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.
The speaker then introduces the ostensible impetus for her transformation — love, as represented by the poem’s mother figure that continuously rejects the beseeching speaker. Yet the protagonist continues to call out: “Mother, you are the one mouth/ I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness/ Eat me” (26-28). This “mother of otherness” seems to be both a symbol of the speaker’s longing to be accepted in her “otherness” — her strangeness that separates her from others — and a desire to rid herself of that “otherness” by fusing with the mother figure.
In a prose piece Plath wrote in her youth, “A Baby,” the protagonist mourns the heartbreaking realization of her failure to be one with the universe. Upon learning that she would have a brother, the speaker observes, “As from a star I saw, coldly and soberly, the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. That stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over” (xiv). This poignant passage echoes the fusion with her world for which the speaker of “Poem for a Birthday” longs, and to which she tries futilely to return. The speaker of “Poem for a Birthday” is immersed in the infantile psyche, and nothing is more central to that psyche than closeness to the mother.
With this longing for fusion comes another central theme of the poem—eating as a means of merging with the eaten, or the eater. It becomes clear that the speaker longs to be “eaten” as a means of becoming a part of the mother figure (“Mother of otherness/ Eat me”). More disturbingly, she wants to participate in the act of eating herself (by being a tongue in the mouth that eats her).
Later, in the third section, “Maenad” (whose name conjures images of a “raving” blood-thirsty, desirous woman) the speaker implores the “Dog-head, devourer” to “Feed me the berries of dark. / The lids won’t shut. Time/ Unwinds from the great umbilicus of the sun/Its endless glitter/ I must swallow it all” (16-21). In this incredibly intricate sequence the speaker asks one who eats (“devourer”) to feed her darkness (“berries of dark”), but acknowledges that she can neither die nor shut the world out (“the lids won’t shut”), and therefore must become a part of (“swallow”) life (“Time/Unwinds from the great umbilicus of the sun/ Its endless glitter”) by eating it. Anne Stevenson notes that eating is a significant symbol for Plath. She points to a journal entry in which Plath “reveals an overwhelming greed, an obsession for escape from herself by ‘eating’ other people” (32). For Plath, eating is not only a way to fuse with something else, but also a way to abandon her own flawed self in the process.
Yet the speaker cannot realize her merging fantasy because in “Maenad” she discovers that, “The mother of mouths didn’t love me” (1). This causes two important reactions in the speaker: the symbol of synthesis becomes a symbol of fragmentation — “A red tongue is among us” (13); and the desire to merge turns into a desire to become something other, presumably something loveable — “Mother, keep out of my barnyard/ I am becoming another” (14-15). The first is an eerie image of the deconstructed self (which will come to a horrifying climax in the last section, “The Stones”).
Because this coveted mother is “the one mouth” the speaker “would be a tongue to,” and the mother rejects her, that tongue doesn’t return to the speaker’s mouth, but rather wanders, lost and separate, through the remainder of the poem — resurfacing later in the “tongueless” “molts” of “Golgotha,” and the “tongues” of fire that will “teach the truth” in “Witch Burning” by burning her alive.
As Stevenson notes, when Plath underwent psychoanalysis, she came to terms with her “need of giving Mother accomplishments, getting reward of love” (126). Plath wrote: “I felt if I didn’t write nobody would accept me as a human being. Writing then was a substitute for myself: if you don’t love me, love my writing and love me for my writing” (126). This connection between writing and the obtaining of love is cemented by some of the last lines of the poem in which the speaker makes explicit that it is “love” that “is the bone and sinew of my curse. / The vase, reconstructed, houses/ The elusive rose” (40-42).
Furthermore, because the line “The mother of mouths didn’t love me” is followed, two lines later, by “O I am too big to go backward” (8), it appears that because the speaker has been rejected by the mother figure, she can’t go back to childhood. Earlier, in the second section, “Dark House,” the speaker constructs her own dark maternal space in which to dwell: “This is a dark house, very big. / I made it myself, / Cell by cell from a quiet corner, / Chewing at the gray paper, / Oozing the glue drops” (1-5).
Rejected by the mother, the speaker builds her own space in which to metamorphose. This construct functions as the mother’s womb to which she longs to return, but also as the intellectual space from which her poems will grow. In this way, it represents a cycle of creation — both what she will make and what made her. She can’t seem to decide whether she is the child or the mother; she veers from: “I see by my own light. / Any day I may litter puppies/ Or mother a horse. My belly moves” (11-13) to “It is warm and tolerable/ In the bowel of the root. / Here’s a cuddly mother” (26-28). In these lines, Plath’s speaker seems to be enthralled by the locus of creation.
Plath is fascinated by the subterranean acts of creativity that give birth to poetry. As Ted Hughes observes in “Sylvia Plath and her Journals,” “Though her whole considerable ambition was fixed on becoming the normal flowering and fruiting kind of writer, her work was roots only… Or as if all poetry were made up of the feats and shows performed by the poetic spirit Ariel. Whereas her poetry is the biology of Ariel, the ontology of Ariel” (153). This is a powerful explanation of the metaphysics of Plath’s poetry. Against her own will, perhaps, Plath’s poetry (in the language of “Poem for a Birthday”) is more concerned with the “bowel of the root” than with the “moldering heads.” While most poets view the dynamics of their creative process as a means of reaching their ultimate goal of poetry, Plath’s poetic process is her poetry.
