We do it every year. So once again to the breach, dear readers, once again.
Here we are, entering the home stretch, just days before reaching 2022, the time to pick “the best of” – in this case, the best book of the year.
But wait! Is it possible to choose the best book of the year, maybe the one you liked the most? No, it really isn’t. And it is not because it is not a question of “pleasure” when it comes to reading a serious work in which an author has invested his intellectual repertoire of consciousness, that is to say his passion and discomfort, joy and pain, anguish and rest. And, trust me on this one, everything that goes into writing a serious book.
It is possible, however, to anoint a book our favorite of the year because we “loved” it, because in our engagement (and that’s my favorite word here) with it, the work has changed not only the way we see the world, but the way we experience it.
Red Comet: The Short Life and Flamboyant Art of Sylvia Plath
The only book I have so desperately fallen in love with this year (a year, by the way, whose “best thing” was that it wasn’t 2020) is Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark, a biography that probes not only poetry but the soul of a legendary poet.
In America, where poetry is seen primarily as an insignificant quest, poets are hardly ever elevated to legends, as are, say, movie, sports, rock, and media stars. Sylvia Plath, however, is the closest a poet can be identified as such.
You see, in America poetry normally doesn’t bring any prestige, no pay, no audiences, and working there isn’t a day job for adults. This dismal state has prompted critics to write books with titles like La haine de la poésie (2016) and Can Poetry Matter? (1991) as well as articles such as Poetry Slam: Or the Decline of American Verse (in Harper magazine, 2016), lamenting the irremediable decline of poetry as a rational bargaining chip in society.
Sylivia Plath, who committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1963, is only considered a legend by this rarefied base of educated and literate readers on the east and west coasts who know the necessary role that poetry plays. – certainly should play – in the formation of sensitivity in culture, and who agree with Shelly that she “connotes with the origin of man”, where “the poet participates in the eternal, in the ‘infinite, to one’.
Red Comet, over 1,000 pages, attempts to reposition in our minds that Plath is one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. In her tragically short life, she published only two volumes, The Colossus and Ariel. Yet it’s fair to say that no group of poems since Dylan Thomas’ Morts et Rencontres has come close to their living eloquence.
The right path
To say that I chose, as I did, the biography of a poet as the best book of the year because I am an Arab – an American Arab who has spent most of his adult life in the United States, to be exact, but an Arab nonetheless – that sounds absurd. But that’s far from it.
The assertion takes on its full meaning when you consider the fact that as an Arab, I am the archetypal product of a world where poetry is the medium. The Arabs will reinforce their conjectures on the meaning, where a poem can evoke in them primitive emotions which define and explain the world, and where they find encoded the myth of their history, their culture, their sense of selfhood.
And, let us not forget, our two sacred texts, the Qur’an and the hadiths, are poetic compositions – one, written in its entirety in verse and the other in prose imbued with rhapsodic splendor.
In short, in the Arab world, as indeed elsewhere in the Eastern world as a whole, the poet is considered to be closer to the divine presence than other mortals, people whose sayings are close to being oracular in the brands.
Few cultures have, like us, a proverb postulating that in society “the poet must be granted privileges inaccessible to others”.
Here is a lighter note. How many of us, during our freshman year in college (our first year living away from home) had received letters from parents that began with a line from a poem (one, of course, that we had to know and with the poet who composed it) intended to guide us on “the right path”? Well the answer is this: practically every one of us.
So what’s my assessment of Heather Clark’s biography detailing the short and tormented life of Sylia Plath, a book that is now a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award?
Go on! Leave me a little slack here. I said the book was over 1,000 pages long and, my God, I’m not done with it yet. But I’ll tell you this: I might not be “liking” it – a foreign feeling to me with a book like this – but I sure do “like” it.
– Fawaz Turki is a Washington-based journalist, scholar and author. He is the author of The Disinherited: Diary of a Palestinian Exile