No postwar English language poet has received such unmitigated critical acclaim as Sylvia Plath. And rightly so. Her work is at once seminal, canonical, apocryphal and apocalyptic. She broke completely new ground as a fiercely female poet poised uncomfortably between the dark memories of the recent world war and the dubious freedoms and comforts of a hedonistic age of mass-consumption that had only just begun. Her poems combine untamable churning depths of emotion with supreme artistic self-control, drumming out a painstakingly honest, unwelcoming and unwelcome, anthem for the baby-boom doomed generation of youth to come.
Like William Carlos Williams, Plath mastered the clipped metrically unconventional line. But, whereas Williams used this modernist technique, mollified by enjambment, to promote a languid impressionistic sympathy for nature, fellow human beings, and, frankly, himself, Plath turns out self-flagellating whip cracks of lines, clearly punctuated by pregnant pauses and sharp stops, allowing neither the reader nor herself the respite of the enjambed phrase.
Compare the first stanza of Williams’s The Widow’s Lament in Springtime, which I cited in an earlier post, with the first stanza of Plath’s Tulips, to which it bears a certain superficial metrical and thematic resemblance.
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeons.
The rhythm here comes in stops and starts, marked by punctuation and harsh conjunctions and eruptions of direct speech. The only lines that come close to an enjambment—the third and the fifth—are deliberately hampered and held back by clumsiness and ambiguity. The punctuation of “quietly/as the light lies on these white walls” suggests a simile, but the line-break tempts us to read ‘as’ as a conjunction, itself ambiguous, hovering semantically between ‘because’ and ‘while’.
Compare this with Williams’s use of ‘as’ in the introduction to the Widow’s Lament. “the new grass/flames as it has flamed/often before,” in which the comparative use of the word is totally unambiguous, serving the purposes of a comforting nostalgia.
There is always something deliciously and delicately sadomasochistic about the way Plath forges words into sweetly savage little stanzas and fragmented lines. Yet her work is as utterly and refreshingly devoid of self-promotion or pomp as knitting is.
Plath understands, as is evident from her harrowing descriptions of suicide attempts in The Bell Jar, how the comfort of supposedly womanly and homely virtues is not a desirable end in itself, but part of a lethal mix of oppression and misogyny that poisons the human race. The trap of the pursuit of happiness drags a death-drive in its wake…Genocide, suicide, infanticide, the sempiternal abuse of women and children and human beings in general for the sake of a cynically utilitarian view of fulfillment and order constantly haunt her work…
Her last poem, Edge, ends ominously with the words “The moon has nothing to be sad about,/staring from her hood of bone.// She is used to this sort of thing./Her blacks cackle and drag.” Comfort, accommodation, and the absence of sadness are equated with the black arts of Hecate. While Williams’s imagined widow distances herself from the at once grim reality and potential comfort of self-destruction with more wistful and softly-focused emotions: “I feel that I would like/ to go there/ and fall into those flowers/ and sink into the marsh near them.”
One of my favorite Plath poems is Mushrooms… It was her last poem of 1959 and long precedes the manic flurry of creativity in the weeks and months before her death, for which she is best known.
Nature for Plath is not a source of solace, awe or inspiration, but rather some kind of infestation that needs to be battled or curbed, like weeds on a picket-fenced lawn or methicillin-resistant bacteria. Like the tulips at her hospital bedside, it is something artificial, invasive, nauseating. Like the gnarled root of a tree, whose grubby yet persistent existence bugs Jean-Paul Sartre’s alter ego in La Nausée.
Plath inverts the romantic notion of the sublime, but much more sharply and more viscerally than her existentialist and beatnik contemporaries. For her, existence does not precede or transcend essence; it fundamentally infests it. Life is as nauseating and futile as a fair-ride is; the freedom and the bondage, the apparent license combined with apparent safety, equally distasteful and equally fake, the vicious pair roped unwillingly and unwittingly together by chromosomes in the womb and beyond. We are locked in a constant three-way battle between zest and disgust, and the cold comfort of the lure of death.
In Mushrooms nature anthropomorphically vaunts its (self-) destructiveness, despite and because of its meekness and innocence.
“we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.”
There is something Nietzschean about the idea of the meek inheriting but infesting the earth. Plath’s poem glides effortlessly over the question of good and evil.
There are sharp shifts of register in this poem, often from one line to another and even within lines. Sharp edges, which, like needles or knives, are at once homely and potentially deadly.
“We shall by morning” seems lifted from a general’s exhortation to his troops. “Inherit the earth” is a phrase obviously ripped from the gospel, but separated from the meekness that canonically qualifies the subject by five painful lines. The tercet ends “Our foot’s in the door”: with a vernacular reference to the bullying tactics of a travelling salesman, gold-digger or Gestapo officer and a deliberately clumsy sudden pronoun ambiguity, as the carefully maintained first person plural collapses into a single aggressive foot, bringing the poem to a metrically and semantically apt conclusion. There may even be a jazz-like joke in here at the expense of the fussily old-fashioned arrangement of poetic feet—a spondee (our foot) precedes an inverted dactyl (s’ in the door), the exact opposite of the norms of classical verse. Plath expertly turns tradition on its head with a bitter wit.
