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The best poems by Sylvia Plath
‘Lady Lazarus’. Lazarus is the man in the New Testament who is raised from the dead by Jesus. Plath gives the name a twist in this poem, one of Plath’s finest poems, by linking it to her numerous suicide attempts. ‘Lady Lazarus’ contains the famous line ‘dying is an art’, among many other haunting and memorable lines and images.
Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992)
‘Daddy’. One of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems, ‘Daddy’ controversially links the father in the poem to a Nazi officer, and references the Holocaust. Variously seen as a highly autobiographical ‘confessional’ poem and as an extremely loose fictionalised account of Plath’s own relationship to her father (an entomologist and bee-expert who died when Plath was just eight), ‘Daddy’ continues to generate much discussion amongst Plath’s readers and critics.
Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992)
‘You’re’. This poem makes far more sense when one realises that its title, ‘You’re’, also acts as the first word of each of the statements in the poem. The meaning of the poem also becomes clearer when we realise that ‘You’re’ is a poem about pregnancy and the unborn child Plath is carrying.
‘Morning Song’. Although we haven’t arranged this selection of Sylvia Plath’s best poems in any kind of chronological (much less preferential) order, it seems fitting to follow ‘You’re’, a poem about pregnancy, with ‘Morning Song’, a poem about a mother tending to her new-born child. ‘Morning Song’ is about a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby, and so doesn’t celebrate the beauty of the sunrise or an aesthetically pleasing landscape as seen at dawn, like some of the poems on this list. Instead, we have Plath’s speaker (based on Plath, herself a mother to a small child when she penned this poem) stumbling out of bed ‘cow-heavy and floral’ in her Victorian nightgown.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch. The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry Took its place among the elements. Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue. In a drafty museum, your nakedness Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls. I’m no more your mother Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow Effacement at the wind’s hand. All night your moth-breath Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen: A far sea moves in my ear. One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral In my Victorian nightgown. Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try Your handful of notes; The clear vowels rise like balloons.
‘Poppies in October’. Although this poem gives a nod to Plath’s own suicide attempts (the last of which, of course, tragically, was successful) in its reference to a woman in an ambulance whose heart is likened to the flowering poppies, it is, first and foremost, a poem in celebration of the bright red flowers.
Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly –
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky
Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.
Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frosts, in a dawn of cornflowers.
Sylvia Plath (27 October 1962)
‘Ariel’. One of Sylvia Plath’s most widely discussed poems, ‘Ariel’ describes an early morning horse-ride towards the sun, using imagery that is loaded with significance and suggestiveness. Published in October 1962, just four months before Plath committed suicide, ‘Ariel’ became the title poem in Plath’s posthumous 1965 volume, publication of which was overseen (controversially) by Plath’s widower, Ted Hughes. (We’ve picked some of Ted Hughes’s best poems here.)
‘Edge’. This poem, written just six days before Plath committed suicide in February 1963, was probably the last poem she ever wrote. Fittingly – and eerily – it’s about a dead woman, whose body has been ‘perfected’ in death (and, presumably, suicide).
‘Waking in Winter’. This may sound like a poem describing a natural scene, but in fact ‘Waking in Winter’ is about a nuclear winter. Written in 1960 and infused with Cold War and environmentalist elements, ‘Waking in Winter’ offers a bleak vision of a post-nuclear winter where the sky doesn’t just look like tin – the whole atmosphere tastes metallic, too. ‘Waking in Winter’ examines the bleakness of a winter created by man rather than nature – of ‘destructions, annihilations’.
Waking In Winter
Winter dawn is the color of metal,
The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.
All night I have dreamed of destruction, annihilations —-
An assembly-line of cut throats, and you and I
Inching off in the gray Chevrolet, drinking the green
Poison of stilled lawns, the little clapboard gravestones,
Noiseless, on rubber wheels, on the way to the sea resort.How the balconies echoed! How the sun lit up
The skulls, the unbuckled bones facing the view!
Space! Space! The bed linen was giving out entirely.
Cot legs melted in terrible attitudes, and the nurses —-
Each nurse patched her soul to a wound and disappeared.
The deathly guests had not been satisfied
With the rooms, or the smiles, or the beautiful rubber plants,
Or the sea, Hushing their peeled sense like Old Mother Morphia.
‘Crossing the Water’. The water being crossed in this poem is, first and foremost, the boundary between the United States and Canada – but the poem is also suffused with images of darkness and blackness which suggest that another boundary, between life and death, is also being summoned.
Crossing the Water
|Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.|
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.
Cold worlds shake from the oar.
Stars open among the lilies.
‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’. In this haunting poem, Plath uses the moon as a symbol for both her melancholy and for her mother, with the yew tree taking on the masculine role of her father. The poem was written in Devon, at a time when Plath was trying to write a poem every day – when she was struggling for inspiration one early morning, Hughes suggested Plath write about the view from their bedroom window, which overlooked a nearby churchyard. The moon could be seen above the yew tree in the churchyard and the rest is (literary) history.
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.