Friday, 8 July 2011

Poppies in July

'You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hand among the flames. Nothing burns.
And it exhausts me to watch you

Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.'

Sylvia Plath wrote two mature poems on the theme of poppies, both dating from 1962 and bearing in their title the month of their composition. Both appeared in the posthumously published Ariel although it is not certain that would have been her intention, had she lived to assemble the final manuscript herself. But they surely belong together, disconcerting twins born a few months apart but progeny of the same stock.

Like most of her late poems Poppies in July (quoted above) and Poppies in October are written in free verse. The language is sparse and urgent, pruned of the superfluous words that filled and sometimes flawed her earlier style. They share an imagery too, of skirts, mouths, blood and noxious vapours; the flowers represent splashes of vibrant, pumping life addressed by a protagonist who is pale and listless and passive by comparison.

Poppies are startling flowers, often gaudily sumptuous in a landscape of muted shades. Seeing them scattered red and black among fields of summer wheat and barley it is easy to understand why they were favourites of the impressionist and pointillist painters. The flowers in Claude Monet's Poppies, Near Argenteuil (1873) almost seem to flicker in the way Plath describes them.

Their association with euphoria and painlessness ('your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule, Dulling and stilling.') and the sinister payback of dependency, decline and death were not lost on Plath either. 'There are fumes that I cannot reach. Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?' she asks in July, while the allusion to carbon monoxide in October is, of course, agonisingly prescient.

Sylvia Plath had a genius for taking everyday things, especially things to which we more usually ascribe benign romantic associations  - candles, mirrors, the moon, flowers and so on - and injecting them with new significances, subverting them into things charged and edgy and dangerous. I can gasp at poppies, but I can never quite look at them without recalling these poems, Sylvia Plath's 'little hell flames.'


  1. Sylvia's poetry affects me deeply. It disturbs my learned, pretty imagery of everyday things. It frees my imagination. Takes me beyond safe, beyond benign, beyond moderate. Thank you for taking me there through your blog!
    Your pictures are beautiful.

  2. I am pleased you like the pictures and thank you for dropping by in dysnomia... you are most welcome. I agree entirely about Sylvia Plath's poetry. She confronts subjects and objects head-on, raw and stripped of their films of protection, like being condemned to see everything with X-ray vision. Sometimes I wince at her seeming inability or unwillingness to save herself from herself. Reading her work makes for an exhilarating and unnerving ride but we know at what personal cost it was achieved.

  3. It is very difficult to veer off an obsessive course. Her compulsive, obsessive genius frees her and at the same time imprisons her in her verse, her life, her mind.. Is the price ever worth it? I wonder...

  4. I am reading Letters Home with an introduction by Sylvia's mother and your blog brought her poetry to life so perfectly. And her genius way with words. Keep on painting images with words and pictures. Lovely :-))

  5. I remember reading some of the letters as a teenager and being struck by how little they revealed of the Sylvia Plath I expected to see. The letters are, of course, carefully selected by her mother. But my disappointment probably says more about my expectations at that time of my life. I should read them again with an older, shrewder eye. I hope you enjoy them Madzia.

  6. I echo your feelings about the need to re-read the same book at different time of life. I have done it with some books which I have also read in translation. Sometime, albeit not very often, it is akin to reading a different book.. But really, it is just different us. I wonder what you'd think if you do read these letters again. Perhaps you will write about it in the future? I hope you do! :-)