There is always something to be said for tracing somebody’s footsteps. Pilgrimage, I suppose. I like making pilgrimages to poems. Partly it is about trying to see a place through somebody else’s eyes but it is also about atmosphere. Standing looking at the same scene as somebody else can produce powerful emotions. In some ways I feel it helps me understand part of the authorial process, transforming a scene or place into a poem. I feel I can take part in some sort of surrogate authorship being so fascinated by that meeting point where experience becomes text. When, say Sylvia Plath, looked at a scene, felt something at a certain place, how did this transform itself into a poem, a piece of prose, part of a novel? What happens, what occurs at that moment?
In 2011, I visited Azalea Path in Winthrop where Plath’s father is buried. Like her, I too, followed a haphazard route through three graveyards separated by streets. I stumbled unexpectedly on Otto Plath’s grave, his stone flat to the ground; missable, unedifying. When Otto Plath was buried here, the graveyard was new. The plaque on the cemetery gates states that the churchyard opened on 1 June 1940, and Otto Plath died just five months later. Is this why his grave is situated where it is, in one of the first rows? I visited this site with Plath’s poem ‘Electra on Azalea Path’ firmly in mind. I also thought about sections of the poem that linked directly to her journal account and scenes from The Bell Jar. What occurred for Plath in 1959 on Azalea Path in Winthrop?
The day I woke I woke on Churchyard Hill.
I found your name, I found your bones and all
Enlisted in a cramped necropolis,
Your speckled stone askew by an iron fence.
(Collected Poems p. 117)
In this charity ward, this poorhouse, where the dead
Crowd foot to foot, head to head, no flower
Breaks the soil. This is Azalea Path.
(Collected Poems p. 117)
Then I saw my father’s gravestone.
It was crowded right up by another headstone, head to head, the way people are crowded in a charity ward when there isn’t enough space. The stone was of a mottled pink marble, like tinned salmon, and all there was on it was my father’s name and, under it, two dates, separated by a little dash. (The Bell Jar p. 177)
A clear blue day in Winthrop. Went to my father’s grave, a very depressing sight…In the third yard, on a flat grassy area looking across a sallow barren stretch to rows of wooden tenements I found the flat stone “ Otto E. Plath: 1885-1940”, right beside the path, where it would be walked over. Felt cheated. (Journals p. 473)
No trees, no peace, his headstone jammed up against the body on the other side. Left shortly. It is good to have the place in mind. (Journals p.473)
This journey, of course, is about the living and the dead, the private and the public, for both Otto and Sylvia Plath and ultimately for me. I do not know what occurred for Plath on Azalea Path in Winthrop. I can guess and I can daydream. I took photographs and in the end realised that for everyone involved, it was about loss.