Anyone who tries to write has certain pieces of work or certain writers or artists they return to – touchstones that mean something to them and guide them or inspire them. For me my touchstones have changed constantly over the years. I have admired many images and pieces of writing. Something will always stand out as though it were written to me. At the moment it’s ‘Pheasant’ by Sylvia Plath.
I find this particular poem mesmeric in a way that much of Ariel can’t reach. The poem immediately commands attention from the first two lines – ‘You said you would kill it this morning/ Do not kill it. It startles me still’.
It seems impossible these days to read Sylvia Plath’s poetry and not wax biographical in some way and this poem, although it seems to be a nature poem or even an environmental poem on the surface, also seems to me to produce another lopsided view into that infamous marriage. ‘Pheasant’ could almost be read as though it were staged as one side of an argument between two lovers – an argument that has history and bite. The persona of the poem (could it be Plath herself!?) defends the rights of the pheasant and in doing so, defends her own view of the world.
‘I am not mystical: it isn’t
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.’
What emerges across the poem is a passionate defence of a particular way of being, and of a particular way of seeing the world. This point-of-view is expressed in a secular voice that apologises and qualifies as it proceeds, carrying an awareness that the argument it puts forward could easily be dismissed as ‘mystical’ or sentimental. It is a homespun philosophy that only asks that things and creatures should be ‘Let be,’ and there is this wonderful dissolve throughout, very common in nature poems, where it is hard to distinguish the division between subject and persona.
Just as ‘Tintern Abbey’ is as much about Wordsworth himself as it is about a place, ‘Pheasant’ seems deliberately poised as being about the process of formulating an argument as much as the actual stated subject of the argument (or poem). The pheasant itself is described as removed and untouchable – in sharing its garden the poet ‘(trespasses) stupidly’. This poem seems to gather power out of its awareness that it is celebrating something that might easily seem small and insignificant. This is always the last defence of every poet – that nothing is indefensible on these grounds. For, as the Frostian lines state, ‘It is something to own a pheasant,/Or even to be visited at all.’