Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms”

We were given Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” in an excellent writing class I’m going to and we discussed how Plath avoids the potentially monotonous effect of using a two-beat line over this length. What we talked about was the poem’s richness in alliteration and assonance. I think that in this poem such devices on the one hand, and syntax and metre on the other, play largely complementary roles. You can read the poem here to check my theory:

One of the main effects of the syntax is to keep things driving forward. The first four lines all end with strong enjambements, so that the sense hurries us on over the line endings. The same thing happens repeatedly later in the poem. In itself, this creates a tension between the onward movement of the sense and the interrupting effect of the line break, but with the balance tilted towards a feeling of onward movement against a pressure of resistance, so that we seem to be leaning forward at the line break. This syntactical effect is reinforced by a metre which is largely trochaic or dactylic (ie in which each “foot” or rhythmical unit starts with a strong stress and continues through one or two unstressed syllables). This seems naturally to produce an effect of more rapid forward movement than is the case with iambic and anapaestic feet, whose movement is from unstressed to stressed syllables.

Taken to its logical conclusion rapid forward movement culminates in prose. I’ve mentioned the resistance to this movement created by line breaks. It’s also countered by the patterning created by repetitions of sound and syntax. Such patterning is too pervasive to need much illustration. In the first stanza, for example, there’s the internal rhyme of “night” and “white”, linked by assonance to “quiet”. “Whitely” and “discreetly” form a two syllable pararhyme. In the next stanza, “toes”, noses”, “hold” and “loam” all assonate, but within this group of words “toes” and “nose” actually rhyme and there’s a little ripple of reverse rhyme in “hold” and “loam”. Repetition itself is cunningly varied and subverted to keep it mobile and alive.

Reinforcing this repetition of sound, there’s a constant but highly varied repetition of syntactical pattern. Again, this is too pervasive to need much illustration but one obvious example would be the way in which the verb / object sequence is repeated through “sees us, stops us, betrays us”. A brilliant later example is the four-fold repetition of a subject / copulative verb / complement pattern in “We are shelves, we are / Tables, we are meek, / We are edible”, where the line endings falls at different points in the pattern, and variety and humour are also supplied by the shift from noun complements (“shelves”, “tables”) to adjective complements (“meek”, “edible”).

The effect of these patterning devices is not exactly to slow the onward movement but to refocus our attention from what lies ahead of us to what lies behind. The contemplation of pattern holds the mind to what is there already as the pattern completes itself. If the patterning is mechanical and seems separate from the sense this can distract us from the real meat of the poem. Here, it sharpens our attention to the images as well as the sounds. The play of assonance and alliteration in “Soft fists insist on” sharpens the impact of the ideas of softness and insistence, and the shift to different sounds gives a fresh, equally sharp impact to “Heaving the needles”, where rhythmic repetition as well as assonance and the length of the vowels make us feel the effort of the heave.

Readers of “Mushrooms” will surely be impressed by the brilliance and wit of the imagery, but it’s the skill and imagination with which effects of syntax and sound are orchestrated that makes the imagery come so intensely and enduringly to life.

One Response to “Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms””

  1. Tamar Yoseloff said:

    Mar 09, 12 at 1:32 pm

    Great reading of this, Edmund. One of my favourite Plath poems!

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