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Food Poetry Party: Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms”

To celebrate the launch of her blog The Food Poet, my friend Annelies has put out the call to share a poem, by yourself or another, that inspires you. And so I present to you my favorite poem by my favorite poet, "Mushrooms" by Sylvia Plath, followed by my thoughts at the end.

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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.

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When I was younger, I wrote a fair amount of poetry. I loved the craft, laboring over how to select and arrange the right words to elicit specific mood. Plath was my muse. She embodied everything I aspired to be as a poet, able to paint lush scenarios with her words that elicited not just visual imagery, but deep emotion. 

In this poem, she employs triplets of five-syllable lines, sort of a collective of modified haiku. As a poet, I adored the use of form; with constraint comes the need to exercise great economy of language, and the outcome is often so much more elegant for it. Her language flows effortlessly through the form, with sentences that span more than one triplet. She gives fluidity to the structure.

But where I love her most is in her use of sound. Read the poem aloud, especially this passage: 

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…. 

In the first three words, she employs two effs, three tees and five esses. Then over the subsequent three lines there are four words with long E sounds: Heaving, needles, leafy, even. The words themselves hiss and sigh. You almost hear the sound of pine needles giving way as the mushrooms quietly but inexorably force their way up from the earth, the sussuration of nighttime breezes. 

I have read this poem countless times over the last 25-plus years, and it never ceases to take my breath away. 

What are your favorite food poems?

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  • My favorite is by William Carlos Williams.
    This Is Just To Say
    I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox
    and which
    you were probably
    saving
    for breakfast
    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold

  • This is wonderful on so many levels. First, foraging and the Sonoma Mycological Association’s Mushroom Camp is coming up in January… and then of course, there is Sylvia. Wonderful Sylvia. Thanks for participating in today’s Food Poetry Party Sean!
    PS- Kyle – I love that poem by Williams. It definitely makes you want to sink your teeth into a plum!

  • Sylvia Plath loved food and wrote about what she ate all the time. I like that about her–as I say in AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH, which St. Martin’s Press will publish early next year.