What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. What am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before, do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here the water
again quite queer but I’ll go on looking
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow completely
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish.
I had originally seen no connection between ‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes and the piece ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath and only spotted it when I put the poems side by side. In many ways they are total opposites: one is anthropological, located as it is in the mud and water of a primeval forest; the other, an object-poem using the setting of a mirror on the wall of an suburban home. Yet, both poems are really about consciousness coming into being.
Hughes gives us this almost in a literal sense. Wodwo is a term used in late medieval mythology and represents a mythical ‘wild man’ figure who lives in the forest. In Hughes’ hands though, he feels more like an ancient ancestor, a kind of Peking Man chancing upon his own reflection for the first time in a river pool as he “noses about” by the bank. There is the distinct fusion of the animal and the human that you find in many Hughes poems, but here it is more than metaphor. It is literally true. Wodwo is part-animal, part-human. Of course, there is a weird conceit at work here because this creature is endowed with a complex language he couldn’t possess, but Hughes plays against this by breaking down the rules of grammar and punctuation to suggest the primitive. But more importantly, it is Wodwo’s perceptions that are profound because they are so defamiliarized (“Do these weeds/ know me and name me to each other have they/ seen me before, do I fit in their world?”) and heightened by his own puzzlement at his situation (which is surely the stamp of self awareness like the why, why, why of the seven year old child).
Plath’s poem does something similar. The mirror is like a blank screen that just records what it sees without investment: “I am silver and exact… I am not cruel only truthful.” In a way that is a perfect statement of alienation, but this mirror is also becoming awake (more, I think, like a computer becoming aware of itself but in this case one unable to move and has, as a consequence, simply meditated on the wall opposite for so long that “I think it has become part of my heart.”).
The mirror is also like the river in Hughes poem (a surface for reflection and defamiliar-ization) and the poem takes up this metaphor in the second half as the mirror (the blank, disinterested mind) becomes suddenly real and animate as “a woman bends over me,/ searching my reaches for what she really is”. The way the mirror records the entire life of this woman as “each morning her face replaces the darkness” is a stunning shift in perspective and the poem goes from being a meditation on a wall to that of a whole life.
I’m sure at the bottom of both poems is some kind of process of psychological distancing or some such. The thing though that raises both pieces above any kind of verse psychology is the fact that Hughes and Plath have employed incredibly rich conceits to convey perceptions and ideas that would be difficult to put into a traditional lyric poem. I think, both poems are probably about two minds trying to put themselves together. That, in a way, is what we are always doing; that we too are blank like the mirror and at the river’s edge, seeing our face for the first time and wondering what it is there for.
It is only as I wrote this piece that I noticed both poems were published in the same year: 1962.