Poetry and assemblage

This paper considers poetic practice which emphasises an intuitive approach, through the poetry of Sylvia Plath, poetics and assemblage theory. Poets tend to write intuitively, attempting to say, despite the limitations of our use of language and of language in general, what we barely understand about life and ourselves. This is sometimes achieved by accessing the unconscious, a method which is characterised by putting analytical faculties to one side and trying to surrender to what is deep within the individual. Assemblage holds that the unconscious is not fixed, and that it is constructed in process; schizoanalysis, which is a development of the idea of the unconscious, emphasises multiplicity and the indefinable, even as Plath’s writing reflects on the multiple and the uncertainty of the self. The assemblage method is not a model for producing poetry, and authors may be unaware of its conception of the unconscious whilst in practice exemplifying it. Assemblage is one way in which to enhance understanding of the poetic process to assist the reader’s enjoyment. This paper concludes with poetic responses to the example of Plath’s work, and as Plath becomes a focus of imagination, inspiring further writing which looks to the unconscious for new reference points.


Keywords: Intuition – unconscious – poetry – assemblage – Sylvia Plath


This paper explores the writing of poetry with a focus on the intuitive and through the analysis of assemblage theory. Poets tend to write in intuitive ways, attempting to say, despite the limitations of our use of language and of language in general, what we barely understand about life and ourselves. This is sometimes achieved by accessing the unconscious in writing, a method which is characterised by putting rational, analytical faculties to one side and trying to surrender to what is deep within, to bring what was hidden, as opposed to the ‘familiar and congenial’, into view (Freud 2004: 420). It assumes, in the Freudian sense, that there is a part of ourselves which is inaccessible to consciousness (Freud 1966: 260). This endeavour does not assume that the dream is the only means of making it acceptable, since it has been shown that therapeutic tools can increase that access. For many poets, the ghost of therapy has perhaps informed creative practice.

Freud makes further distinction between different levels of the unconscious, using the term foreconscious to describe that which, though initially suppressed, can be brought into consciousness, and unconscious, proper, for that which resists such a process (Freud 1966: 262-266). In this sense, most writing which draws on the undiscovered parts of ourselves would be better expressed as foreconscious examples. However, the discussion of the unconscious is further modified by Lacan’s assertions that, in the discourse of subject and community, any possible exchange, even if unconscious, is inconceivable outside the permutations authorised by language (Lacan 2006a, 414). This means that the unconscious, as a signifying system and like the sign itself, is interchangeable with language and moves from one signification to another.

Of course, poets may write with an intuitive impulse and access the unconscious without having any particular opinions about Freud or Lacan; nevertheless, the discourse on this topic may have filtered into the community and had an influence. Lacan further suggests that we should not assume that the unconscious is a unified force any more than that the conscious is unified. Descartes’ cogito, he claims, tended to reinforce the idea that the conscious is unified, when, more importantly, it represented a break ‘with every assurance conditioned by intuition’ (Lacan 2006b: 705). I believe that poets’ concern with experimenting with language means that Lacan’s understanding is more relevant to this paper than Freud’s. Creative work, in so far as it re-asserts the use of intuition, might also be said to resist the cogito, as suggested above.

Writing with this intuitive drive towards the unconscious invariably brings the unknown into the known, and may contribute towards a stronger sense of the becoming-self. This paper will consider poetic practice which emphasises an intuitive approach, through the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and ideas about poetics and assemblage theory, partly through its further development of the idea of the unconscious. Assemblage theory seems to build on Lