Thursday 25 June 2009

Hughes, Plath and that Eureka Moment

I don't think that there can be a female poet in America and the UK that hasn't been influenced, at least a little, by the work of Sylvia Plath. When I first read Ariel seventeen odd years ago I have to confess that I didn't much like it. I found her work audacious and arrogant - I suppose I judged it how many people did at the time it came out. I was affronted by the ugliness of her imagery and her seemingly casual comparisons between her own life and that of Jews in the concentration camps.

Coming back to Plath all these years later I find that I am reading her with new eyes and a much more open mind. It might be because I am older and have had more life experience. It might be because I now a mother. It might simply be that I am much better read than I was and I know a lot more about poetry. Now I find her work refreshing and inspiring. Her imagery is arresting and surprising and her sense of alienation is something I can both relate to and that I aspire to in my own work.

Ted Hughes is an altogether different kettle of fish. I first looked at Hughes work through the eyes and words of Crow in the first year of my degree course. At that time I didn't like his work at all. I found Crow to be heavy and overly masculine in both its imagery and language. I found it clunky and ugly and far beyond anything that I could relate to.

Three years later and with a lot more poetry and critical reading under my belt I find that I have somehow found my way back to Hughes. The first sparks of interest were ignited when i read the poem Do not pick up the Telephone, which was recommended to me by a tutor who saw some similarities in a poem that I had written. Next I came across the poem Wolfwatching on the Internet and I was hooked. I liked it so much that I immediately bought the book on ebay. This led me, in a round about way, back to Crow. I had been writing some semi-mythical poetry myself based on the idea of the trickster and I though that as part of my research and support work I would re-visit Crow - so back on ebay I went and bought a copy. This time I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it and found myself wondering why I had been so closed-minded to it before.

I think that doing the BA has really opened my mind. I thought before I started that I was open to abstract and unusual imagery, but I realise now that my open-mindedness was more limited than I imagined. I had to move beyond my comfort zone and broaden and deepen my reading. I am reading poetry now that I found difficult and sometimes inaccessible when I started the course. I can only liken it to the way my taste in art developed. When I was a teenager I was attracted to the romance and bright images of the Pre-Raphaelites - I didn't really like or 'get' most abstract art. It was as if I had to move through appreciating several different art movements before abstract became the movement that I liked and related to - a kind of visual evolution.

With poetry I had to go through a similar evolutionary process. As a child I moved from nursery rhymes to nonsense rhymes and limericks, then onto humorous and epic tales and as a teenager I found myself in love with poems like Tennyson's The Lady of Shallot and Noyes's The Highwayman. These were I suppose the poetic equivalents to the Pre-Raphaelites and a little akin to the romantic novel. I still retain a fondness for them now and because of their rhyme schemes and rhythm they are particularly good poems for both memorizing and reading aloud. Next I moved on to readily accessible poems: love poems, Auden, Betjeman. And later those whose economy of words and simple but beautiful images I found arresting like Lorca and Neruda.

Since I started the BA I have read and read and read. I have been like a child let loose in a candy store. I have tasted a little of everything and found that there are some sweets that i come back to again and again. Some of it took a little while for me to warm to or to 'get' and sometimes in the first year I found it to be overwhelming or felt inadequate for not getting it. But I am so glad that I have persevered and I sometimes wonder if some of my peers who gave up poetry as being "too difficult" would have also had a eureka moment like I did if they stuck at it. The joy of suddenly connecting with something, to have evolved to the point where Simic, Popa, Hughes etc make perfect sense to you is amazing. I want to roll over and over in it like a dog in shit, rejoicing in the simple beauty, concrete detail and elements of surprise that they deliver time after time.