When I read about Waterstones’ The Book That Made Me there was really only one choice: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath, edited with an Introduction by Ted Hughes.
I can remember my first encounter with a Plath poem with microscopic clarity. Upstairs in a sixth form classroom, summer 1992. Mr Rattue was nearing the end of our term-long journey through English Literature from Chaucer to the present day when we were presented with “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Reading those poems was like an electric shock. I had never read anything like them before. The fury and fire in those lines blazed off the page and scorched themselves into my mind. I was dazzled by a poet who was an absolute mistress of her craft, channelling her personal trauma with almost clinical precision without sacrificing one iota of the emotional content. At an all-boys school, this fiery-haired, powerful and terrifying female voice mesmerised and enchanted me. After the lesson, I remember asking for more, and Mr Rattue lending me a copy of Ariel from the English office. I was hooked.
I read more and more Plath, seizing on The Bell Jar next. I was bewitched by the imagery, the detachment of the narrator, the autobiography of it. I held on to Ariel, reading and re-reading the collection. I typed out “The Moon and the Yew Tree” on my Nan’s typewriter and kept in my wallet for years afterwards. I remember reading its steady, dead rhythms to calm myself before my university interviews.
The Collected Poems came later, in a week of milestones. After many great productions, I was awarded the Service to Drama prize for my work on lighting the school plays. This was the first time the prize had gone to a backstage performer rather than an actor that anyone could remember; I was incredibly proud to win it then, and it remains one of my proudest achievements. All school prizes were given as book tokens; we had to buy one to be awarded at the ceremony. There was no question what I would choose. I remember the frustration of waiting the week from handing the book in to school, to being awarded it on Tuesday 15th December 1992. Wednesday to Saturday I was behind the lighting desk for Twelfth Night, our school play that year and the last one I was involved with. And on the Saturday afternoon I got my acceptance letter from Oxford.
I took the Collected Poems with me, writing about Plath’s poetry in my first year for Craig Raine and receiving the best comment I have ever had about any of my work. I returned to Plath for my finals, working with Tim Kendall towards my extended essay where I drew comparisons with Emily Dickinson. I taught The Bell Jar on my PGCE and again in my NQT year, and came back to it and Ariel again as Head of English. I used a quotation from “Nick and the Candlestick” as the title of my first blog. Whenever I return to it, even to write this post, the experience is as gripping, chilling and breathtaking as it was in 1992.
The Collected Poems is the book that made me because it is tied up so tightly with landmark experiences of my young adult life. The voice of the poems speaks so clearly, so personally, with such craft and skill, such poignancy and power, that I measure everything else I read against it – but nothing comes close.