‘Paralytic’ by Sylvia Plath and ‘Rhino beads’. A text comparison.

This essay will discuss and analyze two English language texts, both from the poetry genre. The first text chosen for analysis is entitled ‘Paralytic’ and is part of the ‘Ariel’ collection published in 1965 which belongs to the internationally acclaimed American author, Sylvia Plath. The second poem is one of mine and it is entitled ‘Rhino beads’. I have chosen these two texts from pure subjectivity because I find them candid, pure and very courageous for daring to delve into such sensitive aspects of the psyche without revealing too much personal information. Moreover, this essay believes that both texts are powerfully creative and will now proceed on to discuss their creative elements, how they can be identified and how they come about to be creative. In order to probe this premise, this essay will analyse both texts from the point of view of structure, form and content, rhythm and rhyme, punctuation, metrical foot, sound and text patterning; this will be the main point of focus for this essay, however, it will also draw on other important aspects such as linking the two poems to both the inherency and cognitive perspective. Additionally, it will constantly draw on Carter’s groundbreaking notion of ‘clines of literariness’ and eventually will deal with his criteria for literariness; in this case, this essay finds medium dependence, semantic density, polysemy and text patterning to be some of the most applicable ones.
At linguistic level, this essay understands creativity to be the property of a text to combine and select techniques and draw on stylistic effects in order to function
poetically, ‘The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.’ (Jakobson in Thornborrow, 2006, p.54) On the contrary, literariness exists at a much more complex level, taking into account the creativity of the text as well as the literary ability of its reader:  ‘Literariness is not just text-inherent properties but about how the craft of a text leads readers to infer unstated content.’ (Thornborrow, 2006, p.69) Therefore, creativity can exist detached from the reader whilst literariness has to take into consideration its dependency on the audience. On this basis, this essay believes that the chosen texts have a high degree of literariness and creativity throughout. In discussing this, this essay will point out their creative elements and it will also draw on ‘clines of literariness’ as the suitable element to show which text is more creative than the other.
To the eye, both ‘Rhino beads’ and ‘Paralytic’ offer a good sense of equilibrium due to their solid structure and arrangement on page. In achieving this, both texts have an even number of stanzas which work well to give the reader this strong sense of physical balance. The element of balance works on the reader in the sense that it allows him/her to distribute the attention equally throughout. Firstly, let us take a look at ‘Rhino beads’; notice how quick the page arrangement has an impact on the eye and how quickly this helps to draw the audience into the text. Despite having a different page arrangement
however, ‘Paralytic’ is good in obtaining that same effect from the reader. Both poems are committed in sending out a strong message and in order to achieve this, both texts
need an equally strong structure. Analysing the structures we can immediately notice that the main difference lies in the stanza organisation and also in the length of the lines. ‘Rhino beads’ opts to convey meaning through a long line of thought and feeling whilst ‘Paralytic’ portrays the same message of morbidity and depression by deliberately breaking the thought line; moreover, here, the thought line is fragmentary and sequenced; ‘Rhino beads’ line 6 ‘Every bitter dusk found me thinking of my morbid medals’ ‘Paralytic’ line 17 ‘Dead egg, I lie/ Whole’. This essay observes how pretty much the same pattern of thought is expressed so differently in these two texts due to its page arrangement and word choice; and this rule of similar thought patterning and content applies nearly throughout the entire poems. But what distinguishes them the most is the structure, form, sound and text patterning, rhythm and rhyme, punctuation and selection and combination of words.
