We do it every year. So once more unto the breach, dear readers, once more.
Here we are, entering the homestretch, mere days before we round the corner into 2022, a time to choose “the best of” — in this case, the best book of the year.
But wait! Is it possible to pick the best book of the year, perhaps the one you enjoyed most? No, it really is not. And it is not because “enjoyment” is not the point when it comes to reading a serious work in which an author had invested his or her intellectual repertoire of consciousness, that is, his or her passion and malaise, joy and grief, anxiety and repose. And, trust me on this one, all that goes into the writing of a serious work.
It is possible, however, to anoint a book our favourite of the year because we “loved” it, because in our engagement (and that is the word I prefer here) with it the work changed not only the way we see the world but the way we feel it.
Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
The one book then that I have, heh, hopelessly fallen in love with this year (a year, incidentally, about which “the best thing” was that it was not 2020) is Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark, a biography that probes not only the poetry but the soul of a legendary poet.
In America, where poetry is considered essentially a trivial pursuit, poets are hardly ever elevated to the status of legends, like, say, movie, sports, rock and media stars are. Sylvia Plath, however, is the closest a poet could come to being identified as one.
You see, in the United States, poetry normally brings no prestige, no remuneration, no audience, and working at it is not a day job for grown-ups. This lamentable state has prompted critics to pen books with titles like The Hatred of Poetry (2016) and Can Poetry Matter? (1991) as well as articles like Poetry Slam: Or the Decline of American Verse (in Harper’s magazine, 2016), bemoaning the irremediable retrenchment of poetry as a currency of rational exchange in society.
Sylivia Plath, who died by suicide at age 31 in 1963, is seen as a legend only by that rarefied base of cultivated and literate readers on the east and west coasts who know of the necessary role that poetry plays — certainly should play — in the formation of sensibility in culture, and who agree with Shelly that it “connotes with the origin of man”, where “the poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, the one”.
Red Comet, at more than 1,000 pages, attempts to reposition in our minds the fact that Plath is one of the most important American poets in the 20th century. In her tragically short life, she published only two volumes, The Colossus and Ariel. Yet it is fair to say that no group of poems since Dylan Thomas’s Deaths and Encounters approach their vivid eloquence.
The right path
To say that I chose, as I indeed did, the biography of a poet as the best book of the year because I’m an Arab — an Arab American who spent virtually his entire adult life in the US, to be exact, but an Arab nevertheless — sounds nonsensical. But it is far from being that.
The claim makes all the sense when you consider the fact that, as an Arab, I am archetypally the product of a world where poetry is the medium Arabs go to reinforce their conjectures on meaning, where a poem can evoke in them primal emotions that define and explain the world, and where they find encoded the mythos of their history, their culture, their sense of selfhood.
And, lest we forget, both our Holy Texts, the Quran and the Hadith, are poetic compositions — the one, written in its entirety in verse and the other in prose suffused with rhapsodic splendour.
In short, in the Arab world, as indeed elsewhere in the Eastern world as a whole, the poet is viewed as nearer to the Divine presence than other mortals, folks whose utterings come close to being oracular in markings.
Few cultures have, as we have, a proverb postulating that in society “the poet is to be accorded privileges inaccessible to others”.
Here’s a lighter note. How many of us, in our Freshman year at college (our first year living away from home) had received letters from parents that began with a line of verse taken from a poem (one, of course, we were expected to be familiar with and with the poet who had composed it) intended to guide us on “the right path”? Well, the answer is this: virtually all of us.
So what is my assessment of Heather Clark’s biography detailing Sylia Plath’s short, tormented life, a book that is now a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award?
Come on! Cut me a bit of slack here. I said the book is more than one 1,000 pages long, and, Heavens, I’m nowhere near done with it yet. But I’ll tell you this: I may not be “enjoying” it — a sentiment alien to my encounter with a tome like that — but sure as heck I’m “loving” it.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile