The story: In 1961, Plath and her then-husband Ted Hughes had moved to a house in the Devon countryside. A new, deeper, wilder voice was beginning to emerge in her poems that would go into her posthumous collection Ariel. Across the way from their house was the ancient Anglican church of St. Peter’s, with its 13th-century tower and an adjoining graveyard. A very old place—and not far from it were the ruins of an pre-historic hill-fort. Fertile loam for two poets whose best work emerged from their dirt. One morning in October, when a full moon was setting just behind the yew tree in the graveyard, Hughes assigned Plath the job of writing a verse “exercise” about the scene. “The Moon and the Yew Tree” is the result. If you haven’t read the poem (linked above) you might want to wait until after you’ve tried your hand at writing a poem with its salt.
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I first heard “The Moon In the Yew Tree” nearly 40 years ago when I took my first college class in American poetry. Hefty yet keen as an axe-blade, that poem split wide the deep vaults of the English language for me, a place I immediately fell in love with. Marvell called it “the dazzling dark.” I heard it again reading places in Shakespeare (think of the Weird Sisters), in Melville’s Moby Dick—and, ironically, much later, in Ted Hughes’ poems. The roots of poetry are very old, and there are sounds in poetry that are spooked with these reaches. Dark and resonant, soaked in the waters of the dead. They aren’t words to be taken lightly. Plath was peerless in her fearless embrace of them; perhaps too much so. Plath committed suicide in February 1963 during one the coldest winters to hit northern England in a century.
|Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes|
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Anyway, the deep lyric resonance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree” attended some of my most awful moments in my early, suicidal 20s. Yet as I now re-read her collected poems, I savor witnessing some of the most jaw-dropping encounters with the language. To me it seems there was a Savage Editor at work in her inner ear, cutting away everything but the deadliest essentials. Hughes once said that Plath was like a war-bird in her thesaurus, circling words with heavy ink, mining the burningest ones to set into her revisions. That saying that that which doesn’t kill us will set us free may be truest here. As the moon now nears fullness, I wonder if we can spoon the following 15 words from the still-simmering cauldron of Plath’s “The Moon and The Yew Tree.” Maybe there's fresh inspiration even after a perfection. Happy writing! -- Brendan
Pick at least 5 of the following words to use in a poem of your own design and link to it below.