The Poem You Can’t Forget

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.)

My original copy
My original copy

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.

Defending the Dead

Available in e-format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iBookstore.

13 Thoughts

  1. I look forward to reading Defending the Dead. The topic is near and dear.

    I remember Prof. Heaney well. I loved him. From his Villanelle for an Anniversary—

    Night passage of a migratory bird.
    Wingflap. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
    A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

    Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
    By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
    The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

    1. I wish I’d met him. My daughter had a Heaney story, though. He visited her college, and she was helping out at the social event. She happened to overhear him ask her professor, “who is that lovely girl?” And she wrote happily to me, “I’ve been objectified by a Poet Laureate!” (Can you guess it was a women’s college?)

  2. You nailed it for me when you talked about “the reason we write cozies”! I love your Irish series, as my mother’s family is from Cork and Kerry. The dialogue brings back so many memories of relatives’ conversations. We’ve a connection, as well, to Salem (Burroughs), so Defending the Dead just hopped onto my TBR pile! Keep those wonderful cozies coming! 🙂 –kate

  3. “Whose woods these are I think I know” by Robert Frost. We walk in a suburban woods every day so that lines often plays through my head. I love your explanation of why we read cozies too. It’s something that often puzzles me as the reality of an actual murder and the cozy version are so different.

    1. That’s one of the few I can actually quote, Sherry. In high school I read the entire Collected Works–I was always mad for New England. I gather he was kind of a cranky man in real life, but many of his poems are so simple and direct.

  4. I really can’t think of a line from a poem I can’t forget. I rarely read poems, Even in school we seemed to focus on novels.

  5. I have most often replayed in my mind Portia’s poetic “Quality of Mercy” speech, when I need to give or receive the benefit of the doubt.

  6. Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future/and time future contained in time past. TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

    I’m fascinated by the past and how it affects the present and future in my character’s lives and in the plots of my books.

  7. Sorry I’ve been slow in responding. I’m still in Bethesda after Malice and will be on the road for a few days more. I am happy to report that more than one panelist quoted poetry, so it’s not lost. Who was it who said that poetry is the best words in the best order?

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful & inspiring blog. There are many lines from Wallace Stevens that stay with me. The beginning of The Planet On The Table is one.
    “Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
    They were of a remembered time
    Or of something seen that he liked. “

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