Sylvia Plath Forum

Poetry Analysis/ Discussion


Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is all Hollywood, windowless,
The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine,
Coy paper strips for doors
Stage curtains, a widow's frizz.
And I, love, am a pathological liar,
And my child look at her, face down on the floor,
Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear
Why she is schizophrenic,
Her face is red and white, a panic,
You have stuck her kittens outside your window
In a sort of cement well
Where they crap and puke and cry and she can't hear.
You say you can't stand her,
The bastard's a girl.
You who have blown your tubes like a bad radio
Clear of voices and history, the staticky
Noise of the new.
You say I should drown the kittens. Their smell!
You say I should drown my girl.
She'll cut her throat at ten if she's mad at two.
The baby smiles, fat snail,
From the polished lozenges of orange linoleum.
You could eat him. He's a boy.
You say your husband is just no good to you.
His Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl.
You have one baby, I have two.
I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair.
I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair.
We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.

Meanwhile there's a stink of fat and baby crap.
I'm doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads, two venemous opposites,
Our bones, our hair.
I call you Orphan, orphan. You are ill.
The sun gives you ulcers, the wind gives you T.B.
Once you were beautiful.
In New York, in Hollywood, the men said: "Through?
Gee baby, you are rare."
You acted, acted for the thrill.
The impotent husband slumps out for a coffee.
I try to keep him in,
An old pole for the lightning,
The acid baths, the skyfuls off of you.
He lumps it down the plastic cobbled hill,
Flogged trolley. The sparks are blue.
The blue sparks spill,
Splitting like quartz into a million bits.

O jewel! O valuable!
That night the moon
Dragged its blood bag, sick
Up over the harbor lights.
And then grew normal,
Hard and apart and white.
The scale-sheen on the sand scared me to death.
We kept picking up handfuls, loving it,
Working it like dough, a mulatto body,
The silk grits.
A dog picked up your doggy husband. He went on.

Now I am silent, hate
Up to my neck,
Thick, thick.
I do not speak.
I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes,
I am packing the babies,
I am packing the sick cats.
O vase of acid,
It is love you are full of. You know who you hate.
He is hugging his ball and chain down by the gate
That opens to the sea
Where it drives in, white and black,
Then spews it back.
Every day you fill him with soul-stuff, like a pitcher.
You are so exhausted.
Your voice my ear-ring,
Flapping and sucking, blood-loving bat.
That is that. That is that.
You peer from the door,
Sad hag. "Every woman's a whore.
I can't communicate."

I see your cute decor
Close on you like the fist of a baby
Or an anemone, that sea
Sweetheart, that kleptomaniac.
I am still raw.
I say I may be back.
You know what lies are for.

Even in your Zen heaven we shan't meet.

I like very much Jack Folsom's idea for this poem to represent some type of dialogue with an anti-self. I know that TH was very concerned with Jungian concepts of Self, and I presume SP was too. The color yellow (Therresa's point) has a strong symbollic context that might also make this point. According to Jung's alchemical writings, yellow represents Sulphur - a demonic 'Anti' element. It represents disease, and all those firey aspects of our psyche that we'd rather bury - our monstrous self! It seems more than likely that SP would find Assia as this very embodiment - her shadow rival, the one to drag her down.

(I'm reminded a bit of John Lennon's song about Paul Mccartney 'How do you sleep'. It is pure vitriol, but for all that, John later admitted that the song was really about himself - his own insecurities and lack of self-worth.)

I'm sure that SP would have been fully aware of this type of shadow projection - not least from Dostoevski.

And just to labour the idea! In his correspondence with Keith Sagar, TH spoke of a belief that SP had indeed gone through a process of psychic healing, just prior to her death. In Jungian terms she'd faced and accepted her 'shadow' as part of her whole - a complete and loving whole. Could this have some provocative slant upon the title 'Lesbos'(?!). It would represent the mirrored love of one woman's acceptance of herSelf (projected for a time as another ie Assia). A monumental act of forgiveness if this could be the case. Sadly, if this was so, it proved short lived. But in fairness to TH, a period of extreme Grace and insight just prior to an eventual cataclysm certainly isn't without precedent. It must have made the loss doubly hard to accept and comprehend.

