Reading Aloud (#2): Sylvia Plath’s “Elm”


(from Ruth Fainlight)

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?

Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Echoing, echoing.

Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.

I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?

I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?——

Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.

(Credit: Elm by Sylvia Plath : The Poetry Foundation)


  1. Paola Goyco INGL3211-013
    In comparison to reading and hearing poems, there’s a huge difference between them. Reading a poem is actually, for me, kind of boring and also complicated. Most of the time, I don’t understand the poem or what the poet is trying to communicate through it. It’s hard for me to keep track of the themes because of the figurative language used in it. To be honest, it takes me like 4 times minimum reading it to actually figure out a little bit about it. I’m pretty bad at poetry because I’m more of a “concrete things” kind of girl. This was no exception. I had to read and hear the poem several times to understand it. However, like I said earlier, there’s a difference between them and I refer to the feeling they cause. For a better understanding, poems need to be read out loud for us to maybe feel what the poet was feeling, or wanted to express. It’s hard to read like we normally do and feel something; or maybe that’s just me. But hearing the poem read by another person actually made me understand it a little bit better! I found myself intrigued and following the speaker word by word. I felt emotions such as anger and disappointment because of the way he recited it. When I was reading, I didn’t feel anything because I wasn’t reading it like I was supposed to, even if it was out loud; which is better. Hearing it, I think I understood that the “Elm” was personified as a woman who suffers because of lost love. It changes points of view several times but overall, I think it means that everybody suffers because of love and that transforms us and creates a part of us that might be violent and revengeful; which is something that we have to control and not let it evolve. I understood that loss of love is something sad that we shouldn’t experience but it inevitable in life. However, I didn’t quite understand why the poem is titled “Elm”, even though I said that it was a personified woman. I just assumed because it referred to “she” and “her” at the beginning. Overall, I liked the poem and hearing it form another person was better for me.

  2. When I first read this out loud it sounded like a declaration, that Elm would never love again because her love had left her or was gone. I then heard the reading and realized two things:
    1: The pauses in reading that he and I put were completely different.
    2: The way he said it with different pauses made the same poem sound more like a warning than a declaration. It sounded like Elm wanted to get away from the memories of her love, that it followed her everywhere. It was really cool that she described ‘love’ as a shadow, not real but always present, like a stalker.
    There is one thing I don’t quite understand: in the tenth stanza she says that the cry that inhabits her goes looking for love at night with its hooks. I don’t know if she is saying that she searches for a lover at night just to leat them on and then leave them (which would make her the kind of person she is telling the reader to avoid) or if she is describing her longing to love despite it being what she doesn’t want to do. Anyways, it’s a great poem that made me think more than in most poems.

    P.S. Your voice reminds me a of Keegan-Michael Key, which is also awesome.

    Ian Hernández Maldonado INGL3211 – 013

  3. I think I found my new second favorite poem. The speed and pauses were perfect for a clearer understanding. The tone gave the poem the emotion I believe the author is trying to reflect and made it relaxing to listen to. For some odd reason this reminded me of Lenore by Edgar Allan Poe. Not sure if it was the mood or tone but it put that poem in my head. I am very familiar with poetry and have participated in a few recitals. They taught me, what they said was the “correct” way to recite a poem and this expresses everything they taught me in a way I could have only aspired to achieve. Over all, incredible.
    INGL3211 – 013 Shamely González Toro

  4. After researching about the author’s life it is easier to understand the poem. Plath suffered from severe depression which eventually led to her suicide. At one point in her life she experienced the abandonment of her husband after he was unfaithful to her. We see these aspects reflected as emotions in the poem in the verses where it says: “Love is a shadow. How you lie and cry after it…”. The depression and the betrayal overcomes her and she fears for her sanity. The narrator is presumed to be a tree (because of the title “Elm” which is a type of tree and the references made to it). This tree has the same emotions and feelings as Plath and somewhere along the poem the author and the tree unify in a way they become one. Aside from this great piece of work, the artistic voice of the reader gives it the melancholic tone that complements the poem.

