Poetically Speaking with Corey Ann Haydu


Corey Ann Haydu is the author of the wonderful YA novels OCD Love Story, Life by Committee and Making Pretty as well as her middle grade debut Rules for Stealing Stars.

Today Corey is discussing her favorite poem by Slyvia Plath, Elm.

On Elm

In 2001, I was in theatre school, which is the exact right place to be if you have a love of poetry and a thousand questions about your place in the world, and a comfort with rolling around on the ground in yoga pants or screaming “I HAVE NO APOLOGIES” at the top of your lungs a few floors above Union Square in the wake of the wrong boyfriend and the unimaginable things that sometimes take hold of a family or, in the case of 2001 in New York, a city.

Sometime in our first year, our movement teacher, Ted, asked us to bring in a line of text that meant something to us and we would be using it for our work together. This would mean repeating it, over and over and over again, until the words forced our feelings to spill out and our bodies to release into some extra-emoting state. I knew exactly what to pick.

For all my love of Neruda and Sexton and Shakespeare and Mary Oliver, my true soulmate at eighteen was Sylvia Plath. I loved THE BELL JAR. I loved ARIEL. I loved her collected diaries. Most of all, I loved the poem ELM. Most of all, I loved the first stanza of the poem:

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:   

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it: I have been there.

I’m using the past tense, but the way I feel about this stanza is a present tense reality.

Who I was at eighteen is past tense, though. I asked a friend once, what their first impression of me was on our first day of classes. “Tuberculosis patient,” he said. I wasn’t sick from tuberculosis, but from fear and the wrong kind of love and worrying about things back home and a lack of interest in eating.

One of the few things I have in common with my eighteen year old self is the love of this poem, this stanza.

The stanza was too long for our movement class exercise, so I shortened it to that last line, “I do not fear it; I have been there”. In flared yoga pants of the early 2000s variety and an array of pink and purple tank tops with built in bras, I spoke those lines day after day in movement class. I wandered the room—dusty wooden floors, the smell of sweat and someone’s hangover, sometimes mine—mumbling, then speaking, then shouting, then weeping those words. Ted had floppy hair and a devilish smile and his voice was deep. He demonstrated how to speak our lines of text from our bellies, with circling our shoulders, trying to open up that place below our ribs where we hold all the pain of the world.

It didn’t take long for me to let go with that line.

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:   

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it: I have been there.

In that line is all the pain and power of the world. At eighteen, I was focused on the pain of it. The heartbreak of having to go through something that no one else in the room is going through. The way early struggles are different than the ones that come later in life. When the worst things happen at young ages, you are often on your own, knowing that terrible things will happen to other people later on, but that right now, no one totally gets it. Any room of eighteen-year-olds is crowded with heartbreak, but at the time I was confronting the way addiction infects families and lives and my heart’s own ability to trust the world.

I knew the bottom.

I was obsessed with the bottom.

I was obsessed with those words, and the way they were mine.

I’m thirty-three now, and the poem is more about the power.

I know the bottom, sure.

But I do not fear it, because I have already been there.

The poem now is about the strength that comes from that deep dive down, that lonely encounter with the darkest side of life.

At eighteen, it seemed so unfair to have gone through my reality.

At thirty-three I’m filled with a gratitude that comes from having gone through something impossible so early.

I know the bottom! I do not fear it! I have been there!

Thirty-three is great, because you know more things are to come, wonderful things and terrible things, things that will hit you in the face and shock you and make the world seem intolerable or fantastic. But thirty-three for me comes with the knowledge that if I did it before, I can do it again. That the world can keep pushing me down but I already know the way back up.

This is all well and good, except that between the time she wrote the poem, and I discovered it, Sylvia Plath went on to kill herself.

The things that I got from Plath—the power, the strength, the feeling of not being alone—were things she lost sight of herself, at some point.

The poem is beautiful, through and through, but the rest of it never resonated with me in the same way as that first line did. It didn’t matter to me. I took what I needed—the acknowledgment of the pain and the powerful idea that I could defeat it—and I moved on.

I didn’t spend much time with this stanza:

I am terrified by this dark thing   

That sleeps in me;

All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

I didn’t want to hear about the way pain could continue to eat you up and infect you. I didn’t want to hear about her fear, when I’d already heard that she didn’t have any.

I always think I’m writing a love note, and it always turns out I’m writing an apology.

I’m sorry that we lost a soul like Plath, and that her words saved me but couldn’t save her. I’m sorry that I found it hard, sometimes pointless, frustrating, painful to read past the lines that I loved.

I’m sorry to not have more of her words, to not know what her surviving her depression and her worst demons would have looked like.

And still: in the nights that are the worst or the days that I lose sight of the big picture, I return to that stanza, and it becomes mine again.

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it; I have been there.

In the whole world of literature, there has never been a collection of words that meant this much to me, that I memorized in my brain and heart and hands and soul. There has never been another line that didn’t just float around in my psyche but actually changed the way I am capable of feeling:

Pride in the things we survive, try to survive, sometimes or often or occasionally give in to, and try to survive again—without Plath, without ELM, I wouldn’t know that kind of pride existed. Flawed pride. Pride anyway.

Back in Ted’s movement class, I was congratulated for the way I broke open with the recitation of the words. I miss the days when hysterical crying and wild rage and sinking your body into the floor and letting your limbs flail was the goal, was what I needed to do in order to succeed.

Life isn’t like that, and, as I would find out, neither is art.

But. If you ever see me walking the streets of Cobble Hill or Greenwich Village—my favorite places to cry-walk, know that I am probably listening to Counting Crows and probably, eventually, reciting Plath’s lines. I am not feeling sorry for myself. I am feeling sorry for anyone who doesn’t know the bottom yet. And I am hoping that when they reach it, it stops feeling so terrifying.

I have been there.

Thank you again to Corey for this incredible post.

If you’d like to learn more about Corey and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.coreyannhaydu.com

You can also read my review of Life by Committee here on the blog.