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Poem Of The Week - New Year On Dartmoor - Sylvia Plath
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Sunrise over Dartmoor - photo by Simon Wood
New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint's falsetto. Only you
Don't know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There's no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

So many turgid biographical lines have been expended on Sylvia Plath's personal life - her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes; the well-documented manic depression - that it is sometimes easy to overlook the 'left-field' freshness of her words. She was neither defined by Hughes, nor refracted through the earnest prism of his thinking: ploughing her own furrow, Plath cultivated a unique poetics which remains defiantly independent.

Also by Steve Whitaker...
Poem Of The Week: 'Heptonstall Graveyard' By Wendy Pratt
Sounds In Silence: On Poetry By Jonathan Davidson
Blowing The Whistle: 'A Machine They're Secretly Building' At Settle Stories Festival
Poem Of The Week: From Perduta Gente By Peter Reading
'...the world growing charnel': Patient X - The Case-Book Of Ryƫnosuke Akutagawa By David Peace
And if 'New Year on Dartmoor' - conceived over the winter of 1961-2 - was shaped by a combination of endogenous mood swings and the imminence of marital breakdown, then this poem, like most of Plath's work, is reactive. Which is not to suggest that the words are in any way derivative of Hughes: her bruised relationship with her husband, and with the interior workings of her own mind, are catalysts for a form of near-despair whose primary outlet is superlatively creative and original.

The couple had moved to North Tawton, on the northern edge of Dartmoor earlier in 1961, and there is some irony in a rural idyll becoming the setting for division, separation and a poetics of bleakness, embodied in the secondary irony of the meaning of 'New Year', which is savagely undermined in the poem.

Sylvia Plath
In a taut and intense economy of words, the poem deals a hammer blow to conventional perceptions of icy days in national parks; the renderings of depressive illness make of the landscape a tableau of incipient fear and anxiety, so that a conventional winter scene becomes 'tawdry', 'awful' and, crucially, 'inaccessible'. By a process of displacement, the scene is made immobile, even lethal.

In part addressed to an infant - probably Plath and Hughes' daughter, Frieda - the spatially reduced narrative is a prison of sharp frozen angles, as counter-intuitively fearful in its denial of sensory awareness, as it might, in an alternative field of vision, be childlike and seductive. The straitjacket of a blind, inert silence is in no way relieved by a hideous clinking 'falsetto' which is as unnerving a subversion of perception as one of Francis Bacon's muffled pictorial screams.

Plath's is a different way of seeing. Reading the inscription on her gravestone in the bleakness of a stone-weathered churchyard in Heptonstall village is to be reminded that words sometimes flourish and resonate in the most forbidding of circumstances:

'Even amidst fierce flames
the golden lotus can be planted'

Poem Of The Week - New Year On Dartmoor - Sylvia Plath, 28th December 2017, 15:02 PM