sylvia plath found poems
To write these poems, I select a paragraph from a Plath text—so far, The Bell Jar, Letters Home, and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath—and only use the words from that paragraph to create a poem. I essentially write poems while doing a word search using Sylvia Plath as source material. I don’t allow myself to repeat words, add words, or edit the language for tense or any other consideration. These poems are simultaneously defined by both Plath’s choices with language as well as my own. Plath's preoccupation with poetry, writing, relationships, and mental health have proved fruitful and resulted in poems that feel authentic to my own experiences.
My published Plath found poems are paired here with the paragraphs I've used to write each one. The words I used from each paragraph are in red.
"Always the Outcast" | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | DIALOGIST (forthcoming)
Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness. I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers’ beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life in this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass. Caught between the hope and promise of my work - - - the one or two stories that seem to catch something, the one or two poems that build a little colored island of words - - - and the hopeless gap between that promise, and the real world of other peoples poems and stories and novels. My shaping spirit of imagination is far from me. At least I have begun my German. Painful, as if “part were cut out of my brain”. I am of course at fault. Anesthetizing myself again, and pretending nothing is there. There is the curse of this vanity. My inability to lose myself in a character, a situation. Always myself, myself. What good does it do to be published, if I am producing nothing? If only a group of people were more important to me than the Idea of a Novel, I might begin a novel. Little artificial stories that get nothing of the feeling, the drama even of life. When they should be realer, more intense than life. And I am prepared for nothing else. Am dead already. Pretend an interest in astrology, botany, which I never follow up. When I go home I must teach myself the Tarot pack, the stars, German conversation. Add French to my studying. This comes so natural to some people. Ted is my salvation. He is so rare, so special, how could anyone else stand me! Of course, otherwise I might get a PhD, teach in New York, or work at a career. It is hard, with our unplanned drifting, to do much in this way.
Tonight, for a moment, all was at peace inside. I came out of the house-across -the-street a little before twelve, sick with unfulfilled longing, alone, self-reviling. And there, miraculously was the August night. It had just rained, and the air was thick with warm damp and fog. The moon, full, pregnant with light, showed strangely from behind the small frequent clouds, poised like a picture puzzle that had been broken, with light in back, outlining each piece. There seemed to be no wind, but the leaves of the trees stirred, restless, and the water fell from them in great drops on the pavement, with a sound like that of people walking down the street. There was the peculiar smell of mould, dead leaves, decay, in the air. The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance. Lightning, heat lightning flicked off and on, as if some stage hand were toying with the light switch. Two crickets, deep in the cracks in the granite steps, sang a sweet, haunting-thin trill. And because it was my home, I loved them. The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious.
I have never in my life, except that deadly summer of 1953, & fall, gone through such a black lethal two weeks. I couldn't write a word about it, although I did in my head. The horror, day by day more sure, of being pregnant. Remembering my growing casualness about contraception, as if it couldn't happen to me then: clang, clang, one door after another banged shut with the overhanging terror which, I know now, would end me, probably Ted, and our writing & our possible impregnable togetherness. The glittering and coming realities: my job at Smith, which I need more than anything to give me a sense of reality, or serving, specifically, from day to day, and meeting minds & working & practising with them; our apartment in Northampton which we'd have to leave because of the baby; our future, Ted with no job, me with no job, the avalanche of bills putting us into debt, and, worst of all, hating and hating the intruder when, four years from now, say, we could be the best parents possible. Also, the idea of 20 years of misery and a child being unloved, as it inadvertently, through our fault, killed our spiritual and psychic selves by freezing them into a stasis out of the necessity of sacrificing everything to earning money. This we lived in, sickly, from day to day, counting the days over the longest times I'd gone: 35 days, 40 days, and then the crying sessions in the doctor's office, the blood test Sunday, in avalanches of rain & thunder, riding the streaming roads, up to our knees on our bikes in the dips filling inch by inch with rainwater, drenched to the skin, bent to break under the lightning. I pictured final judgment on a bridge: a thundercrack & last pyre of electricity. But nothing happened. Nothing, till Monday when, after a busy, deceptive morning of shopping, I sat at the typewriter and the hot drench itself began, the red stain dreamed for and longed for during the white sterile ominous minutes of the six weeks. And the swearing to whatever gods or fates there be, that I would never complain or bewail anything as long as the baby didn't come: the ultimate worst, aside from physical mutilations and sicknesses and deaths, or the loss of love.
