Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Bees | Poetry | Wintering

It is difficult not to use ‘bees’ and ‘poetry’ in the same sentence without thinking of Sylvia Plath. Under interview she suggested that it was Ted Hughes that forced her to embrace her fixation upon the image of her father’s beekeeping.

Fear not, I do not intend to give you a cod-Freudian interrogation of ‘Ariel’… there is enough of that swarming around out there to satisfy any apiculturist readers of poetry.

I would simply like to share with you my favorite Plath poem, Wintering.

All poets have their individual strengths, and for me, Plath’s is her ability as a generator of images. Images that hold you and appall you and unsettle you and fill us with familiarity and disgust. Delving into Plath’s later poetry often feels like throwing an Easter egg against a wall to see it explode with maggots.

Of all the knock-you-off-your-feet imagery Plath has melded into her poems, there is an image, an idea, in ‘Wintering’ that has stuck with me with hypnotic clarity since the first time I read it, around 4 years ago.

This is the time of hanging on for the bees - - the bees

So slow I hardly know them,

Filing like soldiers

To the syrup tin

To make up for the honey I’ve taken.

Tate and Lyle keeps them going,

The refined snow.

Part of the reason this image stuck with me so clearly is Plath’s use of ‘Tate and Lyle’… an exceptionally rare use of an ephemeral brand name in a body of work which otherwise strives for an otherworldly, timeless quality. It feels like an interjection from the modern-world amidst an ancient ritual – a police siren wailing over Claire de Lune perhaps.

But it’s the idea behind the image that bares so much fruit in this poem. When I first read this poem I was sat in a library full of underslept academics gazing into the gaudy glow of their laptops. They were flicking frantically through all manner of text-books and literary theory, trying desperately to manufacture that artifice of originality in the over-farmed soils of literary theory.

Whilst doing this, they were doubtless keeping a weather-eye on an instant-messaging window, sifting through electronic versions of literary journals, hunting down publication dates with which to cite that sting-in-the-tail quotation they have been saving for their essay conclusions.

I was doing the same.

And I got to thinking about the most important ideas of all humankind coming from sitting under a tree, or getting into a bath, or Paul McCartney writing ‘Yesterday’ whilst making himself some scrambled eggs.

The human as bee, then. When was the last time we experienced honey? For how long has the Tate and Lyle kept us going? What do I have to do to experience the real thing?

Plath knew more than most of her time, how we medicate ourselves to maintain the equilibriums we aspire to, be it with aspirin or cigarettes, antibiotics or cocaine. In Wintering we have that horrifying idea of the human ability to spread this dependence indefinitely – by turning a swarm of bees into her basement into syrup junkies.

I hope that you enjoy her poem as much as I do.

Wintering by Sylvia Plath

This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.

I have whirled the midwife's extractor,

I have my honey,

Six jars of it,

Six cat's eyes in the wine cellar,

Wintering in a dark without window

At the heart of the house

Next to the last tenant's rancid jam

and the bottles of empty glitters ----

Sir So-and-so's gin.

This is the room I have never been in

This is the room I could never breathe in.

The black bunched in there like a bat,

No light

But the torch and its faint

Chinese yellow on appalling objects ----

Black asininity. Decay.


It is they who own me.

Neither cruel nor indifferent,

Only ignorant.

This is the time of hanging on for the bees--the bees

So slow I hardly know them,

Filing like soldiers

To the syrup tin

To make up for the honey I've taken.

Tate and Lyle keeps them going,

The refined snow.

It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.

They take it. The cold sets in.

Now they ball in a mass,


Mind against all that white.

The smile of the snow is white.

It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,

Into which, on warm days,

They can only carry their dead.

The bees are all women,

Maids and the long royal lady.

They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.

Winter is for women ----

The woman, still at her knitting,

At the cradle of Spanis walnut,

Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas

Succeed in banking their fires

To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.


Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

No comments:

Post a Comment