According to trusted sources, when I was three years old, an unlikely character trait began to emerge from my nascent little being. As an old family friend was gushing her goodbyes, she bent down to me, pinched my cheek, and cooed, "And where does your Daddy keep his sugar?" She smiled and let out a giggle. After a brief silence, I cocked my head and replied, "In the cupboard, of course."
Being a fairly literal minded child, I probably did not impress anyone as having creative potential with words. Despite the fact that my known genealogy is populated primarily with preachers, teachers, and judges, all prerequisites, I believe, for being a poet, I seemed to show no early proclivity for any of these vocations, including poet. Eventually, however, my DNA asserted itself, and I produced a poem at seven years old.
My first exposure to poetry I'm sure occurred in my crib as my mother sang to me everything from "Dixie" to "Old McDonald." The Methodist church played no small role influencing my love of song - hymns, psalms, Reverend Joiner's animated and rhythmic sermons - as did my father's RCA turntable spinning Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and Patsy Cline. But maybe more importantly, my mother's library was a constant source of mystery, tempting my curiosity from the time I could crawl. I don't know if it was because it was on one of the three shelves I could reach, but when I was seven or eight years old, I one day randomly selected Plath's Ariel to read. At school, I had learned what a poem was, so the words on the pages of Ariel formed familiar shapes: Lines of words placed into groups, divided by white space, in a column or square. But this is where my understanding stopped. Expecting an eight year old to make sense of Plath is, well, perhaps someone's idea of torture, but I returned to Ariel more than any other book in my mother's collection even though the content was alien. I occasionally scanned other books, especially the medical pathology texts that contained hundreds of photos of people with vicious skin diseases and limb deformities, but Ariel was a constant.
It was 1969, and Ariel had been in publication for four years. The cover of the volume my mother owned was white with the title in large black and white block letters. "Poems by Sylvia Plath" appeared in purple, and a blurb from the collection's forward by Robert Lowell filled the lower fourth of the page. Nothing exciting. No dramatic images, no bold colors to capture a child's attention. Precocious as I was, I had no clue what these poems meant. I wanted to understand. The longer I tried to tease meaning out of the words, the more frustrated I became. But I always returned to the book.
I wrote my second poem when I was twenty-two. Plath had not been in my head since high school when rock and roll was the reason for my existence. Because I wanted to avoid taking required courses in college, I registered for a creative writing class, Introduction to Writing Poetry. For ten weeks of the semester, every student's poems had been workshopped but mine. My teacher told me that my poems made no sense, that they were filled with vague language and lacked focus. I didn't understand. They made sense to me. I wanted to write the mystery of existence just as Plath had written. I looked back over the packets of workshop poems from the semester and noticed that one thing they all had in common was narrative. So, the next poem I wrote was a story, broken up into groups of lines in a column. It was the hit of the workshop. My teacher said it was a tour de force. To me, though, it wasn't a poem.
When I realized I might have some facility with language, I went back to Plath. As a solely intuitive writer and an unknowingly literal minded young adult, I still had trouble grounding myself in Plath's poems, but my craving for Ariel was still alive. Ariel was poetry: Mysterious, volatile, sensual, intelligent lyric. What I was responding to was the life in those poems. Even the quiet poems of Ariel convey energy. In "Sheep in Fog," the speaker projects herself onto the surrounding landscape, considering its ability to shape her identity. The poem is built on concrete images with just enough ambiguity to create mystery:
Sheep in Fog
The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.
The train leaves a line of breath.
Horse the color of rust,
Hooves, dolorous bells --
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,
A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
As a child, I must have responded in part to the visual and auditory images in the poem: hills, stars, a train, rust, hooves, bells, a flower, bones, fields, dark water. But the idea of the poem no doubt penetrated my literal mindedness. I experienced the speaker's sadness. In the first two stanzas, the speaker is abandoned while in the third stanza, the bells -- church bells, perhaps -- aurally echo the absence created in the visual i ages of the preceding stanzas. There are curiosities of the poem that still intrigue me. For instance, most obviously, the sheep of the poem's title do not appear in the poem. Is the speaker like a sheep in fog, unable to successfully navigate the field because her vision is impaired by fog? Is she vulnerable like a sheep in fog would be to predators? We don't hear about these obstacles necessarily in the poem. Moreover, in stanza five, I wonder if the pronoun reference "They" is the fields or a combination of the people, stars, all of the concrete images that precede the vague agent at the end of the poem. Who or what "threatens" to subject the speaker " to a heaven / Starless and fatherless" ? Interestingly, the heaven that possibly awaits the speaker is void of the very losses that she has incurred on earth, void of what she expects to find in the afterlife.
In her essay "The Flexible Lyric," poet Ellen Bryant Voigt writes that tone makes the meaning of a poem, that if a poem puzzles us but speaks to us, the poem is worth going back to. This is exactly what took me thirty years to understand. In reading "Sheep in Fog," the authenticity of the speaker's experience and self asserts itself through tone, and a sensitive reader can't help but hear this. But what stood in my way of fully appreciating the craft of the poem was my expectation of a moral or lesson at poem's end, and of a a logical process to that lesson. Life certainly and most unfortunately does not work this way. Looking back at "Sheep in Fog," I am still impressed by Plath's use of imagery, but having grown as a reader, I think I can now articulate more fully how the poem communicates its tender sadness. The tone of the poem resides in its images and perhaps more importantly in its music, including pace, which is controlled in part by the heavily end-stopped lines, five tercet stanzas, and six sentences (some comma spliced) over the course of just 15 lines. There is no galloping Ariel here. Repetition in "morning," and "starLESS, fatherLESS" in addition to the recurring use of the long vowel "o" also contribute to the slow movement of the poem. And so, Plath through pace, sound, and image creates a stillness and inevitability that is moving and authentic. The poem is not meant to evoke pity from the reader but rather an emptiness, and to create emptiness, there must be life to begin with.