A morbid fear: that protests too much. To the doctor. I am going to the psychiatrist this week, just to meet him, to know he's there. And, ironically, I feel I need him. I need a father. I need a mother. I need some older, wiser being to cry to. I talk to God, but the sky is empty, and Orion walks by and doesn't speak. I feel like Lazarus: that story has such a fascination. Being dead, I rose up again, and even resort to the mere sensation value of being suicidal, of getting so close, of coming out of the grave with the scars and the marring mark on my cheek which (is it my imagination) grows more prominent: paling like a death-spot in the red, wind-blown skin, browning darkly in photographs, against my grave winter-pallor. And I identify too closely with my reading, with my writing. I am Nina in "Strange Interlude"; I do want to have husband, lover, father and son, all at once. And I depend too desperately on getting my poems, my little glib poems, so neat, so small, accepted by the New Yorker. To revenge myself on the blonde one, as if the mere paper dykes of print can keep out the creative flood which annihilates all envy, all mere niggling fearful jealousy. Be generous.
Now enough factual background statement. He and I: sat in the living room, at Rahar's," at the coffee shop" and talked and did-not-talk as we pleased. He hates sitting: likes to talk walking. (N.B also) He sat next to me with his arm around me, warm and close and comfortable. Kissed me, too. Long and goodly saturday we stood on the porch in the rain, him pulling me against his body, and shutting his eyes and kissing me gently and for a long time, with his mouth moving softly on mine. I think I am a good deal more experienced in varieties of kisses than he is: I better be careful I don't shock him or make him think he needs more experience, because I like him this way, and perhaps subtly I can let him know how other ways I like to be kissed. He also carries me places in his arms, and I feel so feminine and light, even with my cast, it is so good to let the world black out quite and the equilibrium tilt inside my head: the carrying is a symbol of his virility: to me. Why do I like him so: more so than dick (so I don't even want to go up and see dick at the end of February)? He is like me in many ways: even the attitude about marriage, unromantic, practical, and reasonable, is like mine. In the long run, that is good, if difficult. I have a rather peculiar feeling that if I use my intelligence and pragmatism that I can become desirable and necessary to him. Maybe that is a damn illusion. Even though he says he is against the attitude that a woman is a prize possession, he likes them good-looking, and pretty intelligent. How do I like men? Hell, depends for what purpose. Everything from the worldly roué to the young innocent. But in the long run, I like not having to worry about what money can buy (sort of let's out teachers, even though they do live in academic circles & have summers off.) I like keen intelligence and intellectual curiosity: probably a professional man: doctor, lawyer, engineer, would do the trick. And a lot more. Giant, superman: mental and physical. He is these. Physically he meets all requirements (clearer skin is the only possible flaw.) Mentally, he is pretty great. The only terrible thing is: I am not sure I will ever know him really: I must see him in a lot of situations before I decide how he reacts, how he is inside. But somehow I am forcibly drawn to him. His lacks: no "family" prestige, etc., bother me not a whit. After all, having none myself, that sort of thing isn't important. Hell, I guess I just like him quite alot!
