- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

ARIEL: THE RESTORED EDITION

By Sylvia Plath

Harper Collins, $24.95, 211 Pages.

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

Although the publication of “Ariel: The Restored Edition,” which includes a “Facsimile of the manuscript for Ariel and other poems” and “Facsimile drafts of the poem ‘Ariel,’” is unlikely to affect her reputation, it is an opportunity to read the original version of an important volume of poems.

No longer must we flip pages in “The Collected Poems” to read the manuscript by following the “Notes” supplied by Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband at the time of her suicide, and the father of their daughter Frieda Hughes. We can now read the poems, paying close attention to their arrangement, the way Plath, at that time, intended.

First, some background on what often became a savage international attack on Ted Hughes for what was considered his betrayal of Plath and of the poems she left behind. Frieda Hughes tells us that her “mother left a black spring binder on her desk, containing a manuscript of forty poems,” and that “she wrote an additional nineteen poems before her death. These poems were left on her desk with the manuscript.”

Ted Hughes, while getting “Ariel and Other Poems” prepared for publication in the United Kingdom and, a year later, in America, removed from the manuscript 13 poems for the British volume and 12 poems for the American edition. Hughes then replaced those poems with 10 poems and 12 poems respectively. His daughter notes that her father picked the substitutions “from the nineteen very late poems.” With me so far?

In his “Introductions” to “The Collected Poems”, Ted Hughes acknowledges that the “Ariel and Other Poems” published after Plath’s death “omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems” from the manuscript. He goes on to say that the way he put his edition together was “my eventual compromise between publishing a large bulk of her work…and introducing her late work more cautiously. (Several advisers had felt that the violent contradictory feelings expressed in those pieces might prove hard for the reading public to take?).”

It is difficult to imagine that Hughes was prepared for the uproar and indignation he caused. Many critics, especially feminists, despised what they thought was his responsibility for Plath’s suicide, and saw his handling of her manuscript as a violation of what was becoming a sacred text written by a martyr to their cause. Ted Hughes, a better poet than his wife, remains under the gun even after his death.

Frieda Hughes, to her credit, does not avoid the controversy. She recognizes that her “father had faced a dilemma. He was well aware of the extreme ferocity with which some of my mother’s poems dismembered those close to her.” She also knows that her mother “has been dissected, analyzed, reinterpreted, fictionalized, and in some cases completely fabricated.” Naturally, Ms. Hughes would like to see her mother’s work considered on its own merit, not just as footnotes to her life, and, more so, her death.

The Plath Industry, cult-like in its single-mindedness, rolls on and on, fueled by a poet’s lonely death. If Plath’s poems can only be read with her life and suicide in mind, so be it. Obviously, her suicide colors everything she wrote, and affects how she is read. She was a good, hard-working poet, a fact supported by the drafts of the poem “Ariel” where we can see a skilled, driven, mature poet going about the making of a poem. As she wrote in “Kindness”, “The blood jet is poetry,/ There is no stopping it”.

Any one who would claim that the manuscript is the definitive version of “Ariel and Other Poems” knows little about the publishing business. It is highly unlikely that the manuscript would have ever reached publication in the same shape as when submitted. Editors have been known to fiddle with poems and their arrangement, often suggesting rewritings or removal of this or that poem. It is good that Plath’s editor was a professional poet if only because Hughes knew or felt that some poems in the manuscript would not work to make a strong book. The edition he published is a much better volume of poems than the restored manuscript version.

Plath, according to her husband and daughter, pointed out that her manuscript began with “Love” (“Morning Song”) and ended with “Spring” (“Wintering”). Ms. Hughes states that the manuscript’s arrangement “was clearly geared to cover the ground from just before the breakup of the marriage to the resolution of a new life, with all the agonies and furies in between.”

She must be a very optimistic daughter since the poems are dark, vengeful and violent with very little to convince they are moving to a rebirth. That the poems succeed as well as most do is amazing, and although it is difficult to select one to call major, still they are good poems because Plath, ever the craftsperson, was able to control and manipulate the experiences that engendered them.

The “Ariel and Other Poems” that Ted Hughes edited ends with “Words”. Here are its concluding lines:

Words dry and riderless,

The indefatigable hoof-taps.

While

From the bottom of the pool,

fixed stars

Govern a life.

Although this poem is fatalistic, it is still a better poem than “Wintering”, which concludes the manuscript. Ted Hughes probably sensed this, and was able to publish a solidly arranged volume that is the creative basis of Plath’s reputation.

The Plath poems that will be best remembered include “Daddy”, with its famous last line: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”; “Lady Lazarus”, with its searing ending: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my read hair/ And I eat men like air”, and, say, “Cut”, with its startling opening:

What a thrill

My thumb instead of an

onion.

The top part quite gone

Except for a sort of a hinge

Of skin,

A flap like a hat,

Dead white.

Then that red plush.

Is any one of these a major poem? Did she write a major poem? It is up to you, reader. On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath ran out of time and found a way to stop “The blood jet” of poetry. As she wrote in “Edge”, “The woman is perfected./ Her dead white/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” The poems in this restored edition of “Ariel and Other Poems” celebrate her many accomplishments.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Pottsville, Pa.

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