oh, ye of little faith. On one certain evening in a certain year 1953 a certain complex of pitched tensions, physiological urges, and mental dragonflies combined to fill one mortal imperfect Eve with a fierce full rightness, force and determination corresponding to the ecstasy experienced by the starving saint on the desert who feels the crackling cool drops of God on his tongue and sees the green angels sprouting up like dandelion greens, prolific and infinitely unexpected.

. . .

Tonight, spring, plural, fertile, offering up clean green leaf whorls to a soft moon covered with fuzz-fractured clouds, and god, the listening to Auden read in Drew's front living room, and vivid questioning, darting scintillant wit. My Plato! pedestrian I! And Drew, (exhuberant exquisitely frail intelligent Elizabeth) saying, "Now that is really difficult."

Auden tossing his big head back with a twist of wide ugly grinning lips, his sandy hair, his coarse tweedy brown jacket, his burlap-textured voice and the crackling brilliant utterances -- the naughty mischievous boy genius, and the inconsistent white hairless skin of his legs, and the short puffy stubbed fingers -- and the carpet slippers -- beer he drank, and smoked Lucky Strikes in a black holder, gesticulating with a white new cigarette in his hands, holding matches, talking in a gravelly incisive tone about how Caliban is the natural bestial projection, Ariel the creative imaginative, and all the intricate lyrical abstruosities of their love and cleavage, art and life, the mirror and the sea. God, god, the stature of the man. And next week, in trembling audacity, I approach him with a sheaf of poems. Oh, god, if this is life, half heard, glimpsed, smelled, with beer and cheese sandwiches and the god-eyed tall-minded ones, let me never go blind, or get shut off from the agony of learning, the horrible pain of trying to understand.

Tonight: the unforgettable snatching of toothpicks and olive pits from the tables of the ambrosial gods!

Plath's journal entries from this period do not strike me as being written by someone who was particularly depressed. On the contrary, what I get is a sense of her overwhelming curiosity, ambition, and talent.

* The Unabridged Journals Of Sylvia Plath, pp. 179-180.

Posted by annika, Apr. 26, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: Poetry


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