Welcome to Nebo Literature.

‘The Shot’

I.             Context & Subject Matter

For this and most of the poems in Birthday Letters, it is important to be familiar with some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, especially Daddy, Lady Lazarus and Ariel.

Psychologists recognise that people sub consciously look for their parents in their search for life long partners and are generally severely disappointed when their catch fails to make the grade.

Sylvia Plath was doomed by the eight-year-old girl inside her who failed to grieve a father who died too soon; that her whole project (“trajectory perfect as if through ether”) was to get back to that father in his grave.

Nadeem Azam

This poem appears to be a self-rationalisation by Hughes, justifying his inability to help Sylvia overcome her psychological problems. 

II. Sound Effects

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

The tone is decidedly accusatory in a reflective flashback of Plath’s life and painting himself as an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire sheeting the blame for their failed relationship on her obsession with her father’s high expectations.  At the same time he concedes her consistency in the phrase: “To keep you true”  - a back handed compliment?   Further evidence of intimacy and affection are the keepsakes he souvenirs at the end: “wisp of hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown”.

The juxtaposition of assonants,  jocks and gods  has a sneering tone to it as does the play of a changed collocation god-seeker  when we were expecting “gold seeker”

 Its atmosphere of violence is reinforced throughout by the force of its language, imagery and the racy pace.  The onomatopoeic  “ricocheted”  helps to sustain the metaphoric ballistic imagery. 

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns

All our adult problems can be traced to our childhood experiences.  The first seven years of our lives are our impressionable and formative ones that determine our fundamental character, values and aspirations. 

Hughes asserts that many of Plath’s psychological problems stem from the high expectations her father inculcated in her and this single-minded, high achievement driven ambition resulted in catastrophe. 

He suggests that with the right psychoanalytical help (“witchdoctor”) she might have been cured.  While he was incapable of “catching”   (helping) her – all he salvaged were the superficial mementos:  “wisp of hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown”.

IV. TECHNIQUE

Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

As the title suggests, this poem uses the consistent ballistic images of the trajectory of a bullet, aimed at her father, but passing through him first as collateral damage.  While it uses flashbacks its main effect is the sustained imagery of a bullet “gold jacketed, solid silver, Nickel-tipped”.  As in Ariel or Sam, the fast relentless pace of the poem ending with the dramatic demise of their relationship is a calamity. 

The sustained guided missile imagery of a trajectory being fired, honing onto its target, destroying anything in its path is an apt one.

Other images are rich in meaning:

God and gods – her tendency to reach above her grasp.

Jocks -     Transitory sporting heroes.

Alpha career  - Her academic success and vocation

The elect -  irony; those chosen were generally destroyed

Sob-sodden Kleenex – private anxieties misgivings.

Hair done this way, and done that way –vain inconsequential concerns.

Cheek-scar       -  reference to her second suicide attempt in a car?

To keep you true – consistent/ single minded or full of integrity?

“god with the smoking gun”  Ambiguity of who is firing the gun; her father’s influence has made her into a trajectory that has destroyed a lot of people in its path.

“witchdoctor”   a psychiatrist or some supernatural shaman?

“Godless, happy, quieted”  Sometimes we set our sights too high/ would we be better without religion?

“hair, ring,watch, nightgown”   These could be either:

  1. Souvenirs, keepsakes or mementos of their time together
  1. Relics of a martyr
  1. Spoils of the holocaust – a recurring allusion in Plath’s poetry

V. LANGUAGE:

Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

Poetry conveys meaning by suggestiveness and ambiguity.  Much of the intrigue of this poem is based on interpretation of the choice of diction and imagery here. 

VI. Evaluation:

This a good poem to establish the truth in the Hughes/Plath relationship.  While it appears one-sided, there are enough conciliatory concessions to Plath to make it appear balanced and convincingly explanatory.  Plath’s psychic obsession with her father are at the root of all the problems in their relationship and Hughes admits he was incapable of replacing her father as proxy or surrogate one to help protect and care for her.  Does he accept enough responsibility to appease all his detractors?   


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