  5. I used to believe that reading a poem out loud would lead to the same effect as reading it how it was intended. The difference this slow reading and the reading out loud I used to believe was the same comes down to the emotions and to the life given to the poem. One can hear and feel the great difference between these two methods.
    When I first read it in my mind I barely understood the meaning of this poem, then I tried reading it out loud to see if then I could understand it yet it was no different from reading it in my mind. After deciding that I did want to hear how it should sound, I clicked play. At the beginning, I felt as if it would not make a difference, as if I would continue with my lack of understanding of what the author is trying to communicate but I was surprised to be faced with the opposite. Not only did I understand the author and her pain but I found myself intrigued to know more. I felt as if I needed to know more. The metaphors the author uses reach a much deeper level than what I could’ve imagined. Her fear and her desire to find something or someone to love reached me and I began to understand why one needs to take the time to read poetry and let if fill you instead of trying to “get it over with” for a class.
    The tone used by the reader, the pauses made and the emphasizing of certain words and phrases made the whole reading seem more complete, they made my face change according to the emotions I felt instead of it remaining stone-like with boredom. The emotion least felt when hearing this reading aloud was most definitely boredom for when it neared its end I felt as if there simply needed to be more, I felt as if this could not be the end. Needless to say, I am intrigued by how poetry can affect a person, in this case me, and I am surprised that it took me until now to understand that yes, it will take more time, but to fully appreciate what poetry has to offer it is necessary to sit down and dedicate it more than just the minute it would take to simply read the words written; the point of reading poetry is to feel what the author felt when writing them.

    Paula Isabel Hernández

  6. While reading the poem by myself I perceived that the poem conveyed a tone of fury. Nevertheless, when I heard the voice clip, I noticed the melancholy and sadness in the tone and definitely the pausing of the speaker takes an important role when it comes to portraying the feeling and tone of the poem. Also, in the part when it says: “I am terrified by this dark thing/ That sleeps in me;/ All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.”, besides that the words transmit certain desperation, the fact that the speaker raised his voice is an excellent compliment when we are reading the story because it makes the experience even more alive.

  7. I believe the beauty of this poem lies with how someone could feel identified by the loneliness of the elm, by its longing for love and knowledge. The reading, in my opinion, was perfect. It truly captures the sadness of the poem, how painful it must be to long for so many things you will never have. The way loneliness is expressed through every element that surrounds the elm, the ground, the sun, the moon, the bird nesting in it, the clouds and the snake that uses it to get its prey is just undeniably impressive. Absolutely fantastic how the poet was able to capture such an intimate feeling of longing in an inanimate object. I couldn’t even try to express relatively simple emotions in a person and yet the poet did it with a tree. That, kids, is talent!

  8. After I read the poem, I clicked play on the audio to better understand the poem. I can see why the professor wanted us to come here and listen to the audio while we read the poem. I’m not a fan of poetry because most of the time I don’t understand it but after hearing the audio the words become clearer. The speaker brings life to the words in the poem the different tones of voice make it seem real. When the speaker says “Listen…” I somehow became curious and Imagined the sound of the hooves. The little details in the speakers voice like when his voice starts to tremble are what make this audio so enjoyable, even for a person that doesn’t understand poetry.

  9. I could immediately tell the difference between reading the poem and hearing it. I find it much easier to understand any poem by hearing it. The pauses the reader made were perfectly executed, giving me a better way of perceiving it. The poem itself was just astonishing. The way it’s described, how love has treated the narrator gives it a sad and dark tone to it. It feels like the narrator is overcome with depression, constantly mentioning words like: “merciless”, “dark”, “cry”, “suffered” and “poisons”. Once I researched about the author’s life, I could immediately tell why. Plath lived with constant depression, and it is reflected on “Elm”. The poem itself was amazingly worded. It is a great piece of art, and adding the fact that I heard it, instead of reading it, just makes it even more incredible.
    Franco Lugo INGL3211-023

  10. I didn’t understand the poem by reading it to myself, or out loud. I had to listen to the audio to fully get the point the poet was trying to get across. What I understood was that by the use of metaphors and personification she is able to explain the way she feels, the loneliness and sadness that love gives her every time she realizes how difficult it is and how much it makes her suffer, apart from telling the reader first hand experiences in order to help them somehow. Also, imagery used in the poem helps the reader have a greater understanding of these metaphors. However, the way the speaker recited the poem in the audio is what actually made me feel things, even more when I’m a person who doesn’t really understand poems on the first try. By pausing and using different tones for different verses, the speaker achieved the goal of making me understand the sentiment of the poem. I could even close my eyes and imagine being somewhere observing the elm and its surroundings, as if it were really happening and not just being read out loud.

