Sylvia Plath's “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” stands out for its mystical allusion and its deep naturalistic imagery. Plath uses an encounter with nature as a point of departure for self-discovery. The rook in the poem functions as a portent of the process of self-examination and flight (individuation) that will take place throughout the later stages of Plath’s life and career. Plath brings her steely gaze of realism to this mystical encounter. Instead of yielding passionately to the animistic inspiration of the scene, she remains skeptical throughout, refusing to be moved by anything less than ultimate truth and revelation.
The poem begins with the lines: “One the stiff twig up there / Hunches a wet black rook”. This description is important because it fuses imagery of the natural world with archetypal imagery of the unconscious. The black rook is a symbol for the unconscious, just as its “wet” feathers show that it is freshly arrived from a point of inspiration. Perhaps the wetness of the rook even corresponds to Plath’s deep sea-childhood memories.
In any case, the poem opens with the vision of the wet, black bird above the poet's head in an obvious symbol of inspiration. What follows is the poet’s logical dissection of the experience in an attempt to strip away all psychological and emotional pretenses in order to find ultimate reality. The speaker states that she no longer looks for order or meaning in the natural landscape, but instead lets “spotted leaves fall as they fall / Without ceremony, or portent”. This is a direct refutation of the portentous tone of the scene and the poem's plot.
The most dramatic shift in the poem takes place when the speaker states: “I only know that a rook / Ordering its black feathers can so shine / As to seize my senses”. At this point, the speaker surrenders to the revelation and portent that was obvious to the reader all along.
But Plath's phrasing of the realization uses the words “ordering” and “senses.” These are indications that, for her, there is a correspondence between order and meaning, and this order and meaning can be actualized through the senses. The poet’s early guarded approach toward the revelatory experience is the means by which the senses can actualize the order and meaning that exists in nature. Only by insisting on the most honest and direct perception of nature, free of delusion or wish-fulfillment, can the deeper (hidden) harmony and meaning of nature be experienced. The meaning of nature is not readily divulged to just any observer; the observer must be made “pure" enough to receive the “rare, random descent” of revelation.
The poem obviously describes a mystical experience, but it does so in a way that is best read as initiatory. The poet now knows that there is a meaning and order to nature that can be grasped through the senses, so it is now the poet’s task to perceive all things as honestly as nature.
In the poems that form her first two published collections, Plath continues the journey that was initiated in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” The next stage of her development is very complicated and prolonged with poems scattered throughout that document her progress. Throughout this stage of her poetic development, Plath brings the same unrelenting eye of honesty to her own inner-nature that she previously brought to bear on nature itself. It is as though her first encounters with nature as a child, then as a poet, initiated her into a process of self-realization.
However, in order for the process to be real to her satisfaction, Plath felt compelled to strip away all artifice or pretense from her art and her life.
Sylvia Plath is one of the most famous, best-selling, widely anthologized, and universally recognized poets of the twentieth century. Her poems, electric with figurative language and flights of mythic imagination, have thrilled millions of readers and continue to top lists of the most popular and artistically significant poems in American history. Her poetry has earned tens of millions of dollars and continues to sell while most modern poets, even the most celebrated, are read by only a handful of literati.
Plath’s life and work have spawned scores of biographies, plays, critical works, and films. She is widely regarded, along with Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, as being a founder of the Confessional movement. Her reputation as a feminist, ecologist, novelist, poet, and even mystic is assured in history.
How is it possible that this poet, dead by the age of thirty by her own hand, was able to attain such a magnitude of influence and mastery?
I’m about to show you...
I consider Sylvia Plath to be one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century and I promise, if you continue to read this blog, you'll hear a lot more about why. So this post might seem a little weird because I'm going to bash all over one of her poems.
No, it's not a pre-Colossus hiccup, or a thesaurus-driven villanelle from her Smith College days. It's a Confessional poem, straight out of her prime, from July 1962. And its a howler.
The poem, "Words heard, by accident, over the phone," is an important poem for Plath addicts and specialists because it describes a crucial life-event and the beginning of the dissolution of her marriage to Ted Hughes. Other than that, the poem has a literary value approaching zero.
Anyone can have a bad day, that's true. But that's not what happened here. I think the answer's much simpler.
Plath developed a method over the years for writing poems and this is an example of her writing without her bag of tricks. She was apoplectic about Hughes's cheating and dashed the poem off like an angry letter.
