#5 “Blackberrying” (Sylvia Plath)

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.

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7 responses to “#5 “Blackberrying” (Sylvia Plath)

  1. Blackberrying

    Nobody could stop her from death, and nobody seems to have loved her enough to do so according to the sarcasm suggested toward the end of the first stanza. It was like her silent way of telling the world that she too needed love. She had mixed emotions about religion throughout her life. Despite being born into the Great Depression during the early thirties, she managed to have success early on in her career. She began writing in her personal diary at the age of eleven. The first stanza of the poem Blackberrying discusses Sylvia Plath being unhappy for reasons unknown. Yet if you take a closer look into her life, her father died when she was only eight years old. She also tried to kill herself on sleeping pills while she was just a girl in college. Also, her husband allegedly had an affair with another lady during their very brief marriage in the late fifties. It lasted to the early sixties. Just goes to say that you really don’t know what her problems really were. We only saw the exterior of the inner pain that she was experiencing from her father’s death, also her husband’s affair and her own suicidal behaviors. The only man that had loved her as a young girl passed at an early age. What Sylvia Plath was experiencing was a very deep question that is quite frightening in some ways. “They must love me” suggests that the blackberries “must” love her because of the type of person she is if you only knew that she really could be good. It can also be looked at from a sarcastic point of view. Maybe she is questioning ever being loved at that point in her life. She even hurt herself despite the need to be loved speaking from a fatherless childhood. Sort of like saying, after all the things that she had been through, do the blackberries even love me as they are unable to? The poem emphasizes the steps up until she commits suicide. Death is right before us on the page of her poem. Death just cornered her basically into thinking where has the love been in her life? The last stanza seems like it summed up her life in just a few sentences. “The only thing to come now is the sea. From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me, gapping its phantom laundry in my face.” There was no one to blame that she was born, nonetheless born into the Great Depression. Not only was she born during a troubled time, but she was born into a family where her father was sick with diabetes and had to amputate his leg in an attempt to survive. Plath’s father had recently gotten ill after discovering that a friend had been diagnosed with cancer. Even her own father was alienated from his very own family because he wouldn’t convert to a Lutheran minister. All of these complications were being thrown at her in every direction upon birth up until death. This is an implication of the debris of laundry being thrown into her face. Each and every burden only leads her to collapsing from life. She left behind small children, as did her father. Each and everything that was done to her as a child, she incidentally did to her own children. No longer was she capable of loving herself as did her father who again died tragically so soon. There were unfaithful acts in the marriage as well which consistently parallels with the inconsistency of faith that she battled with throughout her life. This is joy, pain and death at it’s best.

  2. andreamcginley

    At first reading this poem was a very nice upbeat one. However after we discussed the poets background it makes one look closer to the words and trying to see the hint of something ominous that lingers in the near future.
    The first stanza is very beautiful when it is describing the blackberries. It just shows the beauty of nature and how it is there for our own wellness. In the lines “With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers. I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me. They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides. It brings to mind that even the tiniest things of nature no matter how messy they may be still hold compassion for us. The blackberries here ‘accommodating themselves’ for the speakers favor extends this idea that nature is willing to mesh into our lifestyles as well as it can.
    The second stanza begins the turn into a more sinister tone. The first few lines about the birds being angry about the speaker picking ‘their’ blueberries seems harmless but with what we discussed in class about the Slyvia Plath, we know that she was a depressed person, and many people who suffer from that disorder tend to not be good with confrontation and wan away from that. The speaker of the poem continues down the path, of which is painted as just a normal walkway to some sea, but again it can be paralleled with the path of life.
    Finally the last stanza has the most violent tone of the three. The speaker is waiting for the sea to come, but never comes right out and says it. The speaker views the sea as an immovable object, which is told in the last couple of lines that say, “Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths Beating and beating at an intractable metal.” This leads one to think that their view of nature has turned from something beautiful to something that will never change. That life will never change for the better, it will be stagnate.
    Overall I enjoyed this poem, the many twists that it held we quite intriguing. It would have probably been just an ordinary poem about nature if we had not gone over the history of the poet.

  3. I think the history on the poet helps bring more understanding or a different view on the poem. Reading it you can’t help but picture her constructing this piece. The language and imagery is very controlled. It’s almost like you have to read between the lines. There’s a double meaning. At the beginning the way she describes the blackberries are almost like she is talking about humans. “..dumb as eyes” like there watching her as she goes on her journey. With the imagery you can almost sense death and depression. A sense that she is desperately wanting to be loved. “They must love me” I thought the line ‘bush of flies’ to be ‘bluegreen’ was an interesting line. The flies in the bushel symbolizes disruption of the beauty of the blackberries and the flies disrupting its beauty. I just liked how she expressed that through words. I think the hidden feelings in this poem is great.

  4. I can definitely see why this poem is at number five. After we read it in class, I re-read it in great anticipation that it would take me to the place that it took me the first time we read it. I suppose the reason that the poem is so profound to me is because of the childhood memories that I had picking Blackberries.
    I remember as a child running up and down the dirt roads of western Tennessee picking blackberries while watching closely for snakes that were hidden in the weeds. It was a fun way to pass time, get our fill of blackberries and sometimes take enough back to the house that would possibly become a pie if my grandmother felt up to it.
    Through my many years of doing this, I couldn’t imagine seeing as many blackberries as are depicted in the poem. This was obviously a special event for the writer, her description of the blackberry patch and the blackberries themselves gives a keen insight into her attraction to first the blackberries and then the sea that exists beyond it. She is so entangled in and with the blackberry patch that she sees herself becoming “blood sisters” with it. That statement in itself describes how much blackberries meant to the writer. I mean how many of us wanted to become blood brothers/sisters with our best friends as kids? That was the ultimate! It meant that nothing could come between us. We were friends forever. Unfortunately, as the writer realizes, all good things must come to an end and at the end of this blackberry patch is the sea. It gobbles up her memories of the blackberry patch with its strong beating waves and commanding winds. In the end, the sea and it’s power removes her memory of the blackberry patch and replaces it with nothing, nothing but a great space of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths beating and beating at an intractable metel.

  5. kursteilnehmur

    This idea of picking blackberries seems frightfully boring and dull to some people. The notion that walking down a winding lane in search of blackberries and the sea can be quite uninteresting. I appreciate the poem for its content and meaning, but it is hard to give a high rating to something you are not interested in. I have had my share of blackberry picking, and views of the sea. The berries can be picked year after year. The sea is probably not going anywhere soon seeing as it is a difficult thing to move. When you look upon life in a temporary way I suppose that blackberries can seem quite fascinating. Fragile things have a way of doing that to our culture. We find beauty in the smallest, most delicate items. The appreciation for nature, life, humanity, art, and poetry can be seen in other ways, but there will never be another poem exactly like Blackberrying. Some would probably rejoice at this notion considering that it is a dreary piece of literature. Ironically it is full of life and color. However, reading the poem gives me probable cause for slumber. Reading this poem is a difficult task even well rested. The imagery in this poem speaks volumes. I can’t help picturing James Earl Jones reading this poem in a deep booming voice every time I look at it. “Ebon in the hedges, fat With blue-red juices” “These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt. I follow the sheep path between them.” “The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.” This poem was said in class to have a free form similar to Jazz. Perhaps that is why it seems lackluster to me. Jazz has always made me drowsy for some reason. The poem is quite beautiful and paints a great picture for the reader. It seems quite simple whenever first read. It is but a drop of water in an ocean of literature. Knowing how Plath viewed and appreciated the world gives the reader cause to think about the poem in a way that recognizes life for both its beauty and magnificence.

  6. To me this poem is about the wonderment that life holds, and a hint at the wonder that lies beyond it. Like the blog post said this poem really does engage all five of the senses as you read it, the words masterfully engaging your sense of touch, sight and sound, and though you Plath never actually engages it, her description of the blackberries make them seem mouth watering enough to engage your taste buds. As she goes on her path you get a better glimpse at the marvels of nature, the pure bliss that’s in it. Plath really sums up the bliss you feel when she talks about the flies in her poem stunned by the feast of berries “they believe in heaven.” Something about that line gets me, and it just seems to help me really connect with the poem. Yet still as she continues on her journey around the hooks she is drawn towards the sea. In class the professor described how people who grew up near the sea are inexplicably drawn to it, and it seems the same for Plath. Throughout the poem however; she seems to never really sense it, and I think not only is she marveling at the vastness of the ocean but also commenting on the afterlife, the great and wondrous unknown that lies beyond.

  7. I liked this poem; however, I found it hard to understand at first glance. I found the question posed in class about what the birds are protesting very interesting; it sort of seems as though the birds might be protesting the picking of the blackberries, which is ruining their surroundings.

    “The only thing to come now is the sea,” but, what comes after the sea? And what does the sea mean? A sea is a large body of water that usually runs between two places, so maybe the line has something to do with the vastness of the body of water, and logically one would assume that land eventually comes after the sea. Perhaps as mentioned in class the sea stands for life, and maybe even though the flies were shooed away from their berries, life still goes on and they will look elsewhere for food.

    The flies believing in heaven is something that I’m not sure I understand; perhaps it has something to do with them being stunned when the berries they were hanging on were going to be picked, but it is hard to decipher.

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