    Andrea Rodríguez (013)

  11. Since the first time I read this poem, I sensed some kind of melancholy and seething anger within it. I have to say, to hear it helped me understand it better. The pauses, the emphasis in certain words; they helped the poem become alive. I looked for her biography and discovered she suffered depression after her divorce. It makes sense she felt and thought of love as something scary and merciless. The beauty of this poem is not common and hard to perceive. It makes you think as the narrator; feel as the narrator. To understand it is to feel it. I personally liked this poem a lot.
    These are the poems that make you feel something you once felt; at least in my case.
    Karla H. Torres Angleró (052)

  12. The way the poem is read goes very well with the tone. Reading it with such calmness, with the adequate pauses makes the spectator understand the speaker’s emotions . It almost feels as if you are actually listening to the speaker expressing her feelings. I like the way emphasis is used in certain words to demonstrate pain. Overall, the way the poem is read makes you empathize with the speaker in the poem, feeling what the speaker is going through and what she is expressing.

  13. I had to read the poem many times to understand part of it. I believe it was about love and heartbreak. Then I decided to hear it and I noticed the pauses and the tone of the speaker and it gives the poem that touch of sadness and emptiness. Listening to a poem is more effective for me, rather than reading it. When you listen to the poem you know how it’s supposed to be read and not how you believe it should be. Listening makes the poem interesting, you feel the poem and what the poet is trying to express. Listening to the poem is better because it keeps us curious about the poem and about what is going to happen.
    INGL3211 – 013 Paola Guadalupe

  14. First I read the poem completely about three times so that i could understand or at least get an idea of what message the author wanted to transmit through it. I pressed the play button and immediately perceived the difference. Through the voice of the narrator and all of his pauses along the poem, i could feel the deep emotions that wanted to be transmitted which was pretty depressive. From my point of view I feel that the author was trying to explain the after-effects of having lost someone (or something) you loved greatly. Also we can see that the author related or compared this feeling with poison (arsenic), a tree, radical surgery, etc. So this poem was really interesting and if i were to chose poems for an over analysis this one would definitely be one of my first options.

  15. I believe this poem portrays the confusion of a suffering woman, her experiences with love and how they changed her. It is incredible how Plath conveys all her feelings towards romance through the imagery of an Elm tree and all the elements that affect it. We see that even though the tree went through so much, in the end it still managed to withstand it all and survive. This gives an example on how we should never give in to the anger we might feel nor to the horrors we might live through. It proves that no matter how much we are hurting we should remain calm, for we were made to thrive. As for the way it was read, the pauses and the tone provide for a clearer understanding of the poem and the emotion that lies within each word. I was moved by every stanza, by every single metaphor. The simplicity with which the meaning of the text is transmitted is just remarkable.
    Nicole Zaragoza INGL3211-023

  16. “Elm” is a poem about suffering and the different hardships that the author has gone through in her life. This poem is related to Sylvia Plath’s life because of her stormy relationship, depression, and tragic suicide. With the author’s biography in mind one knows the poem’s mood and tone is melancholic, which leads us to how it should be read or interpreted.The intonation given to this poem is perfect, the pauses are spot on too. They portray the melancholic and overall gloomy mood the listener should feel when reading a poem that revolves around such hardship.

  17. Just reading it in your head or reading the poem out loud can change a lot of the sentiment the poem emits to the people receiving it. When reading poems sometimes you can tell how the poet intended his emotions to be expressed. This poem in particular, in my personal opinion, conveys its message in a much more fluent manner than when read out loud. It seems to have more of a pace when just reading it. The big difference when you actually begin to hear it is that the voice lures you in, it catches your attention and transfers the emotion in a very powerful manner. There are certain phrases in the poem that cannot be expressed in the same manner when just reading it, such as: “I must shriek.” were he really emphasized the statement he is telling himself. Periods and comas are sometimes not enough to be able to fully express the feeling that is being emitted by the poets writing.

  18. When I read the poem “Elm” there was a great sense of melancholy present. For me the main feeling throughout the poem was a deep and unstoppable sadness caused by the the desire to love yet the horrid consequences that may come with it (all the “knowledge” you earn that slowly kills you). However when I heard the poem being recited in such a beautiful way with such a different perspective I feel that my opinion entirely changed. They way in which you recited the poem gave it a special and unique touch. Although it is the same poem, everyone will read it differently and the way in which it was read by you transmitted such a different message that I feel completely astonished. For me the poem was about sadness and pain, but when you read all I felt was the melancholy of being hurt by love but having an unseizable desire to keep on loving. When I heard the poem being recited I felt that the message trying to be communicated was not the pain love can cause, but the willingness of going through it. I felt like the author was trying to say that if love can kill, she shall die, for rejecting it is not an option. It almost feels like what’s killing you is the one thing keeping you alive.
    That’s the power of not only reading out loud, but how the message is seen from person to person. That precisely is the beauty in poetry. We read poems, but the way we recite them, the way we seem them, will completely differ from one person to another. That’s why poetry is so universal, although it expresses the feelings of one person (the author) these feelings can also be seen differently from person to person and reshaped to fit each individual’s experiences and perspectives so that at the end of the day anyone can relate to it, even if it’s in different ways.

