Poet Jessica Murray on Sylvia Plath, the Slippery Muse, and Creativity After Kids

Oct 24, 2019 | Bubbler, FSR

The Abenaki / Huron poet Suzanne S. Rancourt sent us a stack of poems a few weeks ago, and in my reply–we accepted one–I mentioned that even Plath at her darkest in Ariel included poems of joy. For all these reasons I was eager to read Jessica Murray’s guest blog post on Silvia Plath, the Slippery Muse, and Creativity after Kids for Eileen McGinnis’ website. I’d been paying close attention to her poetry since we published four of her poems in the recent issue of Free State Review. In her essay, Murray reminds us of a seldom observed detail: the first word in Ariel is love, and the last word is Spring. We’re posting her essay for our community. (BW)

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When Eileen invited me to write a guest post for her blog where she considers the intersection of motherhood and creativity, I gave an enthusiastic “yes.” She needed something about eight to ten weeks out. No problem! I asked Eileen to check back in a few weeks, and when she did, this is what I proposed: I’d like to write about Plath’s poems about motherhood, being a new mother, writing my own poems, and the muse, for lack of a better word! However, I have not started yet.

Now I’d like to write about writing about all of that, because it encapsulates the rewards and challenges of my experience balancing, which is not to say they are exclusive, motherhood and creative life.

Plath’s poems about motherhood & children

I could never quite get started on my proposed essay because it required 1) research and 2) a time for sustained critical reflection.

I wanted to ask, “What if the first Plath poems we taught to students were her three incredibly moving and masterful poems on motherhood and children from Ariel, “Morning Song,” the first poem in the book, “Your,” and “Nick and the Candlestick”? If we focused on her attention to how “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” instead of her more infamous and explosive poems such as “Daddy”? I knew some places to look for materials that asked this question or a variant of it already. As Dan Chiasson points out:

Add to the available accounts of Plath (there are so many) this, please: nobody brought a house to life the way she did. ‘Ariel,’ despite the tragedy that attends it, is a book with much joy between its covers.

Frieda Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s daughter, tells us that her mother had described Ariel as a book “beginning with the word ‘Love’ and ending with the word ‘Spring.’” Learning that was one of the most striking, surprising, and beautiful things I’ve ever heard about a collection of poems we tend to think we know everything about.

Sylvia Plath © Bettmann/CORBIS

Sylvia Plath © Bettmann/CORBIS

Anyway, this was to be my place of beginning. I foresaw some close reading and discussion with what other readers have thought about the poems mentioned. I liked a lot of what poets in this discussion have to say about “Morning Song,” for example, but I read the ending as wondrous, attuned to things children like, and full of song:

            …The window square

            Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try

           Your handful of notes;

            The clear vowels rise like balloons.

I also wanted to revisit Janet Malcolm’s book and brush up on other biographies.

Instead, we took on a challenging new project at my work, my husband and I were weaning our kiddo from night diapers, and said kiddo was also transitioning to pre-school. I usually get up at five a.m. for my creative time, but with bed-wetting and early wake-ups from my son, and extra time I had to dedicate to my job, my time to write was constricted and uneven, as it often is. After my son’s bedtime, I’ll sometimes do a little work, but I usually don’t have the juice!

(Before) Motherhood

When I was writing the poems that would accompany a significant critical preface and which would form part of my dissertation, like Plath I was a new mother in a new-ish place, having moved from Boston to north Texas to attend a PhD program. I saw the program as a gift to myself, in part because I was infertile and doctors told me I would never have children unless I wanted to consider an egg donor, which I did not. My husband and I had been, when we met, ambivalent about children, having our own, I mean, and then like many such couples, decided we’d give it a go after all. Then came the diagnoses–plus the anger, shame, and mourning. Then the move, and I was still working through those issues. It was a difficult time, but also an incredibly freeing and rewarding time with my husband. How lucky I was (and am) to live a life with this person.

Portrait of Sally Mann by Michelle Hood (Nov. 4, 2007).  From Photographer, CC BY-SA 3.0 .

Portrait of Sally Mann by Michelle Hood (Nov. 4, 2007). From Photographer, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And yet I was writing angry poems about marriage, about family, about bodies, about obedience, about punishment. I couldn’t figure out why the marriage poems were so bleak, until I read Sally Mann’s memoir, where she talks about the collusive nature of her work with her family and children. I wrote a poem in response to that book, “After Reading Sally Mann’s Memoir,” which was first published in Cherry Tree in their 2018 annual issue and ends:


                        pictured, unpictured,

plays tricks on the imagination. After the photographs

                        of Mann’s children became famous,

people thought they knew them. But the images were collaborative.

                        Formal. Collusive.

This poem gave me a way to complicate, even contradict, other poems I was writing at the time, since there’s no way around, nor should there always be, biographical readings. In this poem, though, a key affirmation is the interface of art.

Being a New Mother

People like to say there’s no good or bad time to have a baby—either you are in the process of that, or you’re not. After you have a child, that makes more sense, because the baby you will have has “the value of X, the variable / when the outcome is unknown / as always the outcome is unknown” (Karen Solie, “X”). I love Karen Solie’s poetry, and though this poem isn’t about children, it strikes me as perfectly applicable. As soon-to-be mothers, many of us ask, “What will happen to my creativity/my autonomy/my creative life?” For me, the answer re creative life was that it deepened and amplified, though it was also so often frustrated and curtailed on a thousand, maybe ten thousand, counts. When I learned I was pregnant, I remember thinking very clearly, “Now I will never publish books.” I was 38 years old. It seemed to me rather gross that I had squandered all that relatively obligation-free time. Although it’s completely superstitious, I felt like the universe was telling me, “You had your time.” But, of course, that’s not true. Or it doesn’t have to be. I have less time, but I also have more urgency.

