The hidden depths of Plath’s language
Ted Hughes once said Sylvia Plath possessed an ‘artisan-like’ attitude towards writing poems: ‘if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.’
The gift of ‘Mushrooms’, first published in 1960, is its quietly subversive playfulness. But there is more to this poem than that. Plath’s tender yet tight control and soft, tactile atmosphere lets us know what the mushrooms are thinking.
Leading us through the senses, she guides us on a journey into an uncanny consciousness. Through subtle internal rhyming, loamy and fleshy textures, sibilances of soft yet urgent voices we can almost hear the incantatory whisper of the mushrooms close against the inner ear.
Plath offers an imaginative translation of what these fungi might say, and moves us into sympathy with the movement of their irrepressible growth. There are many unsettling subversions in these lines: the fungi speak warnings and yet possess a kind of foetal insouciance. They have anthropomorphic body parts – ‘our toes, our noses / take hold on the loam,’ and yet they are ‘earless and eyeless’.
These are sentient mushrooms, that ‘nudge’ and ‘heave’ with ‘soft fists’ as they birth unstoppably through the forest floor. They invade the domestic too, as images of shelves, tables and widening crannies, ‘even the paving’ and edible things creep in. For the poet these beings are more than mere organic matter. It is as if Plath intuited something going on between fungi and human, as the wild and the domestic mingle and merge.
Just like the mycelium that soil scientists tell us reach beneath the earth in vast networks, the language in Plath’s lines has hidden depths and resonates with contemporary issues. Is she speaking for the many silenced and the dispossessed?
Here it is the mushrooms that proliferate, that wish to rise into the light and that may – as all meek things might – inherit the earth. Science and medicine tell us that mushrooms are vital, from the discovery of penicillin and anti-viral properties to the mass breakdown of pollutants.
Under the soil these prodigious decomposers comprise living networks of the largest and most important organisms on earth. In making the inaudible audible, this poem’s power was prophetic. This year nature’s foot was most firmly in our door, and of one thing we can be sure — winter is coming and we should prepare.
Miriam Darlington is a poet, naturalist, author and academic. Her latest books are Otter Country and Owl Sense. She writes a regular column in The Times, the Nature Notebook.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. In 1982, she became the first to receive the Pulitzer Prize posthumously
©’Mushrooms’ from Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath Reproduced by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd.