What Sparks Poetry

Delineated: Prose Writers on Poetry

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Delineated: Prose Writers on Poetry, we invite prominent writers of fiction and non-fiction to reflect on the poetry that inspires them. Our featured writers describe how poetry illuminates their creative lives, whether as inspiration, a daily practice, or a thread of hope through difficult times.

Corinna Vallianatos on Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying”

In a literature course I took long ago, we read Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Louise Bogan, and were told to pick one of these poets to write about analytically. I picked Plath. Not picking her would’ve been like looking away from a gleaming ice sculpture in the lobby of a hotel, a rearing, intricate vision; I simply didn’t have the wherewithal to do so. I remember thinking that my classmates who had chosen differently were smarter than I, more subtle-minded. In choosing Plath, I felt, I had given myself up as the sort who’d be drawn to her anguish and overtness, the myth of her suicide: I was vaguely ashamed of myself.

Yet here I am, writing about her again. It’s not the poems she’s known for that interest me now. It’s a poem that dwells in the external that I want to consider. In “Blackberrying,” the speaker picks blackberries in an “alley” of bushes, passes between two hills, and encounters the sea. The speaker moves from an abundance of berries where the feasting flies “believe in heaven,” through waves of wind, and to an “orange rock/ that looks out on nothing,” which seems depressingly conclusive, even condemnatory, until Plath ends, “nothing but a great space/ of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths/ beating and beating at an intractable metal,” and I’m filled with a weird hopefulness.

It’s the description that’s so fine here, how the description of the physical world makes of the poem’s speaker an avid seer, even in these last lines when “nothing” becomes “white and pewter lights” and a “din” of sound. Nothing is ever nothing—description gives nothing shape. The seeing gains power, even as the one doing the seeing recedes. The bounty of what’s come before, the berries and their juices and the milkbottle the speaker uses to collect them, which brings to mind the body and domesticity, lifts at the end into the elemental, something seemingly less comforting but, to me, more so.

“I do not think the sea will appear at all,” the speaker says in the second stanza, and indeed it doesn’t in a blue, lapping way, but its presence does. The speaker, who’s been alone, is brought into contact with “a great space,” a larger aloneness that refuses to be quiet.

I’m struck by the fact that in “Blackberrying,” Plath isn’t writing about her father or mother or children or husband or husband’s lover, but rather a changing landscape that the speaker moves through. Is it a poem of freedom? Of escape? Of anonymity? Of meeting?

The poem’s descriptions contain this incredible possibility, one of the best gifts of any poem or story or novel, that its world, though comprehended, remains somehow still not entirely known.

Writing Prompt

Go outside with notepad and pen and find an interesting tree. Describe the tree from the point of view of someone who’s just heard good news. Next, describe the tree from the point of view of someone who’s just stormed out of the house after an argument. Finally, describe the tree as if seeing a tree for the first time after a long while among concrete. The point, of course, is to think about how much of the seer can be communicated via what’s seen. The specifics of the good news and the argument and the confinement don’t matter here—it’s the encounter between human and something else mute and alive and changeable that’s important. If you like one of these descriptions, use it to kickstart a poem or short story.

— Corinna Vallianatos

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Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Corinna Vallianatos

Corinna Vallianatos is the author of My Escapee, winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and NYT Book Review Editors’ Choice, and The Beforeland, a novel, and 2020 Foreword INDIES finalist. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, The Kenyon Review, The Idaho Review, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere, and she’s been a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and MacDowell. She lives in California.