Selected Poetry - Plath
Epitaph for Fire and Flower
This poem feels fiery and flashing, with a sense of that the flame is about to burn out. The speaker is looking at “two most perishable lovers,” and a good discussion can come about by asking, after exploring the feel of the poem, who or what are these two lovers.
Black Rook in Rainy Weather
Often readers find this poem feels expectant and hopeful; the contrast between a feeling of dreariness is contrasted with the expectation and desire for “fire” and “celestial burning.” The “desultory weather,” “mute sky.” and “dull, ruinous landscape” seem to prohibit “a miracle” or visible meaning; nevertheless, the speaker chooses to “walk / Wary…/ skeptical, / Yet politic; ignorant // Of whatever angel may choose to flare / Suddenly.” The poem ends with the qualified but confident affirmation, “Miracles occur, / If you care to call those spasmodic / Tricks of radiance miracles.” A fruitful discussion can be initiated by asking for what the speaker is waiting at the end of the poem.
The undesirable taste of the experience of being jilted is tangibly evoked by the language of this short, early poem. The language of bitterness is embodied in images of “vinegar,” “sour lemon,” and unripe fruit. This poem provides a good opportunity to dwell on the sensations elicited by the language of the poem, and to notice how the “feel” of a poem is often sensory before it is emotional.
This short poem evokes the feel of gutteral and raw hunger. The describes the man as “hard to slake,” and the parenthetical comment, “With such heat such as no man could have / And yet keep kind,” suggests not only excessive consumption, but also aggression. Thereby a more omninous tone is added to what a first seems like a poem about a very hungry person. It is useful first to read the poem and talk about how it feels, then to work out the grammatical literal meaning of the lines, and last to converse about how the feel and word choice affects how we feel about the meaning of the whole poem.
Poppies in October
Some readers find this poem exuberant, some find it frightening; the “woman in the ambulance / Whose red heart blooms through her coat” is to the speaker less striking than the sight of the flowers of the title. This brief and provactive poem provides fodder for a good discussion. The question of from whom and to whom is the “love gift” given is a profitable one, after analyzing how the poem feels.
Ode for Ted
Feeling robust and virile, this poem’s lines are full of earthy, burgeoning images of life: “For his least look, scant acres yield: / each finger-furrowed filed / heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit-nubbed emerald (13-15). Like the first man of Genesis, this man names the animals and renders the earth fertile. Just working through the grammatical literal meaning of the lines, after discerning the feel of the poem, is useful and enjoyable for a good seminar. The question of who is “this adam’s woman,” as articulated in the last stanza, and also what it means to say “his words do summon,” are both useful to ask.
Battle-Scene From the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer
This ekphrastic poem feel lighter and more joyful than some of Plath’s other lyrics; “pinky-purple / Monsters which uprear / Off the ocean-floor / With fanged and dreadful head” are beguiling, but the lack of “slime” and “weed” following these sea-monsters suggests a “fable.” A possible opening question for this poem is “From what does the ‘laughing of graybeards’ in the last line wake us?”
Words such as “love,” “midwife,” and “mother” suggests a maternal situation in this poem; however, the many ambiguities of the poem can allow for a vibrant and varied discussion. After a brief examination of how the lines feel, a worthwhile conversation can be initiated by asking what the poem is describing. A possible opening question is “Who is the ‘you’ mentioned in the poem?” and this question can be followed by asking, “How does the speaker feel about this experience?”
Monologue at 3am
Feeling frustrated, agonized, upset, this short poem is one long sentence. Words like “fury, “blood,” “snake-figured,” evoke a passionate discomfort, and contrast with the more constrained feelings suggested by “mute,” “stare,” and “curse.” Because it is not immediately clear what is the literal meaning of the sentence, it is fruitful to tease that out initially, and then to ask and to discuss about what the speaker is upset.
Longer than the other selected poems, this one is perhaps more accessible by virtual of its stark and shocking imagery. The tulips are variously said by the speaker to be “too excitable,” to be “too red in the first place”; they are said to turn toward the speaker, and to fill up the air “like a loud noise”; and most strikingly, the speaker complains, “vivid tulips eat my oxygen.” As with the other poems, reading this one aloud in class before a discussion helps greatly to deepen understanding and feeling. After investigating how the poem feels, a good opening quesiton is “What are the tulips to the speaker?” and a possible follow-up question is “Where is the speaker?”
After reading the poem aloud, asking:
"How does this poem feel?" "What does it say literally?" "What are the allusions, images, metaphors?" (See individual poem entries above for more specific opening questions.)
Download the December 7, 2019 seminar:
Lyric Poetry - Selected poems of Sylvia Plath and selected poems of Emily Dickinson