Q: What do Babies, Fungus, Oppressed Women & The Cold War have in common?

A: Sylvia Plath’s 1959 Poem “Mushrooms” has been speculated to be written about each.

When I first read this poem (on page 139 of our Collected), I was struck by how simple, hopeful and almost childlike it was (at least in comparison to the other works we had assigned last week). Of course, my initial reading was a literal one,  encouraged by the objectist voice Plath uses. For 11 stanzas, she speaks from the mushroom’s perspective…

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

Consider some of the following interpretations as you reread. What’s your take?

  • Women seen as purely domestic objects by men:  ‘We are shelves, we are Tables..”
  • “Overnight very whitely, discreetly, very quietly”: is this a description of conception?
  • Similar description of birth: “Perfectly voiceless, Widen the crannies, Shoulder through holes”
  • “Diet on Water, On crumbs of shadow, bland-mannered, asking little or nothing. So many of us! So many of us”: description of lower class struggle, buttressed by last line “our foot’s in the door.”

Who’s foot? WHO’S FOOT?!

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2 Responses to “Q: What do Babies, Fungus, Oppressed Women & The Cold War have in common?”

  1. Mario says:

    I like that you brought in gender roles because, as a man, I wouldn’t have seen it. I like Julia’s point about the inclusive “We, our, us” especially in the third line in the sixth stanza, “Shoulder through holes. We” (same line Julia pulled out). I like that Julia brought in religion because it is all over this poem. “meek shall inherit the earth”. I get rebirth vibes from this poem too. The capital “T” in table tells something of service, possibly service for God. We are babies, We are oppressed women, Where did you get the Cold War from?

  2. Julia Ruane says:

    First of all: best post title ever.

    I agree that “Mushrooms” is striking and it does feels distinct from many of the others we read. This poem has a collective speaker (“we”), portrayed as simultaneously submissive (“We are shelves, we are/ tables, we are meek”) but also evokative of a menacing/foreboding/powerful force of nature* illustrated in the last stanza. Reminded me of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_5:5 but I think Plath deals with much beyond that allusion as well.

    The line “We are edible” jumps out at me in particular because of the power behind the consumption of the body of the speaker; also, many mushrooms are actually not edible at all and are incredibly toxic. Maybe this is where “mushroom clouds” (and all they bring with them) could come in?

    I never thought of reading of this poem as conception/birth, so I’m glad you brought it up because I definitely see it here (shouldering through holes! Ahhh!). Something that just occurred to me… mushrooms and fungi reproduce asexually, right? Plath makes an telling choice in personifying a mushroom to illustrate this theme, then. Also interesting because mushrooms are so obviously interpreted as phallic, but I think there’s so much evidence that the poem genders them as female, as you suggest. Crazy power dynamics at play here!

    *trying not to commit the blasphemy of paraphrase!