I discovered Sylvia Plath in a linguistics class my first semester at URI, where I learned to parse sentences and convert words from letters into sound symbols. Professor Arakelian was Armenian and wore a tie and sports coat to class everyday. He entered the room promptly, stood at the front of the room, removed from his leather bag a pile of papers, and began teaching immediately. I always sat at the back of the class and observed his teaching routine. He was strict, straight-forward, and had total command of his classroom, and I remember how there was no such thing as bullshit with him. Tried we might, but he wasn’t having any of it. He caught us one time in the middle of a group project we had designed about language with respect to children’s literature and our group had been using the word “tenet” over and over again, because we had seen the word in the reading our presentation was about, but none of us had bothered to look up what the word meant. Each of us threw the word into our prepared sections of the presentation, repeatedly, until he raised his hand and asked us, “What does ‘tenet’ mean?” And none of us had any idea. He had caught us in a sloppy academic moment and I’ll never forget it. It means “principle,” and I’ll never forget what that means, either.
He didn’t create the warmest classroom—-how could he with a subject that ripped apart beautiful prose and poetry into individual sounds and symbols with such strict guidelines that, for the first time in my life, showed me there were indeed Right and Wrong answers in English—-but I adored him. He was brusk at times, though always professional. He stood out from the other flowery, breezy, eccentric English professors by maintaining a rigidity, a properness that I always thought I’d find in an English teacher at a boys’ private Catholic school in the 1950s, had I been a boy at a private Catholic school in the 1950s. I adored him, though, and he remains for me a model teacher for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he opened my eyes to poetry in a way that finally made sense to me, and made me love Sylvia Plath.
We had to deconstruct one of her Ariel poems—“Tulips,” I think it was—and find patterns of sound throughout the whole of it. Until that point, I’d come to understand a poem as a foolish splattering of words on the page. All my teachers had ever asked about poetry was, “What is poetry?” And no matter what we said in response, we were right, which I guess was one of the things I liked best about English. The braver students in middle school and high school classes would suggest that poems had to have some kind of figurative language hidden in the lines, that there needed to be a metaphor or a couple of similes thrown in. To make the poem “mean” something. Until Arakelian’s class, this was my understanding of poetry and I cared about it about as much as I cared for the obligatory glass of milk at dinner time every night for the first eighteen years of my life.
Upon first glance at Plath’s “Tulips,” I regarded it as nothing more than words on a page that probably meant something more than what I was willing to put effort into understanding and after I read the first line (“The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here”) my eyes glazed over the rest and I must have yawned. The only thing that interested me about the poem was that it was written by a woman who had a dark life, and frankly I could have done without reading her work if only they’d hurry up and make a movie about her. (“They” eventually did; it was “Sylvia,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and it was okay only.)
But when Arakelian made us—-forced us—-to rip apart the stanzas, to rip apart each line, to dissect the words into sounds, syllables, pattern-making stuff, I gasped at the results. A poem didn’t have to have a metaphor, or rhyme, or have any of that other junk they make us learn in high school. A poem is actually the most amazing thing: looking at a poem in the way Arakelian made us look at “Tulips” was like looking into a microscope in Biology class at living cells. There were SO. MANY. THINGS. to see! So many patterns of sound! So many connections between words and parts of words and sounds missing and sounds said only once! And the poet KNEW all this? How to put sounds together in the most precise way as to tell a story using as few words as possible—-all the exact right words? I suddenly looked at poets in a whole new, albeit scientific, light. And because it was a Plath poem that was the very first to open my eyes, I loved her instantly.
I read more of her work than any other poet’s, even Shakespeare’s (though he became a quick rival for my love) and taught more of her work to high school students than I did any other poet’s. It should not be surprising that I brought my class of seniors, while I was student teaching in Providence, to the movies to watch “Sylvia,” and we were the most unexpected group in the theater.
But in all the years of my love affair with Sylvia, I had never read The Bell Jar. I have no real reason for not reading it, other than I think that books come along in our lives at just the right time and when we finally choose to pick up those books, it means the right time has come. In May my aunt gave me The Bell Jar and just last night at bedtime I cracked its spine. Friends, I am nearly finished with it. And it is magical.
Today I am wrapped up in words and sounds and poetry and prose. I am hunkered down over a cup of coffee, or curled up in bed with Otis at my side sleeping happily away on his back while outside the thunder rumbles and the rain encloses me in my perfect little home. Life is so, so good.