Paul Brodie
Saltburn , UK
Monday, September 18, 2006

Plath's poem 'Lesbos', proves that even Plath herself thinks that mistresses are nothing but evil temptresses. I fully agree with her. Women like that obviously don't care who they hurt, what marriage/relationship they break up, what children they scar for life as their parents fall away from each other, as long as they get what they want. Even women who (for example Assia)say they love the man of another woman should stay away. If the man feels the same about his mistress he is well capable of destroying his wife himself, without having the other woman giving him a helping hand. That will only send the poor, newly separated woman over the edge-just like Sylvia Plath.

Shawn Talbot
Dublin , Ireland
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Well, I think that the title has more to do with the island (Lesbos, Greece) than anything sexual at all.

I have read interpretations of the poem that explain the title's meaning and I don't believe it would be smart to presume that "Lesbos" and her use of the title has anything to do with any manner of sexuality with regard to her and another woman. She certainly was not using the term as many individuals would now, in the present time interpret the term as meaning. Lesbos, as in a homosexual woman, was not I believe the real meaning behind her use of the title. She was one who loved to incorporate the use of location in her poems.

The manner in which she describes this element of "otherness" this competitor is not presented in any sexual or attractive light. There is a mocking element to her use of key words in this poem, but that can also exist between two women who are not lovers, but are rivals.

I believe she was bitterly describing a foe, a rival. And the title "Lesbos", may have been a secret jab at a woman who appeared Greek, despite her blue eyes. The poem is about a failed relationship, there is clear reference to a husband, trying to keep him in, and then the despair of packing, the clear failure of a relationship, a marriage is presented. But perhaps I am the only one who sees it thusly?

It is such an interesting poem, so full of mystery, I guess we will never really ever fully ascertain its true meaning.

Therresa Kennedy
Portland, Oregon , USA
Saturday, August 6, 2005

Yes, there are at least two other interpretations of "Lesbos" that I can think of. Many of the details do remind one of Assia, but the title, "Lesbos," suggests that this is a monologue in which the speaker (not necessarily Sylvia herself, but a persona) is ranting about a failed lesbian relationship. The speaker also mocks her female lover ("Once you were beautiful").

Omitted phrases from an earlier draft of the poem are interesting. After "The sparks are blue" she once wrote "my God, your eyes are blue!". After "You peer from the door, /Sad hag" she once added "utterly deflated". Her former lover, whom she berates as a "vase of acid," becomes the object of the first ending that Sylvia tried in a draft of the poem:

I shall not come back
My sweet, my sweet.
Even in your Zen heaven we shan't meet!

As Janice Markey puts it, "This is clearly no idyllic Lesbos just as the experience in "Leaving Early" was far from ideal. In fact, everything from the beginning conspires against any meaningful relationship between the two women. There seems to be an incompatibility - the women are depicted as 'two venomous opposites' even as they start to make love" (A Journey Into The Red Eye, 1993, P.22).

On the other hand, Lynda Bundtzen observes that "Plath manages to distance herself from an unbearable situation [Ted's philandering] with humor, irony, and satire, so that poems like "Lesbos" stand quite independently in their criticism of domestic bliss.... The vine-covered cottage of Hollywood "happily-ever-afters" has proved a jerry-built sham.... The woman has been sold a bill of dometic goods when her real destiny was to be a femme fatale--a mermaid, a vamp, a sex goddess" (Plath's Incarnations, 1983, pp. 27-28).

If I were to follow up on Professor Bundtzen's view, I would take "Lesbos" to be a monologue in which the speaker addresses her own anti-self. Remember that Sylvia's senior thesis topic was the theme of the double in Dostoevski. In her senior year at Smith, after a failed suicide attempt and therapy, Sylvia must have known that she didn't know who she was. Lacking a center, she then dyed her hair blond and became a sex-pot. Later she experimented with conflicting personae (happy wife-mother vs. desperate, betrayed cow-mother--serious artist vs. libertine, etc.). "Lesbos" may be another play she wanted to write and act in so as to "feel real."

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont , USA
Friday, August 5, 2005

I love this poem and I think that the interpretation that Therresa has given is fascinating and I find myself agreeing and understanding many of the points made, especially about Assia, the abortions and the yellowness of her skin.