…I don't believe there is life after death in the literal sense. I don't believe my individual ego or spirit is unique and important enough to wake up after burial and soar to bliss and pink clouds in heaven. If we leave the body behind as we must, we are nothing. All that makes me different from Betty Grable is my skin, my mind, my time and my environment. All that separates me from being Thomas Mann is that I was born in America, and not in his home town of Lubeck; that I am a girl, he a man; that he was inheritor of a particular set of glands and a lump of brain tissue which are tuned differently from mine. He is different now. But he will die. Sinclair Lewis died: the shriveled face leered from the newspaper picture, and I remembered Carol of Main Street, Martin Arrowsmith, and Doctor Gottlieb. Sinclair is now slowly decomposing in his tomb. The spark went out; the hand that wrote, the optical and auditory nerves that recorded, the brain folds that recreated - - - all are limp, flaccid, rotting now. Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead - and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never. George Bernard Shaw is dead - and the wit has been snuffed out, the light is gone. Do vegetarians rot more rapidly than meat-eaters? But they left something - and other people will feel part of what they felt. But you can never recreate completely, and they are dead. The human mind is so limited it can only build an arbitrary heaven - and usually the physical comforts they endow it with are naively the kind that can be perceived as we humans perceive - nothing more. No: perhaps I will awake to find myself burning in hell. I think not. I think I will be snuffed out. Black is sleep; black is a fainting spell; and black is death, with no light, no waking. And how I bleed for all the individuals on the battle fields - who thought "I am I, and I know this, that there is dying with no one knowing." I know a little how it must be - to feel the waters close above you for the third time, and to feel the internal juice sapping away, leaving you empty. To have your mind broken, and the contents evaporated, gone. For with the record of images we have ingrained in our heads, all goes and is nothing. Antoine St. Exupery once mourned the loss of a man and the secret treasures that he held inside him. I loved Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone. Is that life after death - mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring? Maybe. I do not know.
“I Wanted a Nice Life” | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
– Now I’ll never see him again, and maybe it’s a good thing. He walked out of my life last night for once and for all. I know with sickening certainty that it’s the end. There were just those two dates we had, and the time he came over with the boys, and tonight. Yet I liked him too much - - - way too much, and I ripped him out of my heart so it wouldn’t get to hurt me more than it did. Oh, he’s magnetic, he’s charming; you could fall into his eyes. Let’s face it: his sex appeal was unbearably strong. I wanted to know him - - - the thoughts, the ideas behind the handsome, confident, wise-cracking mask. “I’ve changed,” he told me. “You would have liked me three years ago. Now I’m a wiseguy.” We sat together for a few hours on the porch, talking, and staring at nothing. Then the friction increased, centered. His nearness was electric in itself. “Can’t you see,” he said. “I want to kiss you.” So he kissed me, hungrily, his eyes shut, his hand warm, curved burning into my stomach. “I wish I hated you,” I said. “Why did you come?” “Why? I wanted your company. Alby and Pete were going to the ball game, and I couldn’t see that. Warrie and Jerry were doing drinking; couldn’t see that either.” It was past eleven; I walked to the door with him and stepped outside into the cool August night. “Come here,” he said. “I’ll whisper something: I like you, but not too much. I don’t want to like anybody too much.” Then it me and I just blurted, “I like people too much or not at all. I’ve got to go down deep, to fall into people, to really know them.” He was definite, “Nobody knows me.” So that was it; the end. “Goodbye for good, then,” I said. He looked hard at me, a smile twisting his mouth. “You lucky kid; you don’t know how lucky you are.” I was crying quietly, my face contorted. “Stop it!” The words came like knife thrusts, and then gentleness, “In case I don’t see you, have a nice time at Smith.” “Have a hell of a nice life,” I said. And he walked off down the path with his jaunty, independent stride. And I stood there where he left me, tremulous with love and longing, weeping in the dark. That night it was hard to get to sleep.
“No Solace” | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
Whom can I talk to? Get advice from? No one. A psychiatrist is the God of our age. But they cost money. And I won’t take advice, even if I want it. I’ll kill myself. I am beyond help. No one here has time to probe, to aid me in understand myself…so many others are worse off than I. How can I selfishly demand help, solace, guidance? No, it is my own mess, and even if now I have lost my sense of perspective, thereby my creative sense of humor, I will not let myself get sick, go mad, or retreat like a child into blubbering on someone else’s shoulder. Masks are the order of the day – and the least I can do is cultivate the illusion that I am gay, serene, not hollow and afraid. Someday, god knows when, I will stop this absurd, self-pitying, idle, futile despair. I will begin to think again, and to act according to the way I think. Attitude is a pitifully relative and capracious quality to base a faith on. Like the proverbial sand, it slides, founders, sucks me down to hell.
