A Poetry Lesson: Sylvia Plath’s ‘Cut’

Cut

What a thrill —

My thumb instead of an onion.

The top quite gone

Except for a sort of a hinge

 

Of skin,

A flap like a hat,

Dead white.

Then that red plush.

 

Little pilgrim,

The Indian’s axed your scalp.

Your turkey wattle

Carpet rolls

 

Straight from the heart.

I step on it,

Clutching my bottle

Of pink fizz.

 

A celebration, this is.

Out of a gap

A million soldiers run,

Redcoats, every one.

 

Whose side are they on?

O my

Homunculus, I am ill.

I have taken a pill to kill

 

The thin

Papery feeling.

Saboteur,

Kamikaze man —

 

The stain on your

Gauze Ku Klux Klan

Babushka

Darkens and tarnishes and when

 

The balled

Pulp of your heart

Confronts its small

Mill of silence

 

How you jump —

Trepanned veteran,

Dirty girl,

Thumb stump.

I love this poem. It is one of the few I know by heart. A few weeks ago I was messaged by the first year 11 pupil I ever taught to say he was coming to visit my school for work, and could we meet up?

It was so great to see him and catch up on old times and I was delighted when, over pizza in a local restaurant, he recited this poem in full – he still remembered it from when I taught it to him just over 20 years ago.

The story of Sylvia Plath is well known. You can read an excellent article on her at the Poetry Foundation. She was married to Ted Hughes and is famous as much for her poetry as she is for committing suicide at the age of 31. Tragically, Hughes’ next partner Assia Wevill also committed suicide six years later.

I always thought how awful that must have been for Ted Hughes, but then I heard an interview with him. In it he was asked how he felt about two women so close to him committing suicide.  His response? ‘It’s not my fault neurotic women find me attractive.’ This put me right off him. A shame, as his poetry is wonderful – particularly ‘Telegraph Wires‘ and ‘Pike‘. ‘View of a Pig‘ is awesome but also gross.

Now I could swear blind to you that’s what I heard him say, but despite thorough googling and double-checking my poetry and criticism books, I can’t find any proof that he said that. He may not have done and I’ve imagined the whole thing. So probably best not to believe everything I say.

Like many of my contemporaries I ADORED Plath when I was in my teens and early twenties. I read The Bell Jar and all the poetry I could get my hands on. I also wrote some really quite dreadful poetry inspired by her.

Now I am am older, I find too much Plath to be a little wearisome as thematically it is so full of agony and distress. Part of me is a bit unsympathetic and impatient; I want to shake her and beg her to cheer up and look on  the bright side.

I know. I know. But still…

However, as a poet, her skill is unquestionable. Poems such as ‘Mushrooms‘, show her ability to use metaphors in a way that will make the hairs on your neck stir. The joy of being pregnant has never been better conveyed than in her poem ‘You’re‘. The chanting, drumming, droning rhythms of ‘Daddy‘ will make your blood surge and I love the drama and authority of the voice in ‘Lady Lazarus

‘Cut’ isn’t an obvious Plath poem to choose. If you want to see the more famous ways in which Plath used red and white, conveying the struggle of life and death, look at ‘Tulips‘, another beautiful piece; but I like ‘Cut’. I like its simplicity and delicacy.

The title ‘Cut’ is also the first line of the poem:

Cut

What a thrill —

My thumb instead of an onion.

Look how the shape of the word ‘Cut’ reflects its meaning. As does the sound. If you trace the shape of the word with your hand – go on, try it – you mirror the action of chopping. See how you come down on the ‘t’?

When I read that I can hear the knife gritting through the onion and landing with a knock on the chopping board. The ‘t’ of ‘Cut’. Chop! But Plath uses ‘Cut’. In conveys precision, and strength in a way ‘chop’ doesn’t.

Then that dry, calm voice of the speaker: ‘what a thrill.’ Not a response we would expect. Why is it a thrill? Isn’t it painful? As she goes on to say, the speaker has missed the onion and cut her thumb. Quite badly, as the next lines demonstrate.

Hear the delicious relish of the words ‘what a thrill.’ I always imagine someone like Bette Davies saying it in a bored drawl. Once we have read the whole poem, you start to understand why the speaker calls it a thrill. Pain for her is something real in a world which increasingly feels numb. It is not a mistake she has chosen the word ‘thumb’ rather than ‘finger’.

The top quite gone

Except for a sort of a hinge

Of skin,

A flap like a hat,

Dead white.

Then that red plush.