    -Erika Rios

  19. To be honest I read “Elm” three times and all three times I ended up with the same conclusion “Elm is a poem based on unnamed man depressed about this unnamed woman” It’s quite ironic because after I heard the poem I did not maintain the same thought. After hearing the poem I could actually feel the depression of the narrator because of the pauses and the way the poem was read. It was quite clear to me that it was a woman talking to herself. “I am terrified by this dark thing That sleeps in me;I am incapable of more knowledge.” when i heard this verse I actually thought “Wow..” and then I heard “What is this, this face So murderous in its strangle of branches” When hearing these words i then concluded that it was actually one identity yet three separate roles. I sincerely enjoyed hearing a poem instead of simply reading them. I never did like poems yet I enjoyed listening this poem.

    -Luis Rodriguez (052)

  20. First of all, I must say that no matter how many times I read the poem, the meaning and understanding of it would have never been the same as after I heard it.. I thought this poem was just about a woman confessing her real feelings through the journey of her relationships in what we call love, but as soon as I heard it, everything changed. The way this man says each word gave me a different view of their significance, and the pauses he took let me know how he states each verse. The strong, melancholic tone put into some verses, as well as the weak sound of the voice pronouncing some words, along with the pauses, are the most important thing to take into consideration when we analyze a poem like this. Now I think that this poem is really about a man who takes this woman’s statement, and parting from it, he explains how he feels love may take us to the bottom, yet we won’t back down on it, even though we know it is based on the author’s real life experiences.. Love is not why we suffer, but, the people who “love” us? It is those who we may be judicious of, as it is stated in the poem:
    “Clouds pass and disperse.
    Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
    Is it for such I agitate my heart?”
    Not everyone deserves our time and love, yet absolutely No one is worthy of our suffering. For these reasons, an example of this may be this verse:
    “Its snaky acids kiss.
    It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
    That kill, that kill, that kill.”.
    I believe the author tries to remind us that we must really know the person we trust our life, happiness and love with, because anyone could become different, a traitor perhaps, and destroy all of which we trusted that person with. That is why the poem ends telling us that those are the faults that kill… Also, I loved her comparison of love and the strength of this Elm tree during nature’s different phases, because the Elm is quite a strong, stable, and lasting tree.
    -Joan Lopez Concepcion
    INGL 3211-013

  21. “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets…” This is an incredible read. The raw emotion in your voice makes it easy for people to identify with it. I love how the poem uses elements of nature as enemies(Sunsets, seas, rain, the moon). Your pauses give the poem a whole new life. Every time you would pause, it reminded me of when I’m having a conversation and I don’t want to say something but I have to. That moment of awkwardness and fear of what might be the other persons reaction be. In poetry, the reader is very important because he is the one who gives life to the poem. I’m in awe right now. This is not a poem to read at 1:00 am though because now I will be thinking about it all night. “These are the isolate, slow faults/That kill, that kill, that kill”.

  22. There is a great difference between reading a poem and hear it being recited. While reading a poem provides us the essence of it, we are missing various aspects of it. We tend to read without changes in intonation coupled with a swift and agile pace that often skips necessary pauses that enhance the overall meaning of the poem. When I first read “Elm” I struggled to fully grasp the tone that the author created in the poem. Yet listening it being recited in such a masterful way proved to be more insightful experience. I could fully understand the emotions conveyed within the poem thanks to how the poem was read out loud. Emphasizing phrases and words, pauses, and the changes in intonation come together with the poem itself to better expose the tone of the poem. When listening to this poem, one can truly feel the slow, reflective, and melancholic tone of the poem which gets juxtaposed with sudden sparks of desperation evidenced when the poetic voice expresses: “I must shriek”. These sudden changes of tone in the poem are easily lost when we merely read a poem, whereas when we listen to it being read out loud in a proper way like this, we can actually feel these emotions and more effectively absorb what is conveyed by the poem. Reciting a poem out loud amplifies the beauty that lies within it and affects how tone is transmitted to the receiver.
    -José E. López Nieves (023)

  23. This poem expresses deep and sorrowful feelings in a gradually attenuate tone. I liked listening to this interpretation of the poem because it was conveying hopelessness and in the end, it is clearly shown that the speaker wants to love again, but feels too numb to want to try once more. This poem shows some of the darkest thoughts someone might have after experiencing a heavy loss. Again, I liked how this poem was recited as it focuses on the subtle details within the stanzas, and it shows how much emotions can strongly affect someone.

