Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Vacationing With Sylvia Plath by Kelli Russell Agodon

Hi everyone! This month’s poem is by Kelli Russell Agodon, from her collection Small Knots.

Read it once, twice, three times. Read it aloud. Watch your breath. Try to pace yourself so your reading flows like the sea.

Make note of your impressions, the thoughts inspired by the poem. If you feel so motivated, read a little Plath, then come back to the poem.

Whatever your thoughts are, be sure to come back and leave them in the comments section. Then, Tuesday, June 16, stop back and check out our writing prompt based on the poem.


PS: We still have a collaborative sestina that needs some tender loving poem-ing! Check it out and give us some poetry love!


Vacationing With Sylvia Plath

Maybe I should have come alone.

Maybe if the clouds didn’t resemble
tombstones and I had brought something
more upbeat to read
the ocean wouldn’t seem so final—
an ongoing thought carried to shore
then taken away,
washing the same green sock
over and over again.

Maybe if I was taking medication
or at least St. John’s Wort,
maybe if I had a chocolate bar
to eat between breakdowns
the seagull’s cry would be more of a sigh
and the waves wouldn’t seem so blue.

Maybe a lot of things. Maybe
if I could slip into Sylvia’s mind,
sort out the spices in her spice rack,
alphabetize them and dust them off.
Maybe then I’d understand how
it’s the little things that pull you under.

from Small Knots (Cherry Grove Collections, 2004)


Kimberlee said...

I really love the idea of organizing the spices... that was a wonderful image/metaphor and a great detail that made me smile in spite of the overall feeling. :)

Linda Jacobs said...

Another great selection, Jill! Thanks!

I have an affinity for the ocean so this poem really speaks to me. It generally makes me feel better, though, and doesn't pull me under.

But other things do so I can empathize with the speaker.

Yes! The spice rack image is amazing and really stands out, but I also love the tombstone clouds and the green sock, and the St. Johm's Wort.

Anonymous said...

my first impression of this is how a mood (or some other impetus) can color a whole experience. so much of our lives is what we bring to it.

so often when we greet things, we are already so filled to the brim with what came before it or what we're worried about or preconceptions that we don't have any room to be open to something and take it for what it is.

so my initial response to this is purely emotional and sentimental. i "get" it right away, and i empathize immediately with the narrator.

i'll comment again after i've considered some of the other elements!

Anonymous said...

oh -- and one more gut-response before i attempt a more technical, scholarly response:

i adore how the narrator allows the moment to happen, reports it to us as it is, no apologies, no corrections, no mitigations. sometimes, we feel this way. and it just must be.

Jill said...

I’m not sure if it’s being a woman or being a poet or both, but this poem seems to me to capture such a universal emotion, the “constant maybe” that trails us, even on vacation.

The narrator’s repeated mantra, “maybe…” mirrors the ocean’s constant moving in and out, not to mention the constant roar: for the narrator the sadness and melancholy, for the ocean, it’s mighty noise.

So clever to put that first line all alone! It immediately draws the reader in. Reading the poem (over and over) puts you in a sort of trance, kind of like sitting on the beach, watching the “same green sock” wash in and out again.

I can’t decide if it’s the repetition or the concrete images or the truth of that last line that give this poem it’s power…

Donald Harbour said...

The writer questions self and judgment as well as emotional stability. I am not a person given to depression although I have been around others who are. The word images painted are classic of manic depressive. The comment "between breakdowns" caught my attention as central to the theme.

There is a struggle with death and identity with objects, real and natural, that would bring forth joy in most persons. However, in this poem every action, every perception drags on the moment pulling thought to the gloomy side of perception.

"Taking medication or at least St. John’s Wort", "washing the same green sock over and over again", "clouds didn’t resemble tombstones", this person has a giant case of depression.

The last statement, "little things that pull you under", counseling is in order or a prescription for Prozac.

I loved the tonal quality of the poem. I also found it a brief walk down the path of a moody, confused, and grieving mind.

rob kistner said...

Being someone who has lived his adult life prone to bouts of deep depression, who befriends Wellbutrin twice daily - this poem is surprisingly unfamiliar, even a bit off-putting. Looking closer, I realized that was the poem's response to all things ocean.

But reading further, I connected somewhat with the author's blue mood and found that familiar - but not genuinely engaging.

Like Linda, I am drawn to the ocean. It is, for me, positive, engaging, and uplifting. When I find myself sliding into one of my deep blue pools, I drive 90 minutes to the west of my home, and spend a day, sometimes more, on an ocean cliff, being soothed and renewed by the magic of the Pacific Ocean - and by the power and majesty of the Oregon Coast.

