Sylvia Plath’s Stillborn

By Lailah-Tul-Anne Choudhry

Second Runner Up, The Connell Guides Essay Prize 2015

It is very simplistic to say that a stillborn baby did not live. It did. My mum gave birth to a baby, just a year after me, who was not alive. As I was growing older, and before I even read Stillborn, my mum started to open up about how it felt. “I can still feel the weight of it.”. She says this with a distant look, her eyes “dead with distraction”, as Plath describes. She gesticulates with her arms as if holding something, a little mass of weight; but she is holding nothing, wrapping her fingers around the air. All I know, and all I can think about, is that the baby was a little boy, but my mother still calls him “it”. The child, like Plath’s poetry, “missed out” on having a place in this world, but my mum still has an undying “mother-love” for him. Death does not kill love.

Quite ironically, a poem with a dead name, its two blunt syllables of consonance that hit hard in the gut, has made an impact on my life. The beauty of this poem is its multi-faceted voice. Plath was indeed a poet acutely aware of the act of writing, and this poem can be considered metapoetic; poetry was Plath’s metaphorical ‘baby’, and the frustration Plath suffers from when her “poems do not live” is palpable. However, Stillborn is not just the despairing, almost sardonic voice of a hapless mother of poetry. Poetry may be Plath’s stillborn baby, but this poem is not merely a confessional, “a sad diagnosis”, of writer’s block; it is holistic, the voice of the runner with a broken leg or a singer who has lost their voice.  The façade of the poem’s neat, orderly three stanzas of five lines each disguises the underlying tone of exasperation that Plath presents, and that we all feel, when we are rendered incapable of a sole, special expertise that we excel at. After that, anything to come from us is stillborn.

The title itself, aside from being a morbid stab in the heart- perhaps because “the heart won’t start”- is a dichotomy, and I was left mesmerised by its double-edged quality. When a baby, and in Plath’s case her poetry baby, is stillborn, it is an oxymoron in itself. It is indeed born, the word relating to movement, a new beginning and a life; yet a stillborn baby has none of those things. The baby is still, with no heartbeat to justify it ever being born; it is “proper in shape and number”, it has all the makings of being alive, but “the heart won’t start.” Plath’s use of an internal rhyme here presents the internal battle with the self that we face when our skills and passions are put into question, and in Plath’s case, she questions her own capability of producing poems that live. She wants them to be something and this idea of ‘being’ is echoed in one of her most famous works, The Bell Jar, where the heart plays the “brag” of “I am, I am, I am.” This resonates with me deeply; it is an idea dressed in simplicity, but actually holds a philosophical meaning. The most important part of being alive is exactly that: being. There are moments in my teenage life, often in the depths of a hot shower or a sleepless Sunday night, where I question things. What am I doing here? What even am I? And then my “lungs[…]fill” and my “heart[…]start[s]” and I realise that being, in itself, is what distinguishes me from the dead, from a  stillborn child.

This concept of self-doubt is like a strum on a raw nerve for me; Stillborn is very much a critical understanding of the self, and it helps me to understand myself. The poem made me realise how “stillborn” so many of our actions are, as human beings. We have ideas, “bulged with concentration” like Plath’s poems, and relay them into the atmosphere; they are born. But they suddenly become still and lack movement and “O [we] cannot explain what happened to them!”. The religious tone of the first word of the stanza, “O”, shrouds the poem in a cloak of allegory; “these poems” are made to seem important, almost prophetic, and Plath asserts that life “would be better if they were alive”. This yearning for perfection presents Plath’s self-criticism; she mocks her own work of having a “piggy and fishy air”, using metaphors of grotesque animals to conceal the shattering of her prospects for them, after giving them so much “mother-love”. I may not be a mother, but I can relate to this feeling; it is universal, and it is for this reason that I love the Confessionalism of this poem. Plath does not shy away from telling raw, hard truths; she just uses metaphors to soften the blow. She articulates the feeling of downfall and tragedy that is experienced upon the death of something you love. That feeling is punctuated, like the end of all but one line in Stillborn, with a severe frustration, a helplessness at the stillborn nature of what has been created.

It is easy to sympathise with Plath’s frustration when it is visualised in a time and place; mid-century modern America. I have always been drawn to this era, as it was a time of such contradiction, such illusion. The society itself was based on the American Dream, which was exactly that; a dream, which concealed the reality of decadence and decay. Contextually, Plath’s miscarriage in February 1961 may have shaped the direction of Stillborn, and it may be a mouthpiece for the stillborn dreams and illusions of the American society that she grew up in. However, Stillborn was written in 1960, and, for me, the effect of this is harrowing; even before having experienced the loss of a child, Plath is able to articulate the feeling by using poetry as a metaphor for a child. This speaks to me in a personal way, as though Plath got under the skin of every writer and scratched the surface. When I write poems, it is clear to me that mine, too, “do not live”. Plath’s imagery is that of dead words on a page, and although this poem has had an impact on me, it did not stop me from challenging this assertion. I do agree that the words themselves “do not live”, but the very essence of poetry is that it brings things to life. Is that not why we write poetry? With the inherent knowledge that it is but a string of words, yet also with the knowledge that words have power? In the same way, why do we create new life? We know that, biologically, this is merely a fusion of two gametes. However, we also know that, when fused, the life created could have power, could be something. Plath’s poetry, my mother’s little baby and any human being’s attempt to create comes with a dichotomy of knowledge; knowing that it could have power and be alive, whilst also remembering that “shape and number and every part” is sometimes not enough to bring something to life. The poem Stillborn teaches me a lesson in life, death and, most importantly, the self in this way. Sometimes, our ideas, our creations, our babies, are stillborn. The challenge is having to bury them.

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