Sylvia Plath had one of the most storied lives (and deaths) of any poet. The truly tragic circumstances of her passing, and the white-hot rhetoric of the poems that she wrote in the final year of her life, can sometimes obscure her exceptional poetic gift. “Blackberrying” is for me her masterpiece. It’s a poem of plain description that holds at its center something huge and unspoken.
There is no mystery to be “solved” in “Blackberrying”; the poem’s descriptions and events do not “stand” for anything but themselves. But that makes the poem even stronger, and more suggestive. It’s a piece that suggests the wonder of life itself, an amazement that such a conjunction of sights and sounds (of feasts for all five senses, in fact) could come to exist. “I knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen,” Elizabeth Bishop says in a different (but just as ordinary) context. Why should humans seek out fruit, why should they compete with flies for it, why should blackberries grow (as they do in England) on scraps of waste ground? Why are humans drawn by an ocean, even when they cannot sense it, and why do such marvelous juxtapositions of land and water exist in our world?
I love this poem for the way it is continually drawn beyond its subject, toward wonder. Plath is often celebrated for her extreme hatreds, for her acid satires of conventional life. But she was also capable of turning her titanic energies toward an expression of just how fabulous it is to be alive in the world.
“Blackberrying” is also a masterful use of free verse, with its long, non-rhyming, irregular lines that wander in and out of the standard ten-syllable line that is the most common pattern in English verse. It is too rhythmic and too meandering to be good prose, but it’s great free verse, unsettling readers and keeping us off balance, just as the day of blackberrying upsets and unsettles the speaker.