One of the key elements of Plath’s poetic process is the metaphor of death. In the fifth section of “Poem for a Birthday,” “Flute Notes From a Reedy Pond,” death invades the womb as “coldness comes sifting down, layer after layer, / To our bower at the lily root” (1-2). Although Plath’s complicated feelings towards the stuff of life lead her to project herself out of it, it is not into total nothingness that she projects herself. Rather, it appears that she strives to do away with her self in order to become a creative vessel. As Anne Stevenson points out, Plath wrote in her journals, “I myself am the vessel of tragic experience” (109).
Yet out of the speaker’s creation/destruction myth comes not nothingness, but the word. That is, the speaker’s words live on in spite of death. These words don’t obey their maker; the speaker marvels: “Puppets, loosed from the strings of the puppet-master, / Wear masks of horn to bed. / This is not death, it is something safer. / The wingy myths won’t tug at us any more” (13-16). This autonomy of language echoes that of Plath’s poem, “Words,” in which words have become “dry and riderless” (The Collected Poems 16) “indefatigable hoof-taps” (The Collected Poems 17). Thus when the speaker says, “This isn’t death, it is something safer”15-16), it appears that what it is is the embryonic phase — her words are “Caddis worms” that “drowse in their silk cases” (11). It is a time of preparation for transformation; a time between death — “the fugitive colors die” (10) — and rebirth — “a god” shall “unhusk himself and steer into the air” (19-20), that will culminate in poetry.
In the sixth section, “Witch Burning,” the speaker’s experience of being over the flames incites a new transformation—she becomes a little “rice grain” (15). The scene has shifted to “the marketplace” where “they are piling dry sticks,” (1) presumably to burn the witch. As she ascends the “bed of fire” (6), it appears that the witch is the speaker herself. The little witch-grain clearly feels that she deserves her fate as she observes: “Only the devil can eat the devil out” (5) and “If I am a little one, I can do no harm” (13). These two lines expand upon an earlier theme — the longing to return to innocence. Here, eating is used as a means of purification rather than merging (eating “the devil out”); she provides yet another reason why she longs to return to childhood — to be a “little one” who can “do no harm.”
Even more significantly, Plath introduces a crucial new device — sympathetic magic. She says: “I inhabit/ The wax image of myself, a doll’s body. /Sickness begins here: I am a dartboard for witches” (2-5). The speaker creates a voodoo doll of herself through her language. The “sickness” derives from the fact that it is the “witches” who are attacking this doll, which, once again, reveals the speaker as the destroyer of herself. Camille Paglia, in her reading of the vampire imagery in “Daddy” in Break, Blow, Burn, writes, “What is the phallic stake (the legendary way to kill vampires)? Plath has driven it home: it’s the poem itself, with its pointed tone and long, linear format” (175). Thus in “Witch Burning,” Plath has taken this urge a step further and driven the “phallic stake” of her poem into her own “heart.”
Yet this death and rebirth sequence is not the conclusion of the poem because the poem’s tone is more ambivalent than that. After willing the poem’s many transformations, the speaker longs to return to her previous state of wholeness: she implores the “Mother of beetles” (19): “Give me back my shape. I am ready to construe the days/I coupled with dust in the shadow of a stone” (21-22). Although this is clearly another ploy to return to an infantile state, it is also a plea to undo all the changes she has brought into being through her words.
It seems almost as though Plath is having second thoughts regarding her decision to symbolically annihilate her self in the interest of her poetry. Right after the speaker says that she is ready to “construe” her days, “brightness ascends” her “thighs” (23) and she becomes “lost” in “robes of light” (24). The speaker’s desire to “construe” and the coming of the “light” constitutes a profound turning point in the poem because she is saying that she is ready to interpret her transformation (“the days/ I coupled with dust in the shadow of a stone”). In this way, the speaker establishes the next, and final, poem in the sequence as oracular.
In spite of these portents, she still falls from this light into “the stomach of indifference” (6) in the seventh section, “The Stones.” This is a place of reconstruction; however, instead of attaining the wholeness for which she longs, she gets turned into a monstrous hodgepodge in “this city of spare parts” (33) where “men are mended” (1). Here, the mother image resurfaces as a symbol of destruction: “The mother of pestles diminished me. / I became a still pebble. / The stones of the belly were peaceable” (7-9). The mother’s act of diminution seems to sedate both the speaker (who becomes a still pebble) and the pebbles of the speaker’s own womb.
At this juncture in the poem, it is unclear whether this image carries tranquil or abortive connotations for these pebbles. It is important to remember, however, that when Plath writes about objects in her speakers’ bellies, she is, of course, alluding to children, but she is also alluding to poems. In “Stillborn,” Plath writes: “These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis” (The Collected Poems 1) and then the last two lines read: “But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction, / And they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her” (The Collected Poems 14-15).
With this in mind, the speaker of “The Stones” becomes a dead pregnant woman whose poem babies the reader awaits, worrying all the while that they will be “stillborn.” The fate of her poems is unclear until the promised revelation arrives — out of all this nightmarish imagery emerges the one part of the body that remains whole: “Only the mouth–hole piped out” (11). With this hopeful line, it is as though the speaker and, by extension, Plath, succeeds in giving birth to those pebble words, which become “Poem for a Birthday.”