Winding the Watch: A Few Notes on Sylvia Plath

In the fall of 2020, we are appalled by how little we remember the work of Sylvia Plath. And yet I distinctly remember reading Ariel at Hickory Hill Park.

“Did Daddy wind us up like a clock?” We thought that was the opening line of “Daddy.” No, we apparently made it up. We were thinking of the first line of “Morning Song.”

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

I wish I could remember the poetry, because my paperback of Collected Poems is more than “slightly foxed.” And I do have to reread at least the Ariel poems to prepare to read the new biography by Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. The Plath legend has been rehashed plenty, but I am interested in the 21st-century interpretation. Is there more to say?

Rereading Sylvia’s poems now, I find them striking but uneven. Much was made of the bipolar inspiration behind her masterpiece, Ariel, a collection of poems written in the weeks before her suicide while she was struggling with her illness. The madness added a tinge of drama for her readers. She was not separate from her art. But I admire”Morning Song” less than I used to. The second stanza seems bumpy, awkward. Not her best. And yet I remembered the watch (though I thought it was a clock).

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Suicide fueled interest in her poetry. Some speculated that her husband Ted Hughes was her murderer, though this makes little sense: he had left her and was living with another woman. I finally read some of Hughes’s poetry a few years ago, and he certainly is a brilliant poet. I used to think reading his work would be a kind of betrayal. That is not the way I think now.

Sylvia’s image of “a fat gold watch” will remain with me now. Poor Sylvia, too ill to cope, too much to cope with, not winding the watch.