One thing I am unclear about is the title of the poem. I know this may seem like a stupid question but I am interested and would like to know why it is named this and what it means.

Newcastle , UK
Monday, July 4, 2005

I will now attempt to examine and offer up for your enjoyment, my interpretation of "Lesbos" a poem by Sylvia Plath. If this interpretation offends any gentle readers, please let me extend my sincere apologies first hand. This is only my interpretation and I do not expect complete agreement etc. I respect diversity of opinion and will not take it personally if others have their own personal perception of this particular poem. As the poem is long and I am presuming you all have copies of it, I will not include the poem in its entirety here. You can refer to your own books if you wish.

I base my interpretation of Plath's poem on many things, namely, the time in which she wrote the poem, which was later in her life, only four months before her death. Also the fact that she is known to have been markedly deceptive about the motivations and content of some of her poems, just as she is known to have been routinely dishonest regarding other things in her life and in her relationships to certain indivuals in her life, including and most significantly her mother. Her problem with honestly communicating with relatives and others is fairly well known, as is her apparent lack of personal insight into her own motivations and behavior. For example, long after she had insisted that Hughes leave the family home, she told her friends and family that he had "abandoned" her, instead of the truth, which was that she had thrown him out. Her behavior in this regard was typical of many women so scorned or betrayed. She was after all only human.

I suppose the reality is that this poem could be interpreted any number of different ways, that is the beauty of debate in this regard. I base my interpretation on Plath's routine deceptiveness regarding her true inner life, her secretiveness is well known, also her anger, bitterness and rigid desire for pay back to those who crossed her. Her poetry writing was a cleansing, a rending of negative emotion that was holding her in a captive state, much like poetry composition is for many people. I do not hero worship Plath, and I also recognise that she was not an oracle, she was so young, only thirty when she passed away. I do not believe that she was experienced enough to have attained real personal insight into her behavior, not in any real or meaningful manner.

The reality is that many aspects of this poem are really incomprehensible. I can only focus onto significant (key words) that convey more meaning, headed in a certain direction than what she may have stated the meaning of the poem actually was.

In the first few stanzas, she writes, "Viciousness in the Kitchen!/The potatoes hiss.", then later, "The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine" She was known to have made a meal for David and Assia Wevill more than a year earlier in her family home, in the kitchen, she had been ill with a migraine, and taking medication for it. She appears to be writing to a silent female antagonist, a rival? And her language is clearly bitter. She accuses herself in an indirect manner of being a "pathological liar", could this be at that point in her life something to which she is responding to? Accusations made by someone else, of her being a pathological liar? Possibly I think. She mentions her daughter, "Little unstrung puppet...Why she is schizoprenic", clearly at least to me, responding to another's criticism. The tone is there.

Later she writes "The bastard's a girl" Plath's belief that she was capable of premonitions, of being a seer of sorts, this was also commented upon by her own husband Hughes, later after her death. Was this some kind of prediction of hers, that she knew Wevill would bear an illigetimate child, a female child? Could be. Then Plath writes "You who have blown your tubes like a bad radio/Clear of voices and history" The pride of the fertile woman condemning the unfertile, childless woman? An accusation of having blown her "tubes" due to repeated abortions? Assia's repeated abortions? Hughes had confided in Plath at some length about Assia's immorality, and her abortions. This has been stated in various bio's. "You say your husband is just no good to you" Assia attempting to evoke sympathy from Plath by playing "sad" due to the hubby nine years her junior? It's possible.

Then she writes significantly, "I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair/I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair/ We should meet in another life, we should meet in air/Me and you." It is well known that Assia attempted to seduce Plath with flattery and suggestions as to how she should do her personal grooming, her attempts at flattery fell flat with Plath who well knew to beware of the superficiality of that kind of blatant manipulation. Wevill was well known to have very much liked "Tiger prints" and was seen sporting that kind of dress when she was spotted with Hughes in a zoo, in Africa was it? In the poem, this nameless faceless woman perhaps? suggesting Plath should have an affair is interesting, it's what most (other women) will do in an attempt to create chaos in the family home, to effectively rid themselves of the competition. It certainly is not original, it's common, the master adulterer's biggest clue in.

