by Sheila Connolly
The lovely poem that Edith cited here not long ago reminded me of another poem which seems particularly appropriate for writers. It’s a villanelle by Sylvia Plath, called “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” It’s always stuck in my mind because of one of the recurring lines (as in Edith’s poem), “(I think I made you up inside my head.”) Yes, the parentheses are part of the line as Plath wrote it.
In case you’re wondering, a villanelle is: a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. (Never heard of a tercet. For us simple folk it’s three lines together.) It’s clearer when you see it on a page than in the definition.
In college my daughter, who had never been much of a reader in high school, somehow morphed into an English major, combining contemporary literature and Old English literature, a double major that no one had ever attempted. She became involved in the campus poetry organization, which hosted visiting poets (she met Seamus Heaney once, and on another occasion my husband and I attended an event where Gary Snyder spoke and marveled at the red velvet cake that my daughter had made for the event—apparently he’d never seen one before.)
Sylvia Plath attended the same college as my daughter, so she still has a presence there. She occupies an interesting place in contemporary writing. I read The Bell Jar just after college myself (and I still have that copy, a 7th printing from 1972), my daughter a generation later (the same copy, I think). Together we made a pilgrimage to the Massachusetts house which Plath immortalized when she tried to kill herself under the porch (as described in The Bell Jar; yes, we found it, and it’s not far from the similarly bland suburban house where poet Anne Sexton did manage to commit suicide in the garage. Apparently the combination of poetry and Massachusetts can be toxic, although Heaney survived at Harvard for a while.). Plath’s life was brief and dramatic, and that colors this poem.
The other recurring line in Plath’s villanelle is “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.” (No parens this time.) To me the two lines, alternating, say a lot about how we as writers think: We make up worlds in our heads. When we shut our eyes, we see those imaginary worlds, not the real one we live in. If we’re lucky and/or skilled, we can set those worlds on a page and makes others see them too.
Plath’s real world proved to be too much for her. Is it depression when a writer can no longer tell where the line between imagination and reality lies? Or when the internal images become more frightening than the reality, or conversely, not enough to offset the grimmer reality?
Maybe that’s why we write cozies. We can create imaginary worlds where there is little violence, plenty of nice, helpful, kind and supportive people, and always a happy ending. Is this fantasy? Of course it is. But it makes people happy. And what’s wrong with that?
Are there any lines from a book or a poem that you’ve never been able to forget?
And now for a bit of self-promotion: my latest book, Defending the Dead, the third in the Relatively Dead series. My protagonist Abby Kimball, who sees through the eyes of her ancestors, decides to take on the witchcraft trials in Salem. That’s a subject I had always wanted to find time to explore myself–and I think a lot of people have failed to understand it. You may find some surprises.