Monday, 11 March 2013

Ekphrasis with Sylvia Plath

This month's close read takes on Plath's poem The Disquieting Muses*. If you are interested in making art from art, as Plath does here, come to my next Paris Lit Up writing workshop on 7 April at 12h30 in the library at Shakespeare and Company. If you can't wait until then, there is a writing prompt for you to try at the end of this post.

Plath uses the idea of and rewrites the Sleeping Beauty fairytale in this poem addressed to her mother. Instead of asking why the wicked fairy was not invited to her christening she wants to know which family member was not invited and chose to send 'three ladies in her stead/with heads like darning needles'. The second stanza expands this imagery into other children's stories and fairytales with its reference to Hanzel and Gretel, to ask whether her mother's words from these sources dispelled the ladies 'nodding at night around my bed'.

The ladies represent the ultimate childhood nightmare for Plath. As she says idiomatically in the third stanza, they even broke her father's study window panes where a hurricane did not and in the fourth and fifth stanza prevented her from enjoying the delights of childhood like dancing, 'singing the glowworm song' and playing the piano. The nightmare continues into adulthood as the muses are the travelling companions she must face as they 'stand their vigil in gowns of stone/Faces as blank as the day I was born/Their shadows long in the setting sun'.

Plath continues to lay the finger of blame for her state of mind, and here we might read-in some biography and her depressive episodes, on her mother. The repetition of the words mother, mother lays emphasis on this at the opening of the poem, in the final stanza and at several places in between.

The poem ends with a puzzle that she will not betray the company of the muses. What does this mean? That they are far from nightmare and by now familiar comfort, artistic guides even, or that to oppose her mother she must alley herself with what terrifies herself most? Perhaps both. This poem is often read as the young woman wrestling older female figures who are trying to smother her**, but I think this is a simplifcation.

Of course, all of this is without even knowing that Plath had in mind a particular painting, executed during World War I by Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio di Chirico, when she wrote this. Once you see the painting (left), the description of the figures and their precise position around the crib is apparent, and somehow for me less nightmarish. Unfortunately, now you know this, you can never read the poem in isolation, as you are almost bound to want to navigate between the two to see which elements Plath used and which she ignored.

That is an added dimension to the game of ekphrasis and specifically what is crucial for the writer, I now think, is to be skilled enough to make a completely self-contained poem that does not need to be informed by knowledge of its source. Often I find it tedious to have such imposed on me as reader, as it requires work on my part to go elsewhere (and I am inherently lazy), instead of just enjoying the poem, although guilty as charged on previous occasions!

And now for the writing...Find yourself a scary painting. There are plenty to choose from (Bosch, Fuseli, Munch come readily to mind). Use its images as description for something scary from your childhood. It does not have to be a gothic nightmare, just something that frightened you (and perhaps still does). Just remember to cut it loose from its moorings and don't make the piece dependent on knowing the painting, avoid references to the actual artist, although you might want to throw the reader a clue, as Plath does, in the title or in one of the lines. Have fun. Boo!

 * The poem can be found in the Faber Collected Plath (1982) pg. 74
** See Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath (2008) pg.42 and further cites. 


  1. Hi Kate,
    Truly enjoying your blog posts. I never thought of looking at a painting (especially a scary one!) for inspiration. As most of my writings deal with dark stuff, this sounds wonderful, thank you for the prompt.

    1. You are most welcome Ann - glad you like my blog!