Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sylvia Plath, "Metaphors"

I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.


From The Colossus (1960)

This poem moves us into the riddle territory of this week's theme; in fact, its title does not provide a clue so much point to the fact that its various images take the place of something else. The solution to the riddle is 'a pregnant woman' - the metaphors being a mix of inventive images and figures 'pregnant' with meaning. In case you hadn't noticed, the first line refers to the number of syllables (9) in each of the poem's nine lines, reflecting the nine months of pregnancy. Not also other subtle (or not so subtle) hints - a house is something that a person lives in (like a womb); the red fruit is also like the womb; the fifth line's coy allusion to having 'a bun in the oven'. While some of this cleverness is slightly cloying, that effect reinforces the muted grotesquerie of many of the images, as the pregnancy is almost something monstrous, as it is also mixed with the potential for sickness and rotting ("a bag of green apples") and an undercurrent of doom ("the train there's no getting off").
At the same time, the title suggests another level, playing off the traditional trope of comparing writing and giving birth. Metaphors are indeed a way of giving birth to new meaning; and if it's not going to far, I'd like to point out the conceptual similarity, the root "meta" meaning "beyond", and that a metaphor involves two parts, the imaginative potential of one being dependent on the concreteness of the other.
Plath's poems often draw upon the dark, traumatic, violent, even sado-masochistic - so it seems appropriate that her metaphoric pregnancy of creation would be conceived as something gortesque, sinister, perhaps uncontrollable.

(More about Sylvia Plath [1932-1963], including a few additional poems: www.poets.org/splat/)

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