May 30 Sylvia Plath: Metaphors

Here is a mystery presented by the dark mistress herself. She is to poetry as Shirley Jackson was to prose, a dark and eloquent presenter of the bleak realities of life as a woman in the 20th century (though I daresay, it is just as relevant in the 21st).

This poem is presented as a perfect contrast to yesterday’s poem. Yesterday’s poem offered a comparison in the literary form of a simile: the poets feelings at a smile that for him compared to traffic stopped at a bridge. Yesterday’s poem was a long simile; Today’s poem quite literally is a metaphor.

It presents itself as a riddle in nine syllables. It uses many images that the poet feels encapsulates the quality that she is at the moment. These many things are her as stated in the first line “I’m a riddle in nine syllables”. These images range from “an elephant” to “a ponderous house” to “a melon strolling on two tendrils” and many others. Can you guess the answer to the riddle? Would it help if I said that she could have also used “a whale” as one of the images?

The masterful part of this poem is not only how unique the images are “a melon strolling on two tendrils” and “O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers”, but also the tension and the many layers of tone the word choices provide. “Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” This invokes a feeling of fear, fearful anticipation and helplessness – no way out,or  there’s only one way and this run-away train is the deliverance to that stop. “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples”, evokes a very visceral feeling of “ug, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” Even the word “green” makes my stomach sour. But there is also a feeling of excitement, “this loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.” Soon that wonderful smell of fresh bread will enter my nostrils, it will taste so good and bring much joy. There is a balance of fear and excitement, disgust and tenderness (ivory, fine timbers). Whatever the poet is (and I think you know by now), it is a big thing which brings a lot of large emotions with it.


by Sylvia Plath

I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.


This mix of metaphors (which you should never do when writing good poetry, despite the fact that Sylvia Plath got away with it) reminds me of a bit of text from the textbook that I thought would be an interesting exercise for the writer. Taking a simple statement either of simile or metaphor and finding many variations on it. Just as Plath did here with her poem.

The author XJ Kennedy in her Introduction to Poetry, 7th edition gives a good example (though it was used to illustrate the difference between metaphor and simile).

Original phrase: “My love is like a rose.”

Variations from the textbook

Oh, my love is like a red, red rose. (simile)
Oh, my love resembles a red, red rose (simile)
Oh, my love is redder than a rose (simile)
Oh, my love is a red, red rose. (metaphor)
Oh, my love has red petals and sharp thorns. (implied metaphor)
Oh, I placed my love into a long-stem vase/And I bandaged my bleeding thumb. (implied metaphor)

If you find your prose getting stiff and stale, this might be a good exercise for you. Take a phrase and find different ways to turn it. What are the words you want to use? What do you want to imply? What are the dictionary definitions of these words? Which definitions best suit the tone and the mood of the piece? Is it a metaphor, a simile or a turn of phrase? Try it! I won’t tell.

About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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