Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

1960s
Plath wrote “Blackberrying” in the autumn of 1961, while living in Devon, England. The year before, she had published her first volume of poetry, The Colossus, which was generally well received, but not as favorably as her husband’s, Ted Hughes’s, second volume of verse, Lupecal, also published in 1960. In poetry, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw poets such as Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and others popularize what came to be known as confessional poetry. Writers of confessional poetry detail intimate facts about their experience, often addressing previously taboo subjects such as sexual practices, drug use, or the status of their mental health. In 1959, Lowell published Life Studies, inaugurating the boom in confessional verse. While living in Massachusetts in the mid-1950s and teaching at Smith College, Plath audited a poetry workshop led by Lowell. Sexton also attended this workshop, and she and Plath became friends. Confessional poetry was, in part, a response to the staid and formal verse of the 1950s. In her essay, “American Poetry in the 1960s,” poet and critic Leslie Ullman writes of the confessional poets: “Most of these poets . . . shared a tragic inability to redeem the self, in their personal lives, from the courageous but overwhelmingly painful process of self-confrontation they enacted in their poetry.” Many of these poets took their own lives, including Plath, Sexton, and Berryman.

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1970s
“Blackberrying” wasn’t published until 1971, when it was included in Crossing the Water. By this time, the mythology of Plath’s life was firmly in place. She was brilliant and talented but faced many hardships due to the influence of two abusive men in her life, her father and her husband, and she continually struggled to free herself of them. Increased attention to Plath’s life was partly a result of the increased politicization of feminism. In 1966, the National Organization for Women was formed, pledging “to bring women into the mainstream of American society.” In 1970, the Labor Department issued affirmative action guidelines to contractors doing business with the government. These guidelines covered women and minorities. Women’s demand for control of their reproductive processes resulted in the most liberal abortion law in the country in 1970 in New York, and just three years later, the Supreme Court issued its historic Roe v. Wade ruling, making it illegal for states to ban abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. Women made headway in conventionally male-dominated arenas as well. For example, following a ruling by the Justice Department of the State of Pennsylvania, they were licensed to box and wrestle in Pennsylvania. In 1971, Gloria Steinem launched the feminist Ms. magazine, whose editors shared tasks in a communal, cooperative fashion, as opposed to the more conventional and male-oriented way of delegating tasks through a hierarchy of power. Also, books such as Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), increased interest in women’s issues and helped lead to the development of women’s studies classes in universities across the country.

Literary Style

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“Blackberrying” has no formal structure. It is a three-stanza poem, written in free verse. Each stanza has 9 lines of varying length, some quite long. These long lines give the poem a greater prose-like feel than some of Plath’s other poems. The use of assonance and alliteration, or repetition of similar sounds, in this poem is subtler than in other poems by Plath, yet, it is unmistakably present in such passages as “Blackberries / Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes / Ebon in the hedges. . . .”

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: Confessional poetry is popularized as poets such as Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton write freely and openly about sex, drugs, and their various neuroses.

Today: Confessional poetry is a staple of poetry workshops and literary magazines and journals. Its prose cousin, the literary memoir, is also extremely popular.

1960s: The Women’s Movement gathers steam as groups such as the National Organization for Women and the Women’s Equity Action League are formed to pursue equal opportunity under the law for women.

Today: The Women’s Movement has continued, shifting slightly to become a human rights movement in general, and has spread across national boundaries. In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, China, and brought women’s rights groups from numerous countries together to craft strategy and share resources.

1960s: Approximately 4.5 people per 100,000 commit suicide annually in the United States.

Today: Approximately 6.5 people per 100,000 commit suicide annually in the United States.

1960s: After her suicide, Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, remains mostly silent about her life and their relationship.

Today: In 1998, Hughes breaks his silence about Plath, publishing Birthday Letters, a collection of poems detailing his response to her writing and death. Hughes dies of cancer months after its publication.

Media Adaptations

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Harper Audio has released an audiocassette of Plath reading her own poems: Sylvia Plath Reads.

Poet’s Audio Center sells an audiocassette of Plath reading fifteen poems, entitled Sylvia Plath (1962). They can be reached at P.O. Box 50145, Washington, DC 20091-0145.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Alvarez, A., “Sylvia Plath” in Triquarterly, No. 7 Fall 1966, pp. 65–74.

Bertens, Hans, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, Routledge, 1995.

Blodgett, E. D., “Sylvia Plath: Another View,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. II, No. 3, 1971, pp. 97–106.

Dunn, Douglas, “Damaged Instruments,” in Encounter, August 1971, pp. 68–80.

Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita, “Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes,” in English Studies, Vol. 71, No. 6, December 1990, pp. 509–22.

Lucie-Smith, Edward, “Sea-Imagery in the Work of Sylvia Plath,” in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium, edited by Charles Newman, Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 91–99.

Newlin, Margaret, “The Suicide Bandwagon,” in Critical Quarterly, Winter 1972, pp. 367–78.

Ostriker, Alicia, “Fact as Style: The Americanization of Sylvia,” in Language and Style, Vol. I, No. 1, Winter 1968, pp. 201–12.

Pettingill, Phoebe, “The Voices of Sylvia Plath,” in New Leader, Vol. LXV, No. 10, May 17, 1982, pp. 10–11.

Plath, Sylvia, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Harper and Row, 1981.

—, Crossing the Water, Harper & Row, 1971.

Rosenblatt, Jon, Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation, University of North Carolina Press, 1979, pp. 89–92.

Ullman, Leslie, “American Poetry in the 1960s,” in A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Jack Meyers and David Wojahn, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 190–97.

Uroff, Margaret Dickie, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, University of Illinois Press, 1979, pp. 109–10.

“A World in Disintegration,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3643, December 24, 1972, p. 1602.

Further Reading
Broe, Mary Lynn, Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, University of Missouri Press, 1980. Broe attempts to demythologize Plath in this study of the themes and techniques in her poetry.

Davison, Peter, The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. Davison recounts the Boston poetry world of the mid- 1950s in this memoir, describing the complex relationships among poets such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, and W. S. Merwin.

Malcolm, Janet, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, Knopf, 1994. Malcolm’s controversial “biography” addresses how Plath’s reputation developed after she had died. Malcolm examines the complex and complicated relationship Plath’s ex-husband, Ted Hughes, had with Plath’s estate, and the steps he took to protect his own privacy.

Rosenblatt, Jon, Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation, University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Arguing that criticism on Plath has been “tendentious and extra literary,” Rosenblatt reads Plath’s poems as enacting a private ritual process of death and rebirth.

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