At this point, the speaker adopt a curiously flat, observational tone. She examines the damage to her thumb with interest, but no emotion. Look at the effect of ‘quite’ in ‘The top quite gone…’ With mild surprise she reports she has managed to chop off the tip of her thumb before going on to say, ‘except for a sort of hinge/Of skin.’

Brilliant! See the way Plath has used enjambement to great effect here? Enjambement means that a poet runs the sentence onto the next line. Here it works effectively because the movement of our eyes from the end of the verse to the first line of the next verse mirrors the movement of the hanging bit of thumb.

Having the word ‘hinge’ at the end of the verse means the word itself acts as a hinge joining the two separate verses together.

It is at this point I usually draw this on the board to illustrate:

img_2223

‘except for a sort of hinge of skin.’

Can you hear the precision of ‘a sort of hinge of skin’? The speaker want to let us know exactly what she can see. Instead of rushing to bandage it, or scream in pain, she examines it closely, in almost forensic detail.

‘A flap like a hat.’ There is a childish delight in the snappy short vowel sounds here. It sounds like a nursery rhyme – there is a sense of satisfaction. As the speaker watches she is stuck by the ‘dead white’ colour of the thumb, before, suddenly: ‘then that red plush.’ I  love how she uses ‘then’ to add a sense of weary resignation to the inevitable welling of blood.

What a great way to describe the rich swelling of deep, glossy, red blood that appears after a wound. ‘Plush’ has connotations of velvet, of richness – not just the literal meaning but the luxurious hidden ‘lush’ sound within the word. Again, no sense of pain – just a wonderment at that contrast between white and red.

In other poems such as ‘Tulips’ you will see this use of red and white tropes  is quite common in Plath’s poetry. Red is associated with pain, and life – white, with peace, calm and possibly death.

Little pilgrim,

The Indian’s axed your scalp.

Your turkey wattle

Carpet rolls

Straight from the heart.

Here we have the first images to do with conflict, civil war and violence. Holding her thumb the speaker’s voice is gentle and pitying: ‘little pilgrim’, she addresses her thumb – curiously, as if it is something separate from her – ‘The Indian’s axed your scalp.’

Plath takes a metaphor from American colonial history and the speaker plays the ‘Indian’. Does this indicate inner conflict? A separation between mind and body? The reference to scalping conveys vividly the tip of the thumb being ripped off, a brutal picture of self-inflicted violence.

Another great use of enjambement: ‘Your turkey wattle carpet rolls…’ A brilliant metaphor. The image evokes the colour red again, but here the red of the wobbly bit under a turkey’s beak. Plath manages to imbue a real sense of texture in her image. As the blood now pumps from her thumb, it gushed out like a spongy red carpet.

Turkey Wattle MAW

Your turkey wattle carpet rolls…

See the enjambement? Because Plath constructs the line ‘carpet rolls/straight from the heart’ falling across two verses, again our eye drop, reflecting the movement of the blood downwards onto the floor. The blood rolls in a red carpet from the heart as it pumps. A real sense of life force here.

I step on it,

Clutching my bottle

Of pink fizz.

 

A celebration, this is.

With a wonderfully bonkers invocation of walking on a red carpet holding a foaming bottle of pink champagne. The speaker begins to move – shaking herself out of her intense, still, exploration of her wound.

My Bottle of Pink Fizz MAW

Clutching my bottle of pink fizz…

The poem is now full of movement, ‘I step on it’ she says, with the double meaning of stepping on the carpet of blood, and the echo of urgent action: ‘step on it!’ The pink fizz is a ‘celebration’ and the hissing echoing rhyme of of ‘this is’ with ‘pink fizz’ gives a whispering almost surreptitious delight. It’s as if the speaker is talking to herself, under her breath.

Out of a gap

A million soldiers run,

Redcoats, every one.

 

Whose side are they on?

This marks a turning point. Now the blood is described as a ‘million’ ‘redcoats’ making the reader see of all those red blood cells tumbling out of a gap. Red coats remind us again of war and violence, with particular reference to the British Army – another link with the American civil war?

I think it is interesting she uses references to civil war which indicate a dissonance, a conflict within oneself externalised. This is when the poetic voice moves from observation to a pertinent question: ‘Whose side are they on?’

The question raises important issues. The blood should be protecting, healing the speaker, but they run ‘out of a gap’ as if they are running away, betraying their host. Cowards.

This realisation triggers a wail of despair. Hear the pain in these lines which rush you through the poem at a helter skelter pace. Look at this.