From the inherency perspective, the creative elements of ‘Rhino beads’ relate more to syntax, sound patterning, text patterning and polysyllabic terms. Looking closely at this poem, this essay observes that throughout the entire poem meaning is conveyed mainly through constant and crafty wordplay which inevitably has a powerful reasoning both to the eye and ear. In fact, the strength of this entire text hides in its syntax and in the way the author chose to capture attention by thinking alliteratively. For example, notice line 12, stanza 3 ‘Which aristocratically and ambiguously attacked me,’ -this is a clear example of sound patterning and text patterning which creatively draws the reader in the text whilst conveying meaning. The proof of usage of polysyllabic terms is unquestionable as the terms ‘aristocratically and ambiguously’ can have more than one meaning for each person interpreting the text. An inherency analysis on ‘Rhino beads’ is therefore rather simple. The poem is charged with polysyllabic terms arranged alliteratively for full effect, to capture attention and to reinforce meaning. Let us take a look at stanza 3, line 11 ‘In vain I tried hard to fight back the brutal beast’- most of the meaning of this line is portrayed by an acceleration of rhythm which is in fact easily attained by combination and selection of the letter ‘b’; the line is arranged around the letter ‘b’. This is what constitutes the engine of ‘Rhino beads’ – this is the force which draws and maintains attention. On the other hand, ‘Paralytic’ is very creative itself but its creativity lies more in rhymes and half rhymes, punctuation, comparisons, personification and the ability to keep the reader’s interest through monosyllabic terms which are cleverly selected and combined in fragmentary lines. Stanza 1, ‘No fingers to grip, no tongue, /My god the iron lung. Notice how fragmented the lines are and more so, notice how Plath uses the comma to break them even more. This is how ‘Paralytic’ obtains full effect-by constantly breaking down the line of thought in order to reinforce meaning. Obviously, if this is the case then, ‘Paralytic’ is built on a continuous parallelism of meaning. At the other end, ‘Rhino beads’ employs a constant parallelism of sound, line 3
‘inextricable inundation’, ‘abnormal antagonism’, line 5 and ‘useless unicorn’ line 19, represents a clear and precise proof that ‘Rhino beads’ is built around parallelism of sound and parallelism of syntax. But despite these two texts being structured with totally different techniques, the topic and content remain rather similar: a candid resignation in front of life’s difficulties. Now that the engines of both texts have been highlighted, it is easier to comprehend the effects and linguistic techniques both poems use to have control over the reader’s mind. Let us go back to ‘Rhino beads’ – the driving force behind its syntax is actually sound and text patterning. For example, the entire poem relies massively on repetition of phonemes and morphemes so often, that it provides a distinctive rhythm for meaning purposes; like this, ’In vain I tried hard to fight back the brutal beast/Which aristocratically and ambiguously attacked me,’. (Stanza 3, line 11/12) Notice how these two lines are well connected, draw on each other, rely on each other and also provide meaning having at their foundation phonemes and morphemes. The repetition of the letter ‘b’ and‘t’ in line 11 and the absolute reliance on letter ‘a’ on line 12, accelerates the pace which further on conveys meaning; the poem could have chosen to say ‘the circumstances have affected me in ways I’m still struggling to understand’ – however, if it had been written in this way, that would have made it sound banal and non-poetic. On the basis of this, this essay has shown exactly how creative ‘Rhino beads’ is. These little elements have full power on the reader’s mind. It enforces the reader not only to read alliteratively but also to think alliteratively. Moreover, these building blocks set the pace at which the text should be read. Therefore, in ‘Rhino beads’ meaning and content exist within these building blocks. Line 24 ‘Ecstatically trembling I think of tearing the beast’s organs.’ – building blocks: two diphthongs in ‘tearing’ and ‘beast’ and also the rhythm set on letters ‘e’ and ‘t’; and the phonemes ‘ecs’, ‘trem’, ‘thi’ ,’bea’, org’ and the morpheme ‘tear’. These little but crucial creative elements force the reading pace. Additionally, they lead the reader to find an appropriate meaning; in this case ‘I want to kill the beast’ – we can feel this. The meaning of this text therefore, exists between the lines; it is unstated – ‘…literariness (…) it is also about how the craft of a text leads readers to infer unstated content.’ (Thornborrow, 2006, p.74)
Continuing with the inherency perspective, ‘Paralytic’ also presents morphemes, phonemes and occasional alliterative structures; but here, they are used to shift the rhythm from mellow to fast. Line 30 – notice how slow ‘Eyes, nose and ears,/A clear’ reads; also notice the shift in the rhythm introduced by the following two lines; emphasis on letters ‘c’ and ‘b’ and how Plath connects them with a full rhyme to convey meaning, ‘Cellophane I cannot crack./On my bare back’ – ‘I can no longer carry on like this’. The same rule applies for stanza 5 – the poet creatively imposes power of emotion. ‘On a whole world I cannot touch,/At the white, tight’; upbeat on ‘w’, ‘cannot’, ‘ot’ and ‘a’ and ‘t’ on the second line.  However, throughout the poem the rhythm remains slow with the help of short and broken lines as well as carefully chosen punctuation: ‘Lights,/The soft anonymous … The starched, inaccessible breast.’ (stanza 4) – the rhythm is slow and made even slower by the comma. It is Plath’s technique to control the reader and enforce meaning. ‘(…) in reading a poem, [the] attention is directed into the text, and you seek significance in the very textual pattern.’ (Widdowson in Maybin and Pearce, 2006, p.35) Moreover, the linguistic foundation of this text is the power of the words themselves.
