Sylvia Plath on Poetry and a Rare Recording of Her Reading the Poem “The Disquieting Muses”
“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things.”
By Maria Popova
In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — beloved poet, secret artist, dedicated diarist, passionate lover, little-known children’s book author, youthful beholder of the transcendence of nature, repressed “addict of experience” — submitted a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the BBC’s celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. But she kept trying. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke through — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast, and soon she had an ongoing gig. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC. Those that survive are preserved in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the same magnificent archival gem that gave us Plath’s readings of “The Birthday Present” and “Tulips,” as well as that rare interview on literature and love.
One of the most powerful poems in these recordings is “The Disquieting Muses,” later published in Plath’s Collected Poems (public library). It is after the famous Giorgio de Chirico painting of the same name and inspired by the enigmatic figures in it — “three terrible, faceless dressmakers’ dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light,” per Plath’s own description, who suggest a twentieth-century version of “other sinister trios of women,” such as the Three Fates and the Witches in Macbeth. Emanating from Plath’s verses is a haunting lament about maternal neglect.
But perhaps even more notable than Plath’s enchanting reading of the poem is her short preface to it, into which she condenses her views on poetry in general with extraordinary precision and eloquence:
A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple. But just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits. Most of the poems I will introduce in the next few minutes attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the things of this world.
When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things, such as ghosts or trolls or antique gods.
She proceeds to read the poem itself:
THE DISQUIETING MUSES
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.
Despite its antiquated audio format, The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath is well worth the effort. Complement it with Plath’s unseen drawings, edited by her daughter, her bittersweet-in-hindsight diary entry on the appetite for living at age 18, and wonderful children’s verses illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Published October 27, 2014