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A visit to the West Riding

A few days ago I had the great pleasure of giving a poetry reading in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

It is about nine years since I first read a poem in public- one commissioned by my friend Pete for the naming ceremony of his twins.  I don’t think I was entirely audible on that occasion, and like to think that experience gleaned in the intervening years has improved my listener’s experience.

Although any public performance invariably involves a quickening of the pulse, I  feel I have relaxed into reading my work, and can now share my poems as I would wish- confidently, clearly, at the right pace, and unimpaired by the shaking hand, racing heart and dry mouth that can beset the novice (and sometimes) the more experienced reader.

Winston Plowes, who runs the Poetry Shindig, is an excellent host, and the audience were attentive and wonderfully appreciative. There were certain other vital elements in place including a very good microphone and a little reading light on a bendy stalk-  in short everything one could wish for. All this and a chance to meet up with poetry mates Keith Hutson and John Foggin, the latter the subject of my last post.

Arriving earlier in the day  I had time to walk to Heptonstall along
the steepening path that leads up the side of the valley.

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It was raining and quite dark under the trees. At one point I passed a birch that had pushed down the high grit-stone wall, its roots refusing to be contained.

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I’m sure you will know that  Ted Hughes lived in the neighbouring village of Mytholmroyd until his family moved to Mexbrough when he was seven, and that Sylvia Plath is buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall.

Hughes wrote vividly about his Mytholmroyd years in the fascinating anthology ‘Worlds: Seven Modern Poets (Penguin, 1974), Edited by Geoffory Summerfield,

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and Hughes ‘Birthday Letters’ (Faber, 1998) contains the poem ‘Stubbing Wharfe’ in which he describes, in less than flattering terms the pub in Hebden Bridge where he and Sylvia sat in ‘the gummy dark bar’ one winter night in the late nineteen fifties.  As John Foggin confirmed later that evening in the comfort of Nelsons Bar, Hebden Bridge was a far darker place back then.
In Hughes poem ‘The black humped bridge and its cobbles’ are ‘sweating black, under lamps of drizzling yellow’, and despite his obvious dislike and discomfort at being back inside the ‘shut-in/ Sodden dreariness of the whole valley’ he attempts to convince both Sylvia (and perhaps himself) that they might make a home here

‘ ‘These side-valleys,’ I whispered.
‘Are full of the most fantastic houses,
Elizabethan, marvellous, little kingdoms,
Going for next to nothing.’

Heptonstall

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Heptonstall has two churches. The earlier abandoned and ruined one is shown here.

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I wondered around the churchyard and found Sylvia Plath’s grave.
On that day, maybe because of the inclement weather,  there was no-one else there, and the grave, like most of those surrounding, was tidy and without anything unusual to distinguish it. I have heard that the name ‘Hughes’ has been removed several times over the years by those who vilified the poet in the aftermath of Plath’s suicide (although this has not happened for a long while,) and that people will often leave tokens on the grave. I was glad I was alone and pleased to see that the grave bore nothing more than some well placed small plants and a single healthy pink rose, beaded with rain.

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Some thoughts on ‘Ariel’

It is fifty years since Sylvia Plath killed herself. She was thirty-one.
The tragic details of her death scene are well-known; the mugs of milk she left out for her two small children, the manuscript on her table entitled “Ariel and Other Poems.”

I had only been familiar with a couple of Plath’s more famous poems prior to buying ‘Ariel’ in a second-hand shop two years ago. I remember the feeling of shock and discovery when first reading Ariel. That feeling has never really left me.

Cold and warm pressure fronts meet in these poems to create complex and unpredictable weather. Familiar detail associated with domestic life and parenthood is spliced with the mythic and visceral.

Comfort and joy are quickly disrupted by the awareness that life is shot through with pain. Even the wonderful and joyful opening celebration in ‘Morning Song’ is accompanied by violence

Love set you ticking like a fat gold watch
The Midwife slapped your foot soles.

Later there is the delicate beauty in ‘All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses’. But it is the ‘flatness’ of the roses that evokes coldness and solitude as the tensed mother wakes to listen for her child’s breathing.
Summoned by a cry she stumbles from bed,
‘cow-heavy and floral/In my Victorian nightgown.’

Here is a difficult and very real situation, the absurdity and compassion evoked  by the symbolic presence of flowers, the discomfort of ‘cow heavy’ alongside ‘Victorian’ which seems to encapsulate notions of duty, of designated roles carried out unquestioningly. Plath is working with a very complex set of symbols.

This is from Ariel.

And now
I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Any parent will recognize the cry that ‘melts in the wall’. The transcendent and breathtaking beauty of ‘I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas’ immediately precedes this cry. An interruption of a state of mind has taken place, from suspension and stasis to a state of urgency, a call for action.

After the cry we have ‘And I/ Am the arrow’. An arrow is deadly, heedless and unstoppable. The feeling is of being inside the consciousness of the new mother. The child is calling for her and immediately her focus is altered. An internal world is interrupted, the childs demands simultaneously  affirming, joyful and constricting. And there is that word, Suicidal. It is as if in the inexorable call to life is also a call to death.

This is from ‘Nick and the Candlestick’

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

The juxtaposition of the joy of beholding a sleeping child and ‘The pain’ is striking.
We get a sense in many of these poems of a life animated by children, their happiness, their demands, their balloons.

It is astonishing how elements of tenderness and celebration run concurrently and entwine with violent and visceral language. This unsettling combination is both beautiful and horrifying in that it allows an insight into the turbulence at the heart of Plath’s life.