Here's the first lines:
O mud mud, how fluid!----
Thick as foreign coffee, and with a sluggy pulse
Speak, speak ! Who is it?
Gone is the usual Plath inventiveness with conceits, diction, and figurative language. All that survives is the "confessional" theme of adultery, which she dully compares to mud, foreign coffee and ... "the bowel-pulse."
The poem goes on to talk about mud for six more lines, then briefly compares the old land-line telephone to a tentacle (as in her poem "Medusa") before returning to images of mud: "Muck funnel, muck funnel".
Repeating the drab phrase is another glimpse into how impotent Plath was without her method.
I'm not saying Plath was anything less than a genius or that this one poem proves my point. There are others. But blog-time goes quickly. So tune in later for more. What I'm saying is Plath created a métier, a method for writing powerful poetry. This is her not using it.
Click Plath's picture above to read the full text of "Words heard, by accident, over the phone."
Hit the talk button above or below to let me know what you think of this or any other Plath poem.
Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mirror,” deftly uses symbolism, figurative language, and imagery to convey a theme of introspection and self-realization.
The first sign that this deeper meaning is evident in the poem is the fact that the speaker of the poem is evidently a mirror: an inanimate object that should be incapable of thought, let alone speech. Plath’s use of anthropomorphic language begins in the opening line:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
From this opening line, it's obvious that the mirror is not only conscious; it's almost entirely consciousness. It's rational, but possesses no human emotion. Instead, it demonstrates a knack for speaking in poetic language with metaphor, symbol, and imagery conveying meaning and mood.
The mirror asserts:
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god
The mirror is a symbol for a form of consciousness that's larger than anything it observes. It exists on a plane of absolute honesty. In a case of double metaphor, Plath turns the speaking mirror into a figurative eye of a god, showing clearly, that the speaker of the poem is not a literal mirror, but a deep consciousness: the artistic mind, the imagination -- or, if you prefer, the unconscious.
The poem’s second most prominent symbol is a lake. Plath writes in lines ten through eleven that the woman of the poem looks into the lake with the purpose of self-discovery:
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
The reality that the woman is searching for has already been revealed by the mirror to the reader in the first stanza. Being unable to disguise reality, or to lie about it, the reflective capacity of the unconscious simply sees the searching woman for what she is: a mortal who will age and die.
The final image of the poem: that of the woman’s face, aged to a frightening state, rising toward her peering eyes like a fish from the bottom of the lake, is another use of double metaphor. Plath compares the reflected image of the old woman to a “terrible fish.”
While time has transformed the woman; the speaker of the poem has been left unchanged. The poetic consciousness lives on while the earthly ego must experience age and death.
I think "Mirror" is one of Plath's best symbolist efforts. Do you agree?
Almost six decades after her suicide, Sylvia Plath's poetry (and prose) continue to fascinate and inspire. More than any other poet of her generation, Plath captured widespread popular attention and hammered out a personal identity and literary aesthetic that has endured for over half a century.
The tragedies of Plath's life and career are well known, and they are particularly germane to a full understanding of her work, given the fact that Plath mastered the Confessional idiom. That said, it is Plath's artistry that gives her work longevity and power. Whether in regard to her bold themes, her incomparable skill with figurative language, her indelible diction, or her metrical precision, Plath was the full-package as a poet. Her insights into nature and human nature, backed by her prodigious scholarship, elevate her work to its rightful place among other literary greats like Yeats, Dickinson, Roethke, or Sappho.
Virginia Woolf's "If Shakespeare Had a Sister" was published in 1929 and concludes with this statement: "If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded, I thought, turning again to the bookcase, it was Shakespeare's mind." For Woolf, the realization of Shakespeare's genius was bittersweet, but her observation that "unimpeded" was the make or break point for any artist is no less true for Plath.
Plath, of course, was never able to express her work completely, but her existing work is a pyrotechnic display of mastery and power that, in every way, rises to Woolf's subversive ideals and makes them as real as Woolf did. Plath's incandescent mind still burns and it is sunfire hot for anyone who dares to read her work.
My book The Ariel Method is scheduled for release in May 2022. The book reveals and celebrates the techniques and creative strategies that Plath developed in becoming "Shakespeare's Sister." I've studied Plath's biography and work intensely for many years and I'm finally ready to write about her. Watch this space for updates regarding the book and for glimpses into the mechanics (and mystique) of Plath's poetic idiom.
As always, I eagerly await your thoughts. Talk to me about Plath or anything else -- hit the button below or the "talk" link up top.