Plath, English, etc

I’m drowning in Plath right now — again — because I have to write a paper on her and I had forgotten how exhausting and entrancing she can be at the same time. It’s like a fix. You know too much is bad for you; it’s going to leave you fatigued with your head aching and a hollowness in the pit of your stomach. But you still want just one more. She’s one of those poets I tend to read obsessively so I avoid her a lot of the time because it would leave me with no time to read anyone else.

There’s a lot of talk about performance poetry these days and Plath was one of those who believed that her poetry was meant to be heard, not read. I find her own reading of her poems interesting because she has a quiet, controlled voice that contrasts with the furious energy of the words. Which is, of course, true of a lot of people with inner violence; they don’t necessarily reveal it in tone or manner.

In related thoughts, I saw Keats Was A Tuber by Poile Sengupta (also mil, but that’s beside the point) the other day. The central concern of the play is language, specifically English — how it informs our consciousness (or doesn’t) and how it’s hard for a colonised people to voice their sensibilities in an alien language. Reminds me of what Sabine Ulibarri said: “Language is people. We cannot conceive of a people without a language, or a language without a people. The two are one and the same. To know one is to know the other.”

This is especially true for writers and poets. A friend and fellow writer once told me that he tends to think of alpine forests while writing of forests, even though he has lived here all his life, surrounded by tropical foliage and never actually seen an alpine forest. I catch myself writing poems with images borrowed from books or movies and have to guard against it. The danger of a borrowed reality is that after a point, it feels like it’s your own. There’s always this tricky line to be carefully trod between writing in an alien language and reflecting an alien sensibility.

The other problem is that one’s experiences sometimes refuse to fit into the framework provided by one’s education or reading. For example, while I find resonance for rage and madness in Plath and loneliness in Eliot, Dickinson’s brand of sap leaves me cold. Before I read Tamil Sangam poetry and Akka Mahadevi, I believed that I hated love poetry. Then I realised I just hadn’t been reading the right kind.

Which makes me sad that I’m not better with languages and can’t actually read poetry written in Bengali or Tamil or Kannada. But this is an angst that has been wept dry and the challenge remains to shape our tongues around this language which we have made our own — even while knowing that we can never really claim ownership of it. Or can we?


Filed under Poetry

3 responses to “Plath, English, etc

  1. I agree that Plath is better heard than read, but I tend to gain more comfort from Dickenson than I do from Plath. In my opinion Plath just stops short of being lyrical.

  2. I’m not sure that we don’t have ownership of the language we write/speak/think in if that’s the one we choose to express ourselves in. Who’s to say who has ownership and who doesn’t? In my opinion, I’m as much a native speaker of the English tongue as a child who grew up speaking only English. I may be multilingual, but my primary language is English and I’d be mighty lost if it were disallowed to me as alien. Much thrilled about the M-I-L-. 😉

  3. Kali

    You have a brilliant mind. I would urge you to learn to read Bengali, Tamil, Kannada. You can do it – without disclosing my line of work, I can tell you I know people who have learned to read an Indian language even in middleage. Assuming you are Bengali – start with Bengali. Then you will bring so much more to your English readership also. I mean this well – I am amazed at your abilities as demonstrated in this blog.

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