Emily Van Duyne on Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel”

May 9, 2011

On the 32 Poems Facebook page, many of us discussed our favorite poems. Emily Van Duyne took me on my offer (challenge?) to write about a favorite poem.

“Ariel”— Microessay

“Ariel” is a poem steeped in silence and movement, by which I don’t mean the literal horse ride it’s famously about, but rather, the way Plath speeds the language up, and slows it down to stretch out time. This has something to do with a camera—“Ariel” is a poem that occupies a lot of space in my brain, a poem I can walk into if I want, or look at like a film. When I do this, when I look at it, it’s like a camera is zooming in & panning out, turning seconds into minutes, minutes into days.

Or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe rather than stretching out time, Plath somehow manages to capture eternity, which is outside of time, which is timeless. This is also about silence— there is something wildly synesthetic about “Ariel,” the whole experience melded into one big thing that you can’t unpack—so silence and time and sight and flight are all the same. The poem begins, “Stasis in darkness.”, and there it is: Timelessness, silence, suspension, stasis, the whispery triple S telling us everything we need to know about a vast, packed emptiness, a time before action, when the action is somehow already known, but not yet done. The time before a poem is written, but just as it’s engendered. and then that period, that full stop, that line break— I can hear the silence of it. It sounds like a thunderclap; gunshot before a race.

Then, of course, we’re off: “split furrows,” “blood mouthfuls,” “shadows;” Plath tells us early that this strange landscape is “substanceless,” a word she essentially coined. This is a place where the only constant is change—in thirty-one lines, we go from total stasis to flight, from pure kinesis to annihilation, a place where whatever we touch, we fuse to—and now I see I’ve lapsed unintentionally to the plural pronoun, something I think Plath intended, cheeky, bitchy genius that she was—“Ariel” is one hell of a wild ride, a poem where the speaker and the reader are just as connected as the speaker and her horse, the speaker and her force.

One hell of a wild ride, yes, but totally, perfectly controlled. If you can find a poem as flawlessly executed, without one word out of place, I’d like to see it. Levis once spoke of Plath’s genius as, “an instrument of some kind,” an “otherness” she could pick up at will. To me, it’s as though she wears her otherness like a dress, a total fusion where words are dimensional, where she, where we, for a timeless minute, can be anything we desire.

BIO: Emily Van Duyne is a poet and mom, living in Texas. Her poems have recently appeared in Diagram, Anon, Solstice, and Naugatuck River Review.

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