Plath Goes Camping – In Canada!
Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (1981)
This Faber edition of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems is edited by Ted Hughes (I don’t know if you can see that from the picture); his notes on the year 1959 confirm, with a little more detail, what we learned from Wikipedia on the subject of Plath visiting Ontario in 1959:
Setting off in July [of 1959], she [Plath] and TH [Hughes] drove around the United States, from Canada to San Francisco to New Orleans and back, camping on the way – a journey of about nine weeks. In September they accepted an invitation to Yaddo, the artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. (288)
It’s hard not to notice the odd construction of the first sentence, which makes it sound as if Canada is another part of the U.S., on a par with San Francisco and New Orleans. By virtue of his being English, I tend to expect Hughes to have a little more awareness of Canada as distinct from the U.S. than Americans would (we’re the ones who didn’t revolt, remember? The good children who bowed their heads obediently beneath the colonial yoke?), but clearly that is a misapprehension on my part.
Knowing Plath had been in Canada in 1959 sent me scouring through her Collected Poems in search of a reference to our great land. I started looking in the poems written in 1959, and was disappointed, but I had better luck in the section of the book covering 1960; it took her some time to write about us, apparently. I’m going to quote the poem in its entirety, as it seems almost like a portrait of Canada as seen by an American:
Two Campers in Cloud Country
(Rock Lake, Canada)
In this country there is neither measure nor balance
To redress the dominance of rocks and woods,
The passage, say, of these man-shaming clouds.
No gesture of yours or mine could catch their attention,
No word make them carry water or fire the kindling
Like local trolls in the spell of a superior being.
Well, one wearies of the Public Gardens: one wants a vacation
Where trees and clouds and animals pay no notice;
Away from the labeled elms, the tame tea-roses.
It took three days of driving north to find a cloud
The polite skies over Boston couldn’t possibly accommodate.
Here on the last frontier of the big, brash spirit
The horizons are too far off to be chummy as uncles;
The colors assert themselves with a sort of vengeance.
Each day concludes in a huge splurge of vermilions
And night arrives in one gigantic step.
It’s comfortable, for a change, to mean so little.
These rocks offer no purchase to herbage or people:
They are conceiving a dynasty of perfect cold.
In a month we’ll wonder what plates and forks are for.
I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here.
The Pilgrims and Indians might never have happened.
Planets pulse in the lake like bright amoebas;
The pines blot our voices up in their latest sighs.
Around our tent the old simplicities sough
Sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in.
We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn. (144-5; dated July 1960)
Quite a beautiful poem, and obviously there’s a lot more there than can be dealt with in one little blog post. But we’ll pick up a couple of key ideas, which fall fairly neatly into patterns we must be coming to expect by now.
First, Canada is wild. This idea begins in the combination of the title and subtitle, where camping (a wilderness activity) is directly associated with being in Canada. The first three words, “In this country,” make clear that the speaker is describing a different, unfamiliar place; not home, but a new, strange land that is unfolding before her.
The first two stanzas expand the wilderness idea – the dominance of the rocks, the sense that the landscape can’t be tamed by human power – and the third cements Canada’s status as wilderness by contrasting it with the “Public Gardens” where people have imposed order on nature. Plath herself seems bored of so much civilization; the Canadian wilderness offers a welcome relief from the order of civilization.
Second, Canada is big. This idea is developed in stanzas 4, 5 and 6: the clouds that are too big for Boston’s “polite skies,” leading up to the gorgeous image of the sunset as “a huge splurge of vermilions.” I love that: Canada is a country so rich in natural beauty that we can be spendthrift with it, splashing it carelessly across the skies evening after evening.
(Incidentally, the sunset imagery reminds me of the song “Canadian Sunset.” And the line about night arriving “in one gigantic step” recalls to my mind the fact that John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps” album was recorded in 1959.)
The size and rugged wildness of Canada lead into the fascinating final section of the poem, where it seems the country has the power to actually de-civilize the campers with its “old simplicities,” making them “wonder what plates and forks are for” and finishing with the image of them waking “blank-brained,” all traces of the people they were and the civilizing culture they had absorbed erased by Canada’s massive, encroaching emptiness.
I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or not, but it’s certainly an image of a country with a strange kind of power. And yet it doesn’t seem threatening; at least to me, the overwhelming sense of the poem is a kind of relaxing into forgetfulness, a willing escape from the quotidian reality of the more “civilized” United States.
There is another, brief reference to Canada in a poem a couple of years later. I was only going to quote the relevant stanza, but it seems cruel to chop up a poem, so here’s the whole thing:
Crossing the Water
Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.
A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.
Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;
Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls. (190; dated 4 April 1962)
Obviously a much darker and more brooding poem, suggestive of a couple in crisis; there is none of the warmth of confronting the wilderness together that seemed to radiate from “Two Campers”. The entire poem is only 12 lines long, but the word “black” (or a form of it) occurs five times, plus the word “dark” once for good (or bad?) measure.
Canada here represents an area of vast size; the idea that the shadow of these trees could cover it adds to the sense of towering menace conjured by this small poem.
For a slightly disjunctive experience, here is Hughes reading the poem:
Odd to hear it in his voice. Perhaps there’s a recording of Plath reading it out there, but I couldn’t find it.