“Our kind multiplies” inter-discursively references racist discourse, whilst subverting it by replacing the usual exclusive third person plural possessive pronoun with the first. The hint of a Biblical reference is also undermined by substitution of an understood second person imperative (“Go forth and multiply!”) by the willful and somewhat sinister triumphant inevitability of the first person plural—a collective ego run wild rather than a compliant flock.
The word ‘kind’ is the hinge of this clipped but crucial line, poised subtly, dark yet sweet, semantically-speaking, between the racist, exclusionary connotations of the noun, and the commonplace sentimentality of the adjective, and tipping down like a see-saw into a Biblical euphemism for sexual reproduction translated into mathematical abstraction. Plath packs so much psychosexual history into this short line that it feels aptly, for good or ill, fit to explode.
I would argue that it is best to read this poem backwards, as it often is with poems. Working backwards from “our kind multiplies,” we get to “nudgers and shovers/in spite of ourselves”. At this point we realize that, despite the unremitting, perhaps deliberately mesmeric use of an anthropomorphic first person plural, Plath is ‘actually’ (if that means anything in her precociously ‘virtual’ approach to her work) referring (under erasure) to her own experience of womanhood and procreation. At the time of writing of this poem, she was half-way through her first pregnancy.
The ‘nudgers and shovers’ seem to be both fetuses fighting their way out of the womb and cocky ad-men seeking advancement in their career within a brutal capitalist system… To this dark revelation, she appends “in spite of ourselves,” giving the line a final hamartiological umbilical twist. Human beings transcend the pursuit of wealth and status, into which they are unleashed at birth, but are inevitably, from the outset, dragged into it. In a single terse couplet, Plath juxtaposes capitalist and social Darwinist cynicism with a religious notion that babies are born against their better nature, pure pre-existent souls corrupted from the outset by the act of copulation and conception.
Plath, however, is a master of the subtlest ambiguity. The ‘nudgers and shovers’ may be the fetuses in their mothers’ wombs, but they could also be the mothers themselves, forced by instinct to push out babies in labor, irrespective of their true desire to do so.
“We are shelves, we are/ tables, we are meek/ we are edible,” still working back through the poem, is the next stanza. The unfathomable ambiguities of the persistent ‘we’ cluster together here. Are ‘we’ women, children, human beings in general? Or perhaps just mushrooms? A basic form of life feeling its way out fumblingly into the darkness of the world.
Mushrooms spring up from the lawn overnight or can be grown indoors on shelves of fertile earth in attics or airing cupboards. They can be a source of nutrition, delirium or deadly poison. Unlike plants and animals, fungi do not require taming, tilling, harvest or slaughter. They pop up out of the dark, already good to eat… There is something Saturnine about them. They do not partake of the cycle of photosynthesis. Unlike newborn babies, animals or plants, they play no part in human lives as sources of affection, companionship or decoration… We feel no romantic or sentimental attachment whatsoever towards them. Their value is mired in myth. They are simply edible, fungible, seemingly inexhaustible products of the earth, parasites or symbiotic slaves to the supposedly nobler animal and vegetable kingdoms. All life, Plath suggests, however, may be like this.
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
But who are ‘we’/’they’? Although the first half of the poem is gorgeously mushily mushroomy and could easily and brilliantly have ended at line 18 with the delicious intermixing of anthropomorphism and pure description that is “shoulder through holes,” the second half is crucial to the true meaning Plath intends and this is invited in by the unexpected and metrically eccentric enjambment of an evocative “we” hanging in the middle of the poem at the end of the 18th line.
“We” in English and most other Indo-European languages is a highly ambiguous pronoun. There is no distinction between the exclusive and inclusive (me and you; or me and you as opposed to them). The mushrooms declaring themselves anthropomorphically as ‘we’ in Plath’s poem seem to be inserting themselves as aliens into the individualistic ordered world of the author; pushing their way in, one foot aggressively fixed in the door. An imagined “we” opposed to ‘us’, like rats or dry rot. On the other hand, there is the ‘we’ that is the first person singular plus another first person singular… The grammatical archetype of truces, trysts and affective ties.
Plath brilliantly combines two or more meanings in this hanging ‘we’. The mushrooms as a chthonic force of nature, marshalling themselves against humanity; children in the womb worming their way into our affection, forcing themselves into existence; we the parents, obstetricians, gossiping midwives, interfering pastors and priests, urging them to be born.
Mushrooms is a monumental, almost perfectly executed, poem that deals subtly, yet dispassionately, with the profound—perhaps ultimate—question of what it means to come into existence or bring a living creature into being, from the unique viewpoint of a troubled, talented woman with a child kicking in her womb.