The net impact of this poem for me, because of my fundamental inability to relate with the author's attempt to use ocean images to represent depression, was not as unsettling as it may have been for others - so I didn't really feel an emotional tug.

Reading it became for me, more of an emotionally removed examination of the use of imagery. From that perspective, it was interesting, but not a poem that greatly inspired.

Now Sylvia's work can stir very dark, very haunting feelings in me. Her work can certainly spark me to uncomfortable recall and contemplation - and therefore to a place where the inspiration to pen dark and brooding poetry comes vividly to life.

Sylvia is depression. Kelli felt simply curious about depression.

Jill said...

Dear readers, I think we are getting away from the goal here at poem--which is constructive discourse of poetic style and technique. While we have few rules, please note it is not acceptable to offer commentary on the poet. Remember, the poet is the writer. The narrator is the voice driving the poem.

christine said...

First up, thanks to Kelli Agodon for sharing her poem with us.

I find the image of the ocean in this poem intriguing. It's the end of the world, an infinite thought, reminding the speaker of how the thoughts are infinite, that there are thoughts that keep coming back, like the waves.

And then there's the connection between the speaker and Sylvia Plath. I understand this connection to be a desire to enter Plath's mind, to sort it out, a kind of compassion the speaker has for another's suffering.

Deb said...

Yes, thanks Kelli!

I have taken this poem with me on the bus the last few days & it took a while for me to find my rhythm with it. And I like that!

The first line is great, and I read it a couple of ways. Maybe the narrator shouldn't have brought SP along to the beach, maybe the narrator should have not brought other living people.

As to "eating between breakdowns," I took it in a similar vein. It could have been between SP's breakdowns, it could have been between the narrator's.

I appreciate a poet who can give me the a reader lots of space to make up my own mind. It lets me get in the scene, too, and find ways I would want to take SP along, and ways I wouldn't. Yet the vagueness and maybe's are tempered by concrete green socks and spice rack. I felt myself rolling like a wave, in and out.

The only phrase that left me unsettled was the last two lines, because I felt as the narrator did know how it is the little things, that it is precisely the little things, like green socks, that pulls humans under. But then again, if she'd said it straight out, it wouldn't have been as evocative.

Anonymous said...

jill's right: we must never assume the narrator is the poet. i write in first person most of the time but some of it is fictionalized.

(and on a non-poetic note: it's dangerous territory to say our own suffering is of a different variety than someone else's. whether we say ours is more serious or we say our own isn't as important, it's really unproductive. dangerous territory, too, to try to diagnose the narrator/poet with anything! and to suggest medicating one or both of them?! Ah!)

so let's stick with the poetry! poetry is dangerous territory enough, is it not?


jill, i love what you said about the "constant maybe." that hit it on the head for me. we are, as writers and people, often encased by doubt/second-guessing and it can be unnerving. this piece captures that for me.

the title is where this piece begins (sometimes we forget that when we read). if taken literally, the narrator is on vacation with sylvia plath, and immediately (the first line) she questions if it was a good idea. her vacation buddy is clearly influencing her experience of the landscape.


one thing that struck me about the discussion so far is the ocean -- how readers sets of experiences with the ocean guided their experience of the poem. it sounds simple enough, but it's really quite complicated. i love considering the question of can we get outside our own experiences? and should we?

equally interesting is the question of whether readers are open to the symbols and metaphors poets/narrators' use when they diverge from our own experiences. certainly if anything is broad enough to encompass many different moods and ideas, it's the ocean.

so i liked how this discussion and the poem made me think about that.


taken in the literal sense, we could wonder if the narrator is trying to find a way to understand her vacation buddy: "if i could slip into sylvia's mind." maybe the narrator can't, maybe it's hard for her to understand, too, how clouds can be tombstones. it's another angle. another way in.

Jill said...

This is a great, great point, Carolee: "the title is where this piece begins (sometimes we forget that when we read). if taken literally, the narrator is on vacation with sylvia plath, and immediately (the first line) she questions if it was a good idea. her vacation buddy is clearly influencing her experience of the landscape."

As we suggested in the intro, I think it is a good idea to re-visit Plath after reading this poem, and perhaps onsider how she would influence our own vacations (or poems)!

if said...

I think she is talking to herself..and she is alone

Dave said...

This is a powerful poem. More than anything else, to me, it's about the experience of reading, which can be as perilous as any relationship. At least the narrator took Plath to the beach, and not Alfonsina Storni!

Jill said...

Dave, thanks for the link to a poet I have never heard of! I am going to do some research...she sounds fascinating!

Michelle said...

I like Kelli's poem very much and agree with Christine that "a kind of compassion the speaker has for another's suffering" comes through here.