O my

Homunculus, I am ill.

I have taken a pill to kill

 

The thin

Papery feeling.

Saboteur,

Kamikaze man —

Listen to the frenzied power of the repeated ‘ill’ sound: ‘ill’, ‘pill’, ‘kill’ which then segues into the flat ‘i’ of ‘thin’. It sounds like bells ringing. And they aren’t good bells. They are tolling, relentless, maddening chimes. Following the anguished ‘O my Homunculus’ the lines ring with intensity

An Homunculus is a little human, the speaker’s thumb, once described as ‘little pilgrim’ and a ‘bottle of pink fizz’, now becomes ‘little me’, ‘little human.’ I always picture something like this

Sketch illustrating the alchemy of creating an Homunculus

but maybe with Sylvia Plath’s face on…

O my Homunculus

O my Honunculus I am ill

The cry continues, the pill has been taken to kill the ‘thin papery feeling.’ Why doesn’t it hurt more? Is the speaker so numb and catatonic the pain is felt at a remove? Distant and fragile as paper?

And those words: ‘Saboteur, Kamikaze man’ both meaning self-destruction or willful destruction. Is she addressing herself or her thumb? The next section makes it clear, it’s the thumb.

The stain on your

Gauze Ku Klux Klan

Babushka

Darkens and tarnishes…

‘Gauze’ is a reference to a bandage. So white it’s ‘Klu Klux Klan’ white. That’s really white. But it’s stained. Plath often uses images of white to convey peace and death. But the peace in which she wants to exist is troubled and disturbed by life, by the spreading stain of the wound she has caused. Notice ‘tarnishes’ and ‘stains’ and ‘darkens’. If blood is life, she’s not welcoming it. Those words are negative, and unsettling.

The babushka is a reference to big hats or scarves worn by Russian grandmothers. Remember Plath wrote this in 1962 when WWII was still very much in people’s minds. These links with Russians, civil war, kamikaze men, the Klu Klux Klan, all conjure images of bloody violence and terrible conflict.

And then those last lines. The ones that always give me a little shiver…

and when

 

The balled

Pulp of your heart

Confronts its small

Mill of silence

 

How you jump —

Trepanned veteran,

Dirty girl,

Thumb stump.

The poem ends focusing on the heart. The voice calls it ‘the balled pulp.’ That’s not good. Pulp is soft, mushy. Here it is balled up like a piece of paper. I find the combination of ‘balled up’  – with its connotations of scrunching a piece of paper in your hand – with ‘pulp’ which makes you think of squelching human tissue between you fingers, revolting.

‘The balled pulp of your heart’ makes the heart sound awfully vulnerable and easily squished. The ‘balling’ movement implies it is being trapped, rolled and compressed by a careless hand. This line makes me feel breathless.

There are a number of critical readings of ‘confronts its small mill of silence.’

I think it means the fear created by the confrontation of one’s mortality. Call me crazy, but I see that small mill of silence to be the empty beat BETWEEN heart beats. That infinitesimal moment when your heart doesn’t beat. When all is still. The gentle stillness between pulses which is the emptiness of our death.

The speaker reaches out to that moment and it frightens her. It makes her ‘jump’ and her heart is kick started and starts pulsing again. The ‘trepanned veteran’ – the old soldier who has had a hole screwed into his head, comes back to life.

The poem ends on a faltering rhythm.

Dirty girl

Thumb Stump

‘Dirty’ is trochaic – see my lesson on Herbert for some info on rhythm – DIRty with the stress then falling on ‘girl.

Dirty girl

but the last line is a spondee, both syllables are stressed THUMB STUMP. It even sounds like a heart beat and I always think it sounds like a heart beat stopping.

Certainly it indicates the speaker awaking from her dreamy state and coming back to herself realising after all that ribboning of the imagination, all the imagery she has woven around the experience, what is she left with? A stump.

I like the ‘thumb stump’ with its echo of ‘thumb print’. One imagines her ending the poem with a bloody print on the page.

thumb print

 

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4 thoughts on “A Poetry Lesson: Sylvia Plath’s ‘Cut’

  1. mairi57

    Initially, I thought, oh cool, she’s written a poem, must-read. Halfway down, wow this is good, love this, she’s good at poetry. Then, Plath, haven’t heard of Plath. Love the poem just the same….:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jodine

    This is a beautiful, descriptive narration of your interpretation of Sylvia’s poem ‘Cut’. I love Sylvia’s poetry. Thankyou for showing me more about poetry and the use of words/meanings. Very helpful for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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