“Sitting with Figs” | The Bell Jar | The Texas Review | forthcoming)
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Mother wrote today with a good letter of maxims; skeptical as always at first, I read what struck home: "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter - - - for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.... Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here." Those words spoke to my heart with peace, as if in comment, kindly, on my life, my days. That first, touched on that ricocheting judgment I've made: despairing of the inferior, disintegrated men I know (who I can't consider for marriage) and blowing up the blonde one and the figure-heads all out of proportion. Envy and pride, and where's the golden mean, the man who can be mine, I his. When I start getting jealous of the five editors of Mlle for being married (with a pang - - - this might be me, that sweet word: success) or Philip Booth" for writing poems for the NY and having a wife and all that, it is time to build up some inner prowess; I am letting too much go vacant; I must build up a little series of sitting ducks, possible ambitions, to knock down, or I'll find myself sitting at the beginning of Easter vacation, addled as an egg, twiddling my thumbs. We get well first, then we work. Meanwhile, read Hopkins for solace.
"Soft Blossoms" | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
A little thing, like children putting flowers in my hair, can fill up the widening cracks in my self-assurance like soothing lanolin. I was sitting out on the steps today, uneasy with fear and discontent. Peter," (the little boy-across-the-street) with the pointed pale face, the grave blue eyes and the slow fragile smile came bringing his adorable sister Libby of the flaxen braids and the firm, lyrically-formed child-body. They stood shyly for a little, and then Peter picked a white petunia and put it in my hair. Thus began an enchanting game, where I sat very still, while Libby ran to and fro gathering petunias, and Peter stood by my side, arranging the blossoms. I closed my eyes to feel more keenly the lovely delicate-child -hands, gently tucking flower after flower into my curls. "And now a white one," the lisp was soft and tender. Pink, crimson, scarlet, white... the faint pungent odor of the petunias was hushed and sweet. And all my hurts were smoothed away. Something about the frank, guileless blue eyes, the beautiful young bodies, the brief scent of the dying flowers smote me like the clean quick cut of a knife. And the blood of love welled up in my heart with a slow pain.
“Some Sleep Is Bleak” | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
... Some sleep is like a pile of garbage, with egg shells jagged, and vermin swarming over lurid orange peels, coffee grounds and sick wan lettuce leaves; that is the sleep of nightmare fragments, when the operation or the exam is coming the next day. Some sleep is bleak and gray, sparing with its calm and soothing treatment; that is the sleep of the worker, when each day is like the last and the next, and all time is present. But there are sleeps that are born of spring and of the slumbering hibernation of bears in leaf-hushed caves. My ears caught the twitter of birds, strange and early. My shut eyelids felt sun, and my nose smelled earth, and my skin felt warm wind. Eyes closed, body not yet mine, but still part of something - of air, of earth, of fire, of water. - And the sound of cars along the street and someone breathing in the next bed. I opened my eyes and pulled my body to me again. Leaning on an elbow, there was the window open, the curtains blowing in the Saturday wind, and the sunlight and shadow sharp and clear on the building across the street. To lie and regret the emergence from the womb as the umbilical cord is snipped, neatly, and the knot tied. To regret, regret, and know that the next move will be to arise, to walk to the toilet, one foot after another, to sit on the seat, sleepily, releasing the bright yellow stream of urine, yawning, and undoing rags from brown hair and curls. To get up, brush teeth, wash face, and begin again, in the merciless daylight, all the rituals of dressing that our culture subscribes to
“Spring” | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
January 24 ... Saturday morning, and I am at the old game of catching time between my fingers as it is running, forever running, away. This last week has been a blissful relaxation: breakfast in bed, a slow, languid getting up, reading modern poetry, seeing an excellent play "Bell, Book and Candle" in Springfield, having leisure time to write witty letters - oh, all this. And now the sensuous delight of sitting warm and clear-eyed at my desk, looking out of the window into the thick, steamy, rain-lashed dripping air, and hearing the cars slithering by, and the persistent scritch of shovels on cement, scraping away the slush. All is muted and blurred with thaw, and there is the fresh wet pregnant smell of earth again that makes me long for spring (again.) And I have taken to reading the muscular packed verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins again: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God... " and then again: "How to keep - is there any, any, is there none such, nowhere known, some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep / Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty ... from vanishing away?" Yes, obsessed, as always, with the vanishing of time!
