National Poetry Month: Sylvia and Melanie Weigh In

Hi there everyone,

April’s almost at an end, but it’s not too late for Sylvia and intern Melanie to tip their hats to their favorite poems!

Sylvia:

My favorite poem is “Stings” by Sylvia Plath, out of her Ariel collection.

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I

Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enameled it

Thinking “Sweetness, sweetness.”
Brood cells gray as the fossils of shells
Terrify me, they seem so old.
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?

If there is, she is old,
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plush–
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column

Of winged, unmiraculous women,
Honey-drudgers.
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.

And seen my strangeness evaporate,
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only scurry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?

It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening, in spring, like an industrious virgin

To scour the creaming crests
As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea.
A third person is watching.
He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.
Now he is gone

In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.
Here is his slipper, here is another,
And here the square of white linen
He wore instead of a hat.
He was sweet,

The sweat of his efforts a rain
Tugging the world to fruit.
The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?

Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her—
The mausoleum, the wax house.

What don’t I love about this poem? In all seriousness, it’s difficult to talk about “Stings,” and Sylvia Plath’s writing in general, without just losing control of my faculties completely and turning into a blubbering mess on the floor.

Plath is spare and impassioned in turns, and the choices she makes with her words somehow manage to feel both deliberate and off-the-cuff in this really emotionally affecting way. For example, “To scour the creaming crests / As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea” brings my attention to the alliteration, the slant rhyme, and the incorporation of all those luminous, white-tinted words like moon and creaming and ivory—everything is very controlled and lovely—and “Where has she been / With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?” feels more visceral and alive, (her lion-red body) and also delicate and vulnerable (wings of glass), coupled with a starkly presented question to the reader (where has she been) that demands you ask this of yourself, as well.

Thematically, this poem covers a lot of ground. There’s the push and pull between autonomy and domesticity/traditional gender roles, jealousy, suicide ideation, love, grief, sex, hope, betrayal, femininity, freedom, and so much more. The extended apiology metaphor has so many layers that I can’t always see all of them at once; I’ll read through the poem and the flowers and honey-gathering will pop out as a symbol of the sweetness of domestic life, and another time all I’ll be able to focus on is the image of the bees as women tearing themselves to jealous pieces over a man, and yet another time the queen is the part of the soul that withers and dies when we compromise parts of ourselves for any number of the many obligations and promises and debts that life throws at us and that we don’t always know how to handle.

Most of all, this poem gives me an incredibly intense feeling of being both trapped and free at the same time. It makes me want to crawl under a rock and never come out and also burst apart and become a million stars rocketing through the sky. I’ll never be over this poem.

Melanie:

I have a lot of favorite poems—which probably defeats the point of having a favorite at all. Like Sylvia, Plath has always resonated with me. One of my favorite books is The Bell Jar. After I read it, I began sifting through Plath’s poems. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” caught my attention. It’s not about a romanticized or idealized love, but rather one full of longing. Recently, I learned that’s a common thread throughout many of the poems I enjoy—a level of honesty. The world can be ugly and gritty, and moments that frequently touch our hearts are small and simple. They’re intimate—that’s the poetry I read.

When I first moved to Portland, I got involved with a literary nonprofit called Late Night Library. They frequently host readings downtown, and I attended one featuring Marcus Jackson. He lives in Nashville and has been published in the The New Yorker, but I hadn’t read any of his poems prior to the event. Hearing him read was a great experience. Every member of the audience reacted to his poems in some way. The people that filled his lines were real, everyday individuals. They were your wife, your father, the regulars in the bar down the street. You felt their presence. Later on, I read every poem of his I could find (online, because I didn’t own his book yet), and I fell in love with “Kiss”:

Saving money the summer
before moving to New York,
I painted houses during days,
nights in a restaurant kitchen
hosing dishes, loading them
into a steel washer that gusted
steam until two a.m.
Once, when I came home,
my back and neck bidding for bed,
asleep on the couch laid dad.
Flicker from muted TV
was the room’s lone light,
but I could see his face fine,
broad nose, thick cheeks
holding glow as he breathed.
In five hours I would wake,
ride in the crew truck
to the assigned site,
gallon buckets and stepladders
chattering over road bumps,
axels clanging
like prongs of a struck fork.
Still, I stood and stared
at dad, a man
who poured four years
into the Navy during war,
who worked worse
jobs for shorter pay than me,
whose hands have blackened
fixing cars that quit
no matter how many replaced parts.
Above our house, clouds
polished moon as they passed.
Dad wriggled,
body pain or threatening dreams.
What else could I do
but bend down slow
and touch once
my lips to his brown brow?

When I spoke to Jackson after the reading, he told me that in his own poetry he tries to describe one scene—one moment—in the most honest yet beautiful way that he can. I think he achieves that. The problem with poetry (for most people) is that they can’t relate to it. They feel that they have to be holding the poem in one hand and a thesaurus in the other simply to understand it. But Jackson is writing to his father. To the man that works long hours for little pay. He manages to make the mundane poetic.

What’s you’re favorite poem? Why? It’s not too late to share!

–Sylvia and Melanie

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