Writing My Own Poems

A couple of years ago, when my kiddo was around two, I met up with a poet friend who has two books with an excellent small press. She has a child a year older than mine, and when we were talking about them, she asked if we were thinking of having another. I said I didn’t think we’d be able to even if we wanted, and in return she said she knew lots of successful women artists with one child, but hardly any with two. And, of course, it’s not the kid themselves, but it’s not not them, either. At least, for me.

Eileen writes so compelling about the emotional work of parenting, which is so often carried by moms, the abyssal pleasure and sometimes piercingly deep ambivalence about being the emotional and laborial center of any given family unit. I want to be on record that I have longed for time, space, solitude, even aloneness, because honesty about desire for one’s own autonomy is a gift. I long for the absolute most clarity of vision regarding my only: who is this person before me, and how can I both convey their rightness and belonging while instilling in them the greatest degree of freedom? And I also want for his safety, protection, and proximity to my husband and me, and I can’t imagine those things ever changing. I also realize that how much freedom we feel able to encourage can be dependent on our social, economic, and racial realities. For poets whose work explicitly and implicitly takes on those considerations, see Patricia Smith, Claudia Rankine, Natalie Diaz, to name a few of my very favorites.

The Muse

But where is the muse in all of this? And why didn’t I just write about Plath’s beautiful poems? Obviously, I had the time! I did and I didn’t.


Likewise, I wrote the poems of my dissertation at a 1950s kitchen table that used to belong to my grandmother, who herself was a hairdresser and mother of three. I wrote “when the baby slept,” which was hardly ever. And not, like, metaphorically. I mean, the real deal, no-time-for-sleep baby. I wrote at that kitchen table during my kiddo’s maybe naps and then again after the bedtime routine. When I wrote at the table for that hour, hour and a half, listening for “The child’s cry // [that] Melts in the wall,” I often felt the presence of something with me in the house. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as benign. Interested. I looked over my shoulder. I thought about Louse Glück writing in “The Dreamer and the Watcher” that she was sure she was about to die while writing the poems of Triumph of Achilles because of their sudden and startling fluency. The way she was experiencing the world, and writing, was altered. Children eat all your time and space, their voraciousness for you is stunning, as though you’ve been bitten by something beautiful yet venomous. Maybe what I sensed was only the presence of my son writ large, but I thought a lot about Plath in the winter of 1963. Her four a.m. hours with an infant and toddler, her husband’s sexual desertion, the incredible cold.

Coda: Morning Song

Some people are wonderful poets of parenthood and gorgeous observers of children and childhood. Of loving children and the incredible gift of their presence.

At that table, I wrote about: porn, shit, penises, sexual freedom, sexual deviation, potty training, parasitic wasps, Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés. I tried to write poems about giving birth, being a new mother, the way I felt for my son, but they came out either anodyne or overwrought. Maybe it was superstition, wanting for him a sort of emanant state, or more pedestrian, wanting the talent or will.

Here is Plath’s “Morning Song” in its entirety:

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry 

Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue

In a drafty museum, your nakedness

Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath

Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:

A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.

Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try

Your handful of notes;

The clear vowels rise like balloons.

 Like all of Plath’s poems, this has an exhilarating, associative logic and breadth. I have recited this poem to myself hundreds of times since giving birth. The first line seems to me so right. Joyful, lush—fat, gold—but also ticking with mortality and our incredible instinct to protect this tiny being now before us.

I love what Craig Morgan Teicher has to say about the third stanza: “Here’s a sentence that really doesn’t make sense, you really can’t paraphrase it except that it’s absolutely accurate, and could only be said this way.” Yet, the sense it makes is conveying the speaker’s sense of wonder coupled with a will toward the baby’s autonomy. It’s also important as part of the first poem of the book, especially when we consider Plath’s extremity while compiling Ariel. I think this stanza is an attempt to free Plath’s children from the legacy of her mental illness, the entanglements of her married life: you don’t have to be like me, or, even, let this not be you. But, of course, as parents we want so much for our children to see us, to love us, to not be freed from us in so many ways.

In the next stanza, “A far sea moves in my ear,” connects us back to everything elemental in the poem, but also back to Shakespeare, to Chaucer, to the long history of the ear as the true organ of both revelation and love, but also death. The sea is an inexorable force, and there is a sense of the child’s cry being that body which the mother enters or answers to, an interesting reversal. Ultimately, though, the rhythmic, tidal immensity of this compact line feels so evocative of the connection between a newborn and the mother who safeguards them.

“To Be Sylvia’s Daughter,” by Vicile.  Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

“To Be Sylvia’s Daughter,” by Vicile. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Finally, I think this is what I love about these particular poems of Plath: I can feel, under those beautiful lines, the immense risk, the strength it took to put that love into words. For all of the artifice, she makes it seem like there’s nothing in between.

Jessica Murray

Jessica Murray writes in Austin and her poems have recently appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, Booth, and Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.

Follow Jessica @ https://twitter.com/poets_talk