‘Paralytic’ is in fact a meticulous organisation of words on the page; subsequently it exists on the technique of combination and selection. According to Jakobson, the indispensable feature inherent in poetry is ‘the arrangement used (…), selection and combination.’ (Jakobson in Thornborrow, 2006, p.54) It is the power of the words that drives this poem forward due to their emotional baggage: ‘Dead egg’, ‘Dust bags’, ‘iron lung’, ‘still waters’, are very suggestive and descriptive terms. They have inherency qualities. This essay observes how often ‘Paralytic’ relies on these organic units. Most of the power of this text is structured around these powerful elements. Plath employs these units to keep the interest solely on the message – ‘The […] focus on the message for its own sake, is the poetic function of language […]’ (Jakobson in Thornborrow, 2006, p.53); but to make it stronger Plath employs an abundance of commas within or outside the line, firstly to constantly break the pace and then, to control the reader; this adds drama and builds the structure. Occasionally, she even pauses: ‘Will it go on?-‘ … ‘Photographs visit me-‘. By comparison, ‘Rhino beads’ does not rely on punctuation. Occasionally, there are full stops for reinforcement of thought but overall the poem flows because the rhythm is a big part of form and content. So, ‘Paralytic’ relies mostly on parallelism of structure and parallelism of meaning. This parallelism of meaning is strongly foregrounded through deviations such as, ‘… the iron lung’ – ‘My two/Dust bags…’, ‘… violets,/Tapestries of eyes,’ as well as metaphors ‘Dead egg, I lie’, ‘Mouth full of pearls’, ‘The still waters/Wrap my lips’, ‘Wants, desire/Falling from me like rings’. These terms are very suggestive and creative but what makes them work is the way they are arranged and combined on paper within a parallel structure. ‘Rhino beads’ is strongly foregrounded too. There are plenty of deviations here, ‘… trapping myself in an abnormal antagonism’, ‘drinking idiocy’, ‘sweating rhino beads’. These are a few examples of deviations which are as present here, as they are in ‘Paralytic’. What differentiates the two texts is that ‘Rhino beads’ is constructed on parallelism of sound whilst the other is built on parallelism of meaning. With this in mind, this essay also sees the similarity in parallelism of structure. Having said that, both texts present foregrounding, deviation, metaphors and alliterations; what differs is the intention of the writer and in which way they choose to use them to reach the best effect according to their individual needs – look at the following deviations: ‘Robbing me of my little right lung’, ‘My god the iron lung’; ‘The night brings violets’, ‘Of nocturnal feelings, somewhere and nowhere’. Notice the length of the lines and/or the presence or absence of sound patterning. Most importantly, notice similarity in content. Clearly, both texts show creativity but in different ways. Here, this essay understands that ‘clines of literariness’ must be applied.
The metrical foot shows a big difference in the way the texts are conceived. Plath wrote ‘Paralytic’ in mono, di, tri and tetra metre iambic and trochaic. Her choice of prosody is deliberate perhaps because this metrical foot arrangement allows ‘Paralytic’ to shift the pace and break the rhythm; it contributes to meaning. At the other end, ‘Rhino beads’ is written mostly in iambic penta and hexameter to underline dynamism and reinforce this constant element of symmetry throughout. Notice how important the stressed and
unstressed syllables are in connection to the vital phonemes to make this text so energetic and creative. Obviously, the metrical foot is a crucial element in making these texts creative; it is only a small unit in the final outcome.
The rhyme element does not play an important part in these texts. Occasionally, it is used to aid clarity; this draws the reader in: ‘… stupidly enslaved by the beast/The war and warning feelings, rising in me like yeast.’ (line 20) ‘Paralytic’ seems to employ rhyme more often and this essay sees a similarity of intent ‘… tongue-lung’, ‘… furs-pearls’, ‘… crack-back’ and the half rhymes ‘waters-lips’, ‘rings-lights’. Shortly, this situation draws on Carter’s notion ‘construct text to reinforce meaning.’
