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The Woman Who Became Words: Sylvia Plath’s Linguistic Transformation

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Sylvia Plath’s poetry is complicated by the fact that her language and imagery are designed to transform, and even extinguish that which writes: her self. Through a sort of linguistic alchemy, this self is alternately deconstructed, annihilated, transformed, and projected into other objects, beings, times, or realities, and most frequently, into death.

Sometimes this death is followed by a resurrection into a purer state; sometimes it is simply annihilation. In order to enact this transformative process, Plath employs a host of recurrent images and poetic devices, ranging from animism to sympathetic magic, or the belief that the treatment of one object can cause a similar reaction in another, as in the voodoo doll. Plath makes models of others in her poetry, but she also makes a model of herself, which she symbolically destroys. In doing so, she disposes of her self in order to foreground and give the final word to her poetry.

More than any other poem, Plath’sTheodore Roethke-inspired, seven-part work,“Poem for a Birthday,” displays the drives and inner workings of her transformational process. Plath objectifies and transforms her speakers in order to eliminate her own self from the poem, thereby giving the life that was hers to her poetry. In a September 16, 1959, journal entry, she writes, “How shall I come into the right, rich full-fruited world of middle-age. Unless I work. And get rid of the accusing, never-satisfied gods who surround me like a crown of thorns. Forget myself, myself. Become a vehicle of the world, a tongue, a voice. Abandon my ego” (502). She wanted to trade her self for the ability to channel the universe through her art. It seems that Plath saw her true self as her creative output and her false self as the years of psychic and material build-up that constitutes a human life.

In order to fully excavate Plath’s elaborate procedure, it is essential to examine her own words. “Poem for a Birthday” lays bare the full trajectory of Plath’s linguistic transformation. The first section, “Who,” ostensibly begins after a recent conversion: “The month of flowering’s finished. The fruit’s in, / Eaten or rotten. I am all mouth” (1-2). Right away, it is clear that the speaker is living in a dead world (“the month of flowering’s finished”), at least as far as the flowers are concerned; and the speaker is deeply concerned with the flowers. Thus, from the beginning of the poem the reader is made aware that the words she or he is reading come from an afterlife of sorts. Further, by saying that the fruit is “eaten” and she is “all mouth,” the speaker implicates herself in the death of the flowers.

At the same time, the speaker identifies herself with the flowers by saying that she is “at home here among the dead heads” (7). Interestingly, by disclosing that she is both a flower and an agent of the flowers’ destruction, she reveals that she is a self-destroyer. She says, “Let me sit in a flowerpot, / The spiders won’t notice. / My heart is a stopped geranium” (7-10). In these lines, the speaker performs a complicated feat of identification. She projects herself into the flowers, the flowers into herself, and then, as her final act, she transports this bizarre human-flower hybrid (of which she is, of course, a part) into death. Moreover, she fuses the human and the floral so completely that she describes her heart as a flower that has ceased to beat, a “stopped geranium.”

She strives to reinforce her communion with the flowers by calling out to them: “Moldering heads console me, / Nailed to the rafters yesterday:/ Inmates who don’t hibernate” (14-16). She has established this communion so completely that it is difficult to ascertain whether that which was “nailed to the rafters” belonged to the speaker or to the “moldering heads” of the flowers. Regardless, this “nailing” recalls a crucifixion, which necessarily conjures the image of a rebirth.

In the fifth section, “Flute Notes from a Reedy Pond,” the speaker declares: “molts are tongueless that sang from above the water/ Of Golgotha at the tip of a reed, / And how a god flimsy as a baby’s finger/ Shall unhusk himself and steer into the air” (17-20). In these lines, the speaker looks back on the locus of Jesus’s crucifixion (“Golgotha”); but, remarkably, through her use of the word “shall,” she establishes a sense of anticipation — that the reemergence of the god is yet to come. She envisions the resurrection as a sort of peeling off of organic layers (an unhusking) that will allow the fragile god figure to take to the skies. In this way, the speaker establishes that she has reached a sort of emotional wasteland and is at the brink of a metamorphosis.

About Caroline Hagood

  • Christy Corp-Minamiji

    Nice analysis of Plath’s work, Caroline. I always enjoy your posts.

  • kat

    Wow. I’m speechless.

  • Caroline Hagood

    Christy and Kat: Thanks for reading. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.