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.

10 thoughts on “Winding the Watch: A Few Notes on Sylvia Plath”

  1. Sorry, can’t agree, if you are evaluating her quality rather than simply addressing your extended in time reception. S.P., always a competent poet (which can t be said of Hughes, whom Larkin correctly characterized as “Ted Huge”), is astounding, searing, unforgettable in her work from 1962/63, see the Rabbit Catcher, Poppies in October, the bee poems, Edge, Elm, etc. Again,Larkin, stingy of praise and no friend of the couple or their set, calls her “a genius ” (PL Letters).As for Ted Hughes, the greatest poet of fish in English (his salmon poems), true, he didn’t kill Sylvia. Still, it might be observed: a man who loses one gifted wife to suicide,following his infidelity, seems tragic; one who loses two in like circumstance, (the second being the talented Assia Wevill) begins to look… careless.

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    1. I really prefer Latin poetry. I do admire “The Detective” but find it hard to read all of Ariel at one sitting. Too much pain! And occasionally there is an awkward phrase. Needless to say, we have no Sylvia Plaths in Latin poetry. Only one woman, to my knowledge.

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      1. Ah, Propertius is Plath, sorta? No real linguistic equivalence (Latin v English?), of course.I might clarify: Ted never legally wed Assia, but they lived together, had a child and he referred to her as “my true wife.” Best wishes!

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      2. I don’t mean Plath isn’t brilliant. She is. But I find the poems in Ariel wildly uneven, and sometimes the imagery is weak and meandering, as in the stanza I quoted, which I found embarrassing, a cliche. Clearly these poem needed to be written: they are hymns to pain, and somehow became a flag of feminism. But I really love her 1950s poems, “In Midas’s Country” “Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers.” She and the other Seven Sisters grads, Sexton, Rich, etc., certainly did their own thing brilliantly to an extent. And of course Latin poetry influenced English poetry that we can’t examine it without recourse.

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  2. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes the work of Sylvia Plath gets easily overlooked because of her life and death. Some of her poems are exquisite, pure perfection. It may not be the most technically great poem but I adored reading You’re when I was pregnant. And I find her very funny πŸ™‚ Especially the line in that poem where she compares her baby to a turnip πŸ™‚

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