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Sylvia Plath's "Bitter Strawberries"

Updated on September 21, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Plath's Self-Portrait

Source

Strawberries

Source

Bitter Strawberries

All morning in the strawberry field
They talked about the Russians.
Squatted down between the rows
We listened.
We heard the head woman say,
'Bomb them off the map.'

Horseflies buzzed, paused and stung.
And the taste of strawberries
Turned thick and sour.

Mary said slowly, 'I've got a fella
Old enough to go.
If anything should happen…'

The sky was high and blue.
Two children laughed at tag
In the tall grass,
Leaping awkward and long-legged
Across the rutted road.
The fields were full of bronzed young men
Hoeing lettuce, weeding celery.

'The draft is passed,' the woman said.
'We ought to have bombed them long ago.'
'Don't,' pleaded the little girl
With blond braids.

Her blue eyes swam with vague terror.
She added petishly, 'I can't see why
You're always talking this way...'
'Oh, stop worrying, Nelda,'
Snapped the woman sharply.
She stood up, a thin commanding figure
In faded dungarees.
Businesslike she asked us, 'How many quarts?'
She recorded the total in her notebook,
And we all turned back to picking.

Kneeling over the rows,
We reached among the leaves
With quick practiced hands,
Cupping the berry protectively before
Snapping off the stem
Between thumb and forefinger.

Reading of Plath's "Bitter Strawberries"

Commentary

The piece by a very young Sylvia Plath displays some intriguing imagery, although the images remain unconnected and are often jolting.

Sylvia Plath's "Bitter Strawberries" consists of seven versagraphs; it is the poet's first significant poetry publication and appeared in the Christian Science Monitor (August 11, 1950) after her graduation from high school.

First Versagraph: "All morning in the strawberry field"

The speaker sets the scene by distinguishing herself and one or more companions from the women who are talking "about the Russians." The scene has gone on all morning in the strawberry field.

As the women talk, the speaker and her companions "squatted down between the rows" listening. At one point the listeners hear "the head woman say, Bomb them off the map."

Second Versagraph: "Horseflies buzzed, paused and stung"

The speaker observes that "horseflies buzzed, paused and stung, while the taste of strawberries / Turned thick and sour." The disconnect between the horseflies and the taste of the berries is jarring and obstructs any real meaning of and purpose for this three-line versagraph.

Why did the taste of strawberries "turn[ ] thick and sour?" Had they tasted thin and sweet before the horseflies stung or perhaps before the subject of the Soviet- American Cold War relations had been broached?

Third Versagraph: "Mary said slowly, 'I've got a fella"

One of the women, named Mary, relates that her boyfriend is old enough to go to war, if war breaks out. The lack of precision in this versagraph presents another flaw that weakens this poem.

Mary's "fella" is old enough to go; would one not assume that if he is old enough to be her "fella," he is old enough to go to war? Does "fella" really mean boyfriend or some other relationship? Perhaps her son?

Fourth Versagraph: "The sky was high and blue"

The speaker again inserts a conversation-less commentary about the scene: the blue sky looks especially high; there are children playing tag "in the tall grass, / Leaping awkward and long-legged / Across the rutted road."

There are fields full of "bronzed young men / Hoeing lettuce, weeding celery." So the speaker wants the reader to know that the strawberry field is part of a larger field of crops. But again, no true motivation is ever offered or implied.

Fifth Versagraph: "'The draft is passed,' the woman said "

Again, a woman speaks, reminding the others that the draft has passed, (probably referring to the Selective Service Act 1948).

The woman then adds, "We ought to have bombed them long ago." To this startling suggestion, "a little girl / With blond braids" begs the woman to stop saying such things by simply uttering the command, "Don't."

Sixth Versagraph: "Her blue eyes swam with vague terror"

The speaker continues to focus on the little blonde girl, reporting, "Her blues swam with vague terror." And the little girl retorts, "I can't see why / You're always talking this way…," to which the woman sharply snapped, "Oh, stop worrying, Nelda."

Thus we know the little blonde girl's name but not that of the woman who snapped at Nelda. The woman, "a thin commanding figure / In faded dungarees," stands up and asks, "How many quarts?"

She is businesslike and puts the figure in her notebook, and they all get back to picking the berries. By this point, readers will wonder what is the purpose of all this imagery is and also if the speaker will ever connect all the loose images displayed in the poem.

Seventh Versagraph: "Kneeling over the rows"

The reader will experience a profound disappointment expecting the final versagraph to save this piece. Instead of offering anything near a resolution, the speaker simply describes the act of picking strawberries: they kneel, they reach, they cup the berries "protectively before / Snapping off the stem / Between thumb and forefinger."

Obviously the work of very young writer, the poem does present some powerful, original images that do presage well the much stronger work that would later appear from this poet.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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