‘Balloons’ – Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s ‘Balloons’ has been nominated for the scrapbook by Jamie McKitterick, an A-level English student. Jamie says “I feel she builds up a calm, soothing atmosphere and creates, for me, a satisying and beautiful poem. ‘Balloons’ is my favourite piece by Sylvia Plath as it is a prime example of her talent for provoking images in the mind and synthesising the subject matter with perfectly chosen words.”

Sylvia Plath, ‘Balloons’

Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish——–
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,

Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

5 February 1963

Further Reading

Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known poets of the 20th century, but with novels, plays and now a film about her life, it often seems that her biography overshadows her poetry.

Plath was born in 1932, in Massachusetts, and died in London, in 1963, after a life spent between America and England. Academically, she was an outstanding student, and in 1950 won a scholarship to the American University Smith College, where she continued to excel. However, in 1953, Plath attempted suicide. She was taken into a hospital, an experience described in her autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’, and treated with shock therapy. But in 1955, Plath won a Fulbright scholarship and went to Newnham College, Cambridge. There, she met and married the poet Ted Hughes. Plath was writing poetry and novels throughout this time, concentrating hard on the technical aspects of her poetry. Plath and Hughes separated in 1962, and Plath and their children moved to London. ‘The Bell Jar’ was published in January 1963, and Plath committed suicide in Feburary, 1963.

After her death, Plath became to many readers a symbol of female suffering and oppression, a heroic victim. Hughes bitterly described her as having been turned into ‘the patron saint of feminism’ by her fans. Contemporary reviews of her poetry all steer an uneasy course between criticism of her work and an acknoledgement of her death.

So is it wrong to allow our readings of a poet’s work be so affected by our knowledge of his or her life? In Plath’s case, it can allow us to miss aspects of her poetry – by viewing her as controlled by the overpowering emotions that led to her suicide, we can forget the powerfully crafted, almost ‘technical’, aspects of her work. Nor should we think that all Plath’s work is bleak – my own personal favourite is ‘You’re’, a joyous poem quite literally full of life.

However, both Plath and Hughes used their lives and relationship as the basis for their writing: not only in Plath’s poems, but in her novel ‘The Bell Jar’. Recently, Hughes published ‘Birthday Letters’, a collection of poems about their relationship. It’s hardly surprising, then, that people should be so interested in the relationship between literature and life.