Later Plath writes, "Meanwhile theres a stink of fat and baby crap/I'm doped and thick from my last sleeping pill/The smog of cooking, the smog of hell/Floats our heads, two venomous opposites/Our bones, our hair" This could be a veritable description of her experience with Wevill in the kitchen, when later she asks Assia to leave, Plath was not feeling well, was effected by her sleeping pills and was nervous at Wevill's and Hughes's connection and apparent attraction. Plath also writes, "The sun gives you ulcers" She makes mention in several of her (later poems) of this imperfection of skin tone. Yelllow, all kinds of references are made that poke fun in a strange manner of this kind of imperfection of skin. It is well known that Assia was covered with numerous moles and freckles, and had most significantly a yellow cast to her skin and even Hughes made mention that his friends could quickly pick up the "flick of the tar brush" in his lover Assia Wevill. That Plath would focus on Assia's skin tone and her probable insecurity in this regard, apparently mocking her, is absolute classic Plath and makes perfect sense to me.

Plath then writes, "The impotent husband slumps out for a coffee/I try to keep him in" Could it be this is Plath herself, trying to keep in her dumb husband who is so stupid he cannot recognise sociopathy in Assia when Plath herself so easily can? Is this a reference to Hughes and herself? Could be couldn't it? Later she mentions a "Mulatto body" one more negative reference to Assia's dark yellowness?

Then significantly, she writes, "Now I am silent, hate/Up to my neck/Thick, thick/I do not speak/I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes/I am packing the babies" This is clearly when she is describing the packing of belongings, the packing of babies. This is representative of the separation, the split. She writes of a man and herself and another during the duration of this poem. "Every day you fill him with soul-stuff, like a pitcher/You are so exhausted/Your voice my ear-ring/Flapping and sucking, blood loving bat/That is that. That is that/You peer from the door/Sad hag.'Every woman's a whore/I can't communicate."

Is this last quote something she heard Assia say? Is it possible? I think it is. Assia was well known to be confrontational, in a seemingly civilized and feminine fashion. she was not a simpering flower, but a competitive and worthy opponent who could plan and execute colorful revenges on her enemies, many times using the post as a tool of her venom. Could the blood loving bat be Assia? I very well think it could be. Plath goes on to write, "I am still raw/I say I may be back/You know what lies are for/Even in your Zen heaven we shan't meet."

Assia Wevill spoke of reincarnation during her visits with Hughes and Plath, they discussed witchcraft and other elements of the occult, including the black arts. Assia projected an image of smiling charm and deception, and often in Plath's later poems these two things are repeatedly focused on. Smiles and lies, secrets etc. So are the repeated images of a mocking element with regard to skin color and skin imperfections, of "yellowness" being apparently condemned and unflattering. The reality is that Plath may well have stated that this poem was written about or even perhaps for other people, but I think the focus on her brain at the time it was written, was clearly Assia wevill. The similarities and the interesting (key words) are simply too coincidental and a dead giveaway to the actual reality of what Plath experienced at the hands of Wevill. If one has studied the facts as presented in many of the most important bio's on Plath and Hughes, then this poem is especially revealing, in this capacity, at least in my opinion.

Plath often stated that her poems were about complex and surrealistic elements of the unconscious, and other things, including but not limited to mythology, and other interesting topics, but I see more simplicity in her manner of artistic purging and composition than anything else. I recognise how in many respects this poem has aspects to it that are and remain virtually incomprehensible. The key words are what I focus on and I can only see in the poem what it is I personally see.

I totally accept others' interpretations of this poem and that of course is what is so wonderful about poetry. Often when we write a poem it is a mystery to us as well, and even after considerable examination it can still retain that aura of mystery and unknowability. I stand by my interpretation of this poem but totally repect others as well. My two cents. Take care all!

Therresa Kennedy
Portland, Oregon , USA
Sunday, June 26, 2005

I love this poem and I think that the interpretation that Therresa has given is fascinating and I find myself agreeing and understanding many of the points made, especially about Assia, the abortions and the yellowness of her skin.

One thing I am unclear about is the title of the poem. I know this may seem like a stupid question but I am interested and would like to know why it is named this and what it means.

Newcastle, England
Monday, July 4, 2005

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