Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Couriers Part Two

Last week we took our first look at The Couriers by Sylvia Plath. We learned the first two Bases of Poetry (Base One: The Cold Read and Base Two: Looking for Symbols and Structure) and started to look at the symbols Plath used in this poem. 
Today I want to go over the rest of the symbols to make sure that we understand them and then move on to Base Three: Reading for Understanding. 

Here is the poem again for reference. 

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.

Last time we looked for symbols that were familiar to us. The "ring of gold" is pretty easy to recognize as a symbol of love or matrimony, and the following line "Lies. Lies and a grief" gives us an idea of what Plath thinks of love in this poem.

Another tool we can use to help ourselves understand poetry is the structure that the poet uses. This poem is split into two stanzas, or parts. Each stanza is made up of three couplets. We can use these as clues. If the third couplet in the first stanza is talking about marriage, then the first two must be similarly about love.
The words of a snail might be talking about promises. Plath councils us not to accept them.
The acid in a tin is something the we should not accept. The image of acid is a pretty strong one to invoke for no reason. If it's sealed in a tin it means that we cannot see what is inside without opening it. She is suspicious of the gift, and maybe of all gifts in general, believing them to be traps.
In the third couplet I love that she says "Lies. Lies and a grief." as though she is talking about one grief in particular. "Lies and a grief" like it is a grief that she knows well, a specific grief caused by the promises and gifts she mentioned before.

The first stanza is all about how she feels about love. It suggests that promises, gifts, and matrimony can only lead to suffering. So what is the second stanza about?

"Frost on a leaf," Wait a minute, the first couplet in the first stanza mentioned a leaf too. The second stanza is mirroring the first. But this time instead of a snail on a leaf, there is frost. The imagery has gone from something sunny and promising to winter.
With such a contrast already in the first line it is asking you to keep the first stanza in mind as you read on.

Honestly, I found the second stanza to be as confusing as the first. If you're feeling that way, don't worry! All we need to do is look at our Bases.
First we'll look for symbols we can understand. The first couplet in the second stanza reads, "Frost on a leaf, the immaculate/ Cauldron, talking and crackling." Now, I don't know what an immaculate cauldron is, but frost talking and crackling is something that I do understand. Cracking ice makes a distinct sound that I can remember and instantly call to mind. The ice is talking here just like the snail was in the beginning. If the snail was meant to symbolize promises or words, then maybe the frost is too. Icy words are very different from the promises in the first couplet.
But what about "the immaculate cauldron?"

Immaculate is a word that my mother taught me. It meant "What your bedroom better be before you go outside and play with your friends." A Cauldron isn't something that we use very often these days, but we've lived through enough Halloweens to have a pretty good idea of what they look like. A Cauldron was a bot that you hung over the fire to boil water and cook soups. An immaculate cauldron would be one that was very, very clean. A clean cauldron is empty and wouldn't be left over a burning fire, the same way you wouldn't leave an empty pot on a hot stove.
We already decided that this couplet was talking about cold words and an immaculate cauldron would be empty and cold.

This is what I mean when I say that you have to spend time with a poem. The imagery isn't meant to be confusing or mystifying. The symbols that poets choose are there to help you personally relate to the emotions that they are trying to convey.

If Plath had wrote this poem instead this way:

All promises are lies
Don't believe them.

All gifts are deceitful
Don't take them. 

Love is suffering and empty words.

Her poetry would never have withstood the test of time. While it might have been easier to understand, all of the meaning and all of the connection we have to this poem is lost. While using a cauldron to convey emptiness may seem a little obscure, once you understand it's place in the poem you can almost feel the cold metal. The image of an empty cauldron alone in a dark room carries emotion with it.
But the most brilliant thing is the subjectivity of it. Words belong to those who read them. These symbols belong to you. They mean something different to you than they will to me, or to Sylvia Plath, or to your English teacher, and that is why poetry is so great.

Poetry comes alive for us. The same poem will live a thousand different lives in a thousand different ways.

Next week we'll really hit Base Three and finish the poem.

What do you think of this poem so far? Leave a comment if you have any idea about the end of this poem and what it means to you!

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