"Tongue-Shy" | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
Absolutely blind fuming sick. Anger, envy and humiliation. A green seethe of malice through the veins. To faculty meeting, rushing through a gray mizzle, past the Alumnae House, no place to park, around behind the college, bumping, rumping through sleety frozen ruts. Alone, going alone, among strangers. Month by month, colder shoulders. No eyes met mine. I picked up a cup of coffee in the crowded room among faces more strange than in September. Alone. Loneliness burned. Feeling like a naughty presumptuous student. Marlies in a white jumper & red-dark patterned blouse. Sweet, deft: simply can't come. Wendell" & I are doing a text-book. Havent you heard? Eyes, dark, lifted to Wendell's round simper. A roomful of smoke and orange-seated black-painted chairs. Sat beside a vaguely familiar woman in the very front, no one between me and the president. Foisted forward. Stared intently at gilt leaved trees, orange-gilt columns, a bronze frieze of stags, stags and an archer, bow-bent. Intolerable, unintelligible bickering about plusses & minuses, graduate grades. On the backcloth a greek with white-silver feet fluted to a maid, coyly kicking one white leg out of her Greek robe. Pink & orange & gilded maidens. And a story, a lousy sentimental novel chapter 30 pages long & utterly worthless at my back: on this I lavish my hours, this be my defense, my sign of genius against those people who know somehow miraculously how to be together, au courant, at one. Haven't you heard? Mr Hill has twins. So life spins on outside my nets. I spotted Alison," ran for her after - meeting - she turned, dark, a stranger. "Alison", Wendell took her over, "are you driving down?" She knew. He knew. I am deaf, dumb. Strode into slush, blind. Into snow & gray mizzle. All the faces of my student shining days turned the other way. Shall I give, unwitting, dinners? To invite them to entertain us? Ted sits opposite: make his problems mine. Shut up in public those bloody private wounds. Salvation in work. What if my work is lousy? I want to rush into print any odd tripe. Words, words, to stop the deluge through the thumbhole in the dike. This be my secret place. All my life have I not been outside? Ranged against well-meaning foes? Desperate, intense: why do I find groups impossible? Do I even want them? Is it because I cannot match them, tongue-shy, brain-small, that I delude my dreams into grand novels and poems to astound? I must bridge the gap between adolescent glitter & mature glow. O steady. Steady on. I have my one man. To help him I will.
"Wanting" | The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | SAGINAW
—Tonight was awful. It was the combination of everything. Of the play “Goodbye My Fancy,” of wanting, in a juvenile way, to be, like the heroine, a reporter in the trenches, to be loved by a man who admired me, who understood me as much as I understood myself. And then there was Jack, who tried so hard to be nice, who was hurt when I said all he wanted was to make out. There was the dinner at the country club, the affluence of money everywhere. And then there was the record…the one so good for dancing. I forgot it was the one until Louie Armstrong began to sing in a voice husky with regret, ‘I’ve flown around the world in a plane, settle revolutions in Spain, the North pole I have charted…still I can’t get started with you.’ Jack said: ‘Ever heard it before?’ So I smiled, ‘Oh yes.’ It was Bob.’ That settled things for me - - - a crazy record, and it was our long talks, his listening and understanding. And I knew I loved him.”