Patti Smith Reads Sylvia Plath’s Poem, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

Court Green, the rur­al Devon prop­er­ty Sylvia Plath called home for six­teen months toward the end of her life is a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age for Plathophiles, seek­ing to wor­ship at the well­spring of some of her best known poems — The Bee Meet­ing, Dad­dy, Lady Lazarus, and many oth­er works posthu­mous­ly pub­lished in 1965’s Ariel.

(Her ex-hus­band Ted Hugh­es wrote his col­lec­tion, Crow, there as well, not long after Plath died by sui­cide. Some­thing tells us his wid­ow, Car­ol, a staunch defend­er of her husband’s lega­cy, doesn’t exact­ly roll out the wel­come mat when she sees star­ry eyed devotee’s of her husband’s first wife tromp­ing around the perime­ter of the prop­er­ty where she still lives…)

Plath schol­ar Dor­ka Tamás made the trip to St. Peter’s, the North Taw­ton church abut­ting Court Green. Plath took plea­sure in describ­ing its grounds in let­ters to friends and fam­i­ly, and immoratl­ized its mas­sive yew in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”:

I looked around the Vic­to­ri­an grave­stones, slow­ly pass­ing the souls of the dead. The beau­ti­ful green trees could not con­trast more with the Neo-goth­ic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was search­ing for the win­dow of Court Green, Plath’s office win­dow, from which she could have an expan­sive view of the yew…North Taw­ton has been an ambigu­ous place for both Plath and Plathi­ans. In the year she spent in the iso­lat­ed vil­lage, she pro­duced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she expe­ri­enced extreme iso­la­tion after Hugh­es left her. Nev­er­the­less, the coun­try life pro­vid­ed plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties for Plath to explore her cre­ative, aes­thet­ic, and domes­tic inde­pen­dence, such as horse rid­ing in the field of Devon, exper­i­ment­ing with bee­keep­ing, paint­ing her children’s nurs­ery elbow chair, and mak­ing apple pie from the apples of her gar­den. The poet­ry and fic­tion Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and win­ter 1962 are embed­ded in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment in Devon and com­mu­ni­ty, places, and non-human life of North Taw­ton. 

Poet David Trinidad, an avid col­lec­tor of Plath-relat­ed mem­o­ra­bil­ia, whose sou­venirs include a vial of dust from the stu­dio she occu­pied dur­ing a res­i­den­cy at Yad­do and a fac­sim­i­le of a blue pat­terned Lib­er­ty of Lon­don scarf she gave her moth­er dur­ing a 1962 vis­it to Court Green, prizes his cut­tings from St. Peter’s yew:

Plath wrote The Moon and the Yew Tree on Octo­ber 22, 1961, less than two months after mov­ing to Court Green. Every­thing in the poem is true: her prop­er­ty was sep­a­rat­ed from an adja­cent church by a row of head­stones; on Sun­day eight bells would toll; an ancient yew tree grew in the church grave­yard. …She doesn’t men­tion the yew tree specif­i­cal­ly in any of her let­ters; she saved that for the poem.

God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith, whose sou­venirs run more toward Polaroids, wrote of vis­it­ing Plath’s grave in her mem­oir, M Train, and iden­ti­fies the poet as some­one who makes her want to write.

Her per­for­mance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” above, is more straight­for­ward than Plathi­an, allow­ing the dark­ness of the work–which The Mar­gin­a­lian’s Maria Popo­va calls “one of (Plath’s) finest poems and one of the most poignant por­traits of depres­sion in the his­to­ry of literature”–to speak for itself.

As Popo­va notes, the poem was writ­ten dur­ing a dif­fi­cult peri­od, in an attempt to ful­fill a writ­ing exer­cise sug­gest­ed by Hugh­es, “to sim­ply describe what she saw in the Goth­ic church­yard out­side her win­dow.”

Who would dare fault Plath for obey­ing the impulse to edi­to­ri­al­ize a bit?

The New York­er had accept­ed but not yet pub­lished “The Moon and the Yew Tree” when Plath took her own life on Feb­ru­ary 11, 1963. It was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in a two-page spread along with five oth­er poems six months lat­er. You can read it online here.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 18 Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in a 1962 Record­ing

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • christopher brookfield says:

    I came upon this by chance and imme­di­ate­ly con­nect­ed with it. Some­times, I find Plath’s New Eng­land accent can affect ones feel­ing about her poet­ry, when lis­ten­ing to a read­ing, but Pat­ti Smith’s kind of neu­tral, almost blank into­na­tions, seem to fit with this per­fect­ly. I love the sound of her voice, anyway,and she reads so well, so unself­con­scious. Thanks a lot.

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