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The Scariest Poem I Know


Below is a recent video interpretation of what I think of as the scariest poem I know: Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus." 

The reading here is Plath's own, although some pauses have been added to the original recording for purposes of this video.  The heavy breathing at the start is added, as well.  The recording was made for the BBC in October, 1962, shortly after the poem was completed and slightly more than three months before Plath's suicide by gas oven in February 1963.  

I first encountered the poem around 1972 or 1973, as a middle teenager with no direct experience of the sort of extreme psychological states that seem to have been the poet's daily bread and nightly butter.  The Holocaust references were always overplayed, and they seem more so with each passing year, but the poem is as much about sensationalizing the awful as anything else, and the blunt shock value of those images was perhaps greater in 1962, with the war less than twenty years past.  As a snapshot of pain, and of the calculated dramatization of pain, the poem remains shudderingly effective and the final stanza, ending with the indelible "I eat men like air", is misogyny bait of the finest quality.

 «Lady Lazarus», de Sylvia Plath from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

"The Applicant," which immediately precedes "Lady Lazarus" in the posthumous collection Ariel, has recently been given pride of place as the first poem, and the only poem of Plath's, in the Library of America American Poets Project collection of Poems from the Women's Movement. Although she was embraced by later feminists, if only in an oversimplified version casting her as a sainted victim of male cruelty and indifference, and although she wrote explicitly as a woman, Plath was never really "of" the women's movement, which only gained momentum and organization after her death.  It is just as well: if the Women's Movement collection proves anything, it is the old saw that nothing is better calculated than articulating a political agenda to make a strong poet turn out weak poems.  Had she lived, perhaps Sylvia Plath would have fallen prey to that trap.  Untethered to dogma and unhampered by any obligation to show solidarity with others in a cause, she was able to craft poisonous treats such as this.

 The Applicant - Sylvia Plath from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

John Berryman may have had the last line of "The Applicant" -- Will you marry it, marry it, marry it -- in mind when he wrote: "Them lady poets must not marry, pal."  Not that Berryman was the most reliable judge of these things.


Photo: "Dachau" by Flickr user RebeccaPollard, used under Creative Commons license.



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