Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Couriers by Sylvia Plath

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?
It is not mine. Do not accept it. 

Acetic acid in a sealed tin?
Do not accept it. It is not genuine.

A ring of gold with the sun in it?
Lies. Lies and a grief.

Frost on a leaf, the immaculate
Cauldron, talking and crackling

All to itself on the top of each
Of nine black Alps,

A disturbance in mirrors, 
The sea shattering it's grey one--

Love, love, my season.

 Sometimes poetry seems distant and mystical and totally incomprehensible to anyone without an English degree, but that is just not true. Anyone can learn to understand poetry. That’s why I want to start with this: The Couriers by Sylvia Plath. I read through this poem three times with a baffled expression. I knew that she was trying to say something but I was at a loss as to what it was.
This happens. Do not panic.
I’d like to show you how I read poems to prove that anyone can understand poetry.

Reading poetry is different from a novel or a comic. You have to spend time with a poem and get to know it a little before it gives up its secrets. I guess you could compare understanding a poem to meeting someone at a bar… and baseball. Understanding the poem is your home run. That’s the end goal, but we've got a few steps before we can get there.

You've decided to read a poem. Whether this is for a class or for your own pleasure, this is First Base. This is where we read the poem for the first time in its entirety. Don’t worry about things you don’t understand just yet, you are becoming familiar with the poem. You've seen the attractive person a few seats away from you and decided to make small talk. This is a big step! A lot of people never make it this far.

On the first read-through of The Couriers it’s difficult to understand much. This poem isn't very talkative. It answers your questions with one word replies and absolutely refuses to discuss the weather. With such obstacles in your way it would be easy to call it quits. That YA Fiction novel in the corner booth looks much more pleasant. But you’re no quitter. Undeterred by this poems curt behavior, you decide to keep trying because you know that underneath its tough outer shell there is depth and meaning and beauty.

The next step is to read for symbols. This is Second Base where you've established familiarity and broken the ice. Now it’s time to ask the hard hitting questions. Let’s see what this poem is really about.
If the meaning of a talking snail on a leaf is not immediately apparent to you, it wasn't to me either. A tin filled with acid was equally strange, so I searched through the poem for something that felt familiar to me. “A ring of gold with the sun in it” seemed like a good place to start. A gold ring usually stands for marriage or love, and the sun is bright and happy. The line is probably talking about a happy marriage or some kind of relationship. But the very next line reads, “Lies. Lies and a grief.”
This is the first taste we get of what the poem means. 

In my next post we'll talk about the other symbols in this poem and what they might mean. 

What do you think of this poem so far? Leave a comment is there's a symbol you'd like to talk about!

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