Friday, January 4, 2013

I Wish I'd Written This

Last Words
By Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963)

I do not want a plain box, I want a sarcophagus
With tigery stripes, and a face on it
Round as the moon, to stare up.
I want to be looking at them when they come
Picking among the dumb minerals, the roots.
I see them already — the pale, star-distance faces.
Now they are nothing, they are not even babies.
I imagine them without fathers or mothers, like the first gods.
They will wonder if I was important.
I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!
My mirror is clouding over —
A few more breaths, and it will reflect nothing at all.
The flowers and the faces whiten to a sheet.

I do not trust the spirit. It escapes like steam
In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can't stop it.
One day it won't come back. Things aren't like that.
They stay, their little particular lusters
Warmed by much handling. They almost purr.
When the soles of my feet grow cold,
The blue eye of my turquoise will comfort me.
Let me have my copper cooking pots, let my rouge pots
Bloom about me like night flowers, with a good smell.
They will roll me up in bandages, they will store my heart
Under my feet in a neat parcel.
I shall hardly know myself. It will be dark,
And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar.

As many do, I consider Sylvia Plath one of the greatest poets of our age — and no slouch as a fiction writer, either. In that respect, I'd love to have written any of her work. I wouldn't wish for her sad, disturbed life, which makes so many of her poems dark, but I think her genius outshines her subject matter. If anyone doesn't know the details of her story, you can read a summary in these biographical notes.

I remember someone, at the height of Plath's first posthumous fame, saying to me and another admirer (also a poet) that Plath would not be considered so great were it not for the drama of her life and death. We poets were adamant that, no, it was her use of language that made her great. Eventually the other woman stopped trying to persuade us; she coud see, at least, that we were convinced. I think now that she was confusing greatness and fame. Plath's fame may indeed owe something to her tragedy having captured public imagination. Her greatness seems to have been the product of natural talent and very hard work. She was a perfectionist in her poetry, very driven and very dedicated. Her Collected Poems, published after her death, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Even when dark, her poetry has great beauty. I think she had a wonderful ear, as revealed in such lovely lines as:

The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve.

My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

...  in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

... I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

(Transcribing them now, I notice her masterly use of internal rhymes.)

Though many of her other poems are more famous and even more startlingly original, Last Words is a favourite of mine. With the knowledge of hindsight concerning her suicidal tendencies, we might suppose it to be one of her confessional pieces; instead the speaker seems to be someone from an ancient culture. The bandages and stored heart suggest Egypt, but Ishtar was a Babylonian Goddess. Historical accuracy, though, is less important than the feeling of the poem. I like the sarcophagus with tigery stripes, and the comfort the speaker expects to derive from having her 'small things' around her in death.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, it does indeed reveal the poet herself. Don't all our poems inevitably reflect us in some way, even when we intend to create fictions? We know that she did want to be 'important', i.e. an important poet, and we know that she also had a domestic side which would have enjoyed the copper cooking pots and understood the niceties of preserving fruit.  In any case, she has imagined herself very well into the persona of this lady from the far past. I find myself identifying, even though I am a very different kind of person. That too is Plath's genius, I think — she makes you feel whatever she wants you to.

You can find more of her poems here (scroll down) and her books here. I don't think her books will be going out of print any time soon.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us Rosemary, Sylvia Plath is one of my favorite poets too.

  2. Rosemary, when I was young, her Bell Jar astounded me - all of her writing did and does still. Wildly talented, with the genius that means some brilliantly gifted folk are unstable,her life was sad and painful - but her gift - absolutely unparalleled. I'm still mad at her husband for making her so unhappy.

    1. Well, you're not alone there, but I think it's too simplistic to blame him entirely. And after her death, he atoned in the only way he could, a way which he knew mattered very much to her — he was the one who made sure her work (post-Colossus) reached the world.

  3. Rosemary, thanks for this wonderful posting. As Sherry says above, I too, was transfixed when I read Bell Jar. True talent.

    1. I came to The Bell Jar after discovering the poems, and I agree it is wonderful too — albeit horrific in parts. It's also very funny in parts; we tend to forget what a funny writer Plath could be, and that there was a lot of normality between the bouts of depression.

  4. Oh Rosemary. This is so powerful...way up there with great writing, amazing... but I'm kind of glad I didn't write this - at least not today. Life is so sweet in these days of recovery from an illness.

  5. I agree with you that Sylvia Plath was a great poet. I do wonder if she would have become so famous if it were not for her disturbed wasn't her suicide the event that really DREW a lot of attention to her work?

    I do agree also with something you said about poetry in general....that all of our poems reflect us in some ways, even if we are writing fictions. Sometimes I think the poet himself/herself recognizes this; and sometimes someone outside who knows the poet well can best see the 'reflection.'

    Excellent article and poem choice this week, Rosemary.

    1. I think her work could not have escaped attention and acclaim had she lived, but it would likely have been a somewhat slower process.

      Ha! Yes, I have had people find things in my poems that I didn't realise were there — and on examination I saw that they were indeed there to be found. Things well up from the subconscious, don't they?

  6. Ahhh - I could just scream when that happens ... a too soon post I mean ... not sure why it happens so often to me but probably careless with my fingers and hitting keys I ought not to .. in any case, wanted to say that I love these two ... Plath and Sexton and others of their ilk (Sara Teasdale, Edna St.Vincent Millay, to name two more) - all doomed it seems to brilliance and suicide. I even wrote a poem once about the "Fog at Dusk" being crowded with all the dead poets (and put myself amongst them) as Samuel Peralta commented, it was rather an ultimate conceit to imagine myself worthy of being amongst their number more by being a failed poetess and a suicide than by any talent and I realized as soon as I read his comment, how accurately he had me pegged ... still, it is a conundrum that continues to fascinate me and not confined to the distaff poets. Many male poets have been known to take this out as well ... such a waste. Thanks for sharing this poem and reminding us of this fine poet Rosemary.

    1. Though Millay died fairly young, at 58, it was not from suicide. It's not an inevitable correlation. Many other great poets live long and die in old age. It would be interesting to compare the percentage of suicides amongst brilliant poets with those among the general population — but I don't know how to get the figures. I agree that when it happens, it's a sad waste.

  7. Sylvia Plath is one of my favorites. I may never master rhyme and rhythm like she but I will forever be in awe of those skills.

    For me I love the way she tempers the dark allowing its edges to scrap without cutting the soul too deep.

    Cheers! thanks for the share Rosemary,

  8. You have revealed her lovingly in this tribute. Her poems and "The Bell Jar" walked me through my discovery of feminism back in the 1970s. This is a fine poem for "I Wish I'd Written This."

  9. I could not more agree with you, Rosemary, regarding Plath's greatness. Fame is not the issue. Brilliance and voice and the honed skills of a wordsmith elevated her amongst her peers. Thank you for sharing one of her works here today. Happy New Year!


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