These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.
O I cannot understand what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
They smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.
They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy and a fishy air –
It would be better if they were alive, and that’s what they were.
But they are not dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,
And they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)
This is an appropriate poem on her birthday seeing most remember her death day more than her birthday; and nice to be on the brighter side of life.
This is a poem all about the creation process, the giving of birth to a poem. For SP her poems were always her special babies. This is in contrast to Ted Hughes who regarded his poems as animals.
A poem has to live and the irony is that this is a poem that actually lives. We must assume she is talking about all her other poems, all those poems that never quite made it to her own requirement. Interestingly, at least according to TH, she never threw anything away so she would have had a workshop of pickled poems so in that sense they are not dead. They are still alive within the poet even if not breathing.
She does state there was a birth but perhaps it only lived in her mind. The thing is, it is all to do with the transfer of mind thought to actual physical words. Quite often the poet has a marvellous Aha at night but when recalled in the hard light of day finds it is not quite right and it goes in the waste paper bin.
Poems always say something about the poet, just as a child carries DNA from parents. The strong link between mother and baby or poet and poem is emphasised by the repetition of ‘smile’ in the line ‘they smile and smile and smile at me’. This may indicate that the poem is near completion. And the last line is quite appropriate as SP is left frustrated and unsung – they do not speak. A strong sense of wanting to achieve and be recognised as a poet and be heard.
So what makes a good birth … maybe assistance is needed … a midwife perhaps … or a nurse to bring the baby to the breathing state. It is important to share poetry before finalisation, but to what extent and who to share with?
Anyway SP babies live on in abundance breathing their existence, even if some have a depressive tint.
To end on a bright note here is a link to her poem ‘Morning Song’, the first poem of her Ariel collection – a different birth!