From Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
I remember the day he smiled at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I said.
“A piece of dust.” And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth—he had very long, strong white teeth—and said, “I guess so.”
It was only in the middle of New York a whole year later that I finally thought of an answer to that remark.
I spent a lot of time having imaginary conversations with Buddy Willard. He was a couple of years older than I was and very scientific, so he could always prove things. When I was with him I had to work to keep my head above water.
These conversations I had in my mind usually repeated the beginnings of conversations I’d really had with Buddy, only they finished with me answering him back quite sharply, instead of just sitting around and saying, “I guess so.”
Now, lying on my back in bed, I imagined Buddy saying, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I would say.
“A piece of dust.”
Then just as he was smiling and starting to look proud, I would say, “So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.”
And of course Buddy wouldn’t have any answer to that, because what I said was true. People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn’t see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn’t sleep.
I have a weakness for writing about writing. I can’t get enough of it. Any time a novel touches on the timeless topic of why we write in first place, I am right there lapping it up. And Sylvia Plath writes so beautifully. The dialogue (and inner dialogue) is right on, and so many of the details throughout the book are written in a straightforward, but poetic way.
One of my favorite lines is when Esther refuses to return to the psychiatrist who gave her shock treatments, and her mother replies, “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”
Whoa. Now that’s writing.