The Poem

“Words” is a short poem in four stanzas of five lines each. It is written in an open form with irregular meter and only occasional rhyme. Because the poem is written entirely in metaphor, the title serves as an important clue to meaning. For the reader, the knowledge that the poem is about “words” (and by inference, poetry) becomes a fixed star in the journey through the poem’s metaphoric landscape.

Because the landscape of “Words” is mental rather than physical, its effect on the reader can be disorienting. There is no hand on the axe that strikes, no riders on the horses, no eyes behind the welling tears. One does not encounter the narrator until near the end of the third stanza. At this point, one sees that the poem is written in the first person, and it becomes clearer that preceding stanzas are the thoughts of the poet as she meditates on her subject, words.

“Words” is structured as a series of stanza-paragraphs, each exploring a different aspect of the subject. Distinct but interlocking images unify the ideas and reveal a progression of perceptions about the nature of the poetic utterance. The dominant image pattern of movement radiating from a center is established immediately. The juxtaposition of the title and the one-word first line, “Axes,” links the two ideas. Words set to paper ring out like an ax set to wood. The lack of a discernible narrator here allows the reader to enter the poem and feel the physical sensation of impact. (This is a particularly apt image for Sylvia Plath’s poetic style, which is frequently sharp and biting.)

The almost physical sense of vibration coupled with the repetition of the word “echoes” links the ax image to that of horses galloping. Plath often uses horse imagery to denote creative energy. In an earlier poem, “Elm,” she says, “All night I...

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Forms and Devices

Metaphor is the overriding device of “Words.” Because there is no narrative framework, even a superficial reading requires some interpretation of its metaphor. Plath does not make the reader’s task easy, but she does supply the clues. The interlocking nature of the metaphors unifies the poem and leads the reader to understanding. In the first stanza, Plath links two seemingly disparate images, axes and horses. By emphasizing the common ground of echoing sound, movement out from the center, and energy, these images restate the central image. When, in the third stanza, words are spoken of specifically as horses, one understands “words” also to be the referent of the earlier metaphors. Because Plath is a poet and this is a poem, words imply poetry.

Plath uses metaphor as more than a device for seeing experience in a new light. In this poem, she uses progressive linking of subtly changing imagery to mirror a changing mental state. Ax strokes are an image of power and controlled force. Galloping horses are exhilarating but imply the potential for loss of control. In stanza 2, the welling sap and tears suggest a reaction to the preceding violent energy, a wounded state. In stanza 3, the descent of the rock into the pool mirrors a mental descent into a nightmarish world where stones become skulls and the creative mind is a dead and empty shell. Using similar imagery in “Paralytic,” which was written only a few days before “Words,” Plath says,...

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