    -Paulina Robles
    INGL 3211-092

  24. English 3211-013
    It was incredible how my understanding and feeling of the poem change after I listened to it. First the narration help me understand better the importance of the pauses, and actually listen to all the pauses made a different impact in the understanding. When I first read it, I seem to forget to maintain the tone and voice of the poem and started to give it my own tone, but in the narration the tone was clear and the voice helped me stayed focus and within the context of the poem.
    Also the narration help me understand the powerful feeling of love and pain that was being express. Wen I first read it I did not seem to understand all the emotions, but after listening to it everything came together. For me the most intense part was the last line with those three pauses in between each “That kill”, it truly made me feel the pain that was killing her. For that reason a chose this last part as my favorite one from the whole poem.

  25. English 3211-013

    Loved the way of how reading aloud makes it easier to understand the poem. It is such a great tool, I first read it alone without quite understanding very much anything, but after I pressed play to the reading aloud, it was a game changer, the voice helped me read and understand the poem better. The mood of the poem is in a way somber but I couldn’t decipher that until I used the reading aloud tool because I was reading the poem to fast to comprehend it completely.

  26. INGL 3211-023
    Wow. Reading the poem is nothing like hearing it. Besides having a beautiful voice. I like the melancholy you expressed while reading the poem out loud, aswell as the poem speaking to the reader itself. I can say that I definetly felt what the author was feeling at the moment of writting. The anger and depressive attitude presented on the verses were more obvious to identify as I heard you recite, something that is much complicated for me to do when reading a poem because the tone is not that clear, at least for me. You accomplished making the poem more understanble for this lady and it made me catch the feels. It was great!

  27. It is truly amazing to listen with what ease your voice creates just the right atmosphere for this poem; two lines into it and a wave of emotion rushes through whoever is listening. In some ways, it even changes the way you see the poem. When I first read this poem (without the audio) I sensed something like an angry reproach that seemed to escalate in it’s hostility as the speaker went progressively mad, but when I listened to you it just seemed… sad. The speaker is afraid even tho she says she is not; she also sounds dissapointed and depressed, broken. The emotions displayed in the poem are not linear, it is more like they escalate at a subtle but constant rate, and in parallel it makes you sadder as your empathy grows, to the point were, by the time you read the last stanza, you are a little depressed too. I believe this makes it a very good poem: it is indirect enough to be poetic, but clear enough to make it sincere.

  28. i liked how the narrator expressed the true feeling in his voice that the poem was trying to express, and that without the audio it makes it harder to understand the poem. the poem expresses deep and dark emotions of despair and sadness, but at the end the person expressing those emotions wanted to love again, but it was too late. REALLY GREAT READING #LOVEDIT #B-52STEALTHBOMBERCREW

  29. 3211-052
    From reading this poem, I interpreted the theme was the loss of love. But after hearing the audio various times, I could understand how, when the author says “I know it with my great tap roots,” and “my red filaments burn” amongs other lines, the narrator was an actual elm tree. Hence the title. I think the way we read things versus the way we read things has a different influence in the way we interpret things. This has been scientifically proven, studying the best way a student retains information. In my case, I would say the way you recite the poem; pauses, your emphasis o certain words, amongst other verbal connotations, would confirm the way I am an audible learner. Once I understood that we were talking about a tree, I comprehended how the moon was even relevant. The author maybe changed his point of view to the moon’s, something the tone of voice of the reciter implies. Basically, the audio was an extremely helpful tool in the process of decrypting the metaphors within this poem, and also the tone.

  30. I wanted to start this comment off by thanking you for doing these readings as they are a great tool for better understanding each poem and sparking interest among other readers.

    Regarding the poem, Plath has a great way of providing striking detail to the image of the Elm to the point that we can picture it perfectly. Her impressive use of metaphor and personification allow for the creation of a different reality that may be acceptable, leaving us, the readers, as more than just spectators.

    As for your execution when reading, I felt you could have expressed a bit more emotion to contrast the different feelings portrayed in the poem. Regardless, it was a worthy interpretation and a great find. Thank you for your work!

    – Gabriel Crescioni

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