So far both poems have been analysed from the inherency perspective, however, the cognitive approach is able to judge them differently due to the necessary involvement of each reader. Here, the elements of foregrounding, deviation and schemata refreshment call for subjectivity in interpretation. Let us look at line 23 ‘Which rapturously I broke, sweating rhino beads.’ and line 1’I’ve been drinking idiocy in my most intimate corners’. Schemata refreshment works on full effect but the effect on the reader will always remain open maybe because the terms are polysemic. Nevertheless, this essay, acknowledges the poetic language and the presence of Jakobson’s self-referential and conative functions. ‘Paralytic’ is also written as a series of deviations, ‘Dead egg, I lie’, ‘The starched, … breast’, ‘Still waters/Wrap my lips,’ to mention but a few. It is clear both poems rely a lot on foregrounding and schemata refreshment as a strategy of communicating with the reader; this can be connected to Cameron’s notion of cognitive conceptual metaphor. The cognitive perspective therefore is a matter of both taste and interpretative ability; according to Carter “activation of meanings must be dependent on a reader whose literary competence permits “reasonable” correlations of linguistic forms and semantic functions.” (Carter cited Thornborrow, 2006, p.69)
Both texts draw rather strongly on Carter’s criteria of literariness. As already mentioned, they are constructed around polysemic terms; there can be more than one interpretation. Equally, the element of text patterning is very much present giving both texts a fluctuation in both structure and meaning; they are varied and diversified. This makes room for a third criterion – construct text to reinforce meaning to have an input on the analysis. On this basis, both poems present a very strong ability to exist on their own; in short, they have medium independence. Having said this, this essay believes that it has found a way to separate their degree of literariness from the point of view of semantic density. This essay believes that ‘Paralytic’ is slightly superior to ‘Rhino beads’ because it is able to provide so much information in such little space: ‘Dead egg, I lie/Whole’, ‘Wants, desire/Falling from me like rings’. Notice the amount of information conveyed in a few words. ‘Rhino beads’ needs longer sentences to reach the same amount of clarity’ ‘Conveying my mind and thoughts into an unbreakable contradiction./The high infidelity I sense, inserted by the gentle touch of the beast’. This is because ‘Rhino beads’ does not rely on the power of the word and their combination and selection to provide meaning. Rather, ‘Rhino beads’ finds its meaning in a saturation of alliterative thinking and a rhythm induced by stressed and unstressed syllables which work around phonemes. So, from semantic density’s point of view ‘Paralytic’ is more creative and literary. But according to Bradford and his notion of double- pattern both poems are equally creative and literary because they found a way to balance the structure and content. Undoubtedly, judgements and impressions are open for debate which is why it is essential to refer back to ‘clines of literariness’. As shown, the inherency perspective is able to produce a concrete analysis of creativity but the cognitive approach will forever debate pro and anti. This essay trusts the inherency approach wholeheartedly, but has significant reservation towards the cognitive approach. Due to its dependency on the reader and even the reader’s literary abilities, the latter perspective has obvious weaknesses and lacunas in its attempts towards a clinical analysis. The inherency perspective is strong enough to discuss and debate but the cognitive approach is limited; it needs to find arguments to combat the arguments against it.
In conclusion, this essay has analysed two poems from the point of view of creativity and literariness. It has drawn on a series of linguistic techniques in order to show that both texts present elements of creativity and a high degree of literariness. In achieving this, it has necessarily pointed out similarities and differences and even shown that one text has potential to be considered more creative than the other. Additionally, this essay worked from the premise that both texts are creative and it has managed to reach an accurate conclusion by discussing them from an inherency and cognitive perspective. This essay has intentionally not focused on discussing the entire message/meaning of the chosen materials, instead it has concentrated on evidence of creativity and mainly how the poems come about to mean what they mean – in other words the paramount aim was to look for evidence of creativity and analyse it. Subsequently, this essay has shown that meaning is not just an ensemble of ideas inferred from verse lines but also the way each verse is structured, its’ phonetic effect and the way words are selected and combined to mean what they mean. The essay has shown close linguistic engagement and it has remained focused on proving the creativity in the chosen poems. Subsequently, it has reached an accurate conclusion – that both ‘Rhino beads’ and ‘Paralytic’ are powerfully creative from a series of points of view.


Maybin,J and Swann,J (eds), (2006) The art of English: everyday creativity. Palgrave Macmillian, The Open University.
Goodman, S and O’Hlloran, K. (eds), (2006) The art of English: literary creativity. Palgrave Macmillian, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Maybin, J and Pearce, M. (2006) ‘Literature and creativity in English’ in Goodman S. and O’Halloran K. (eds) The art of English: literary creativity. Palgrave Macmillian, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 3-48.
Thornborrow, J. (2006) ‘Poetic language’ in Goodman S. and O’Halloran K. (eds) The art of English: literary creativity. Palgrave Macmillian, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 49-93.
Swann, J. (2006) ‘The art of everyday’ in Maybin,J and Swann,J (eds) The art of English: everyday creativity. Palgrave Macmillian, The Open University, pp. 3-52.
Short, M (1996) Exploring the language of poems, plays and prose, Longman, London.
Carter, R. (2004) Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk, London, Routlegde.

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  1. Posted January 19, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    This shows real expertise. Thanks for the awnser.

  2. Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    I see something really interesting about your web site so I saved to bookmarks .

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      I have strong intellectual ambitions and possess a great desire for achievement; on this basis, I studied psychology for two years at university and also obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in the Humanities field, as well as gaining a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing. I have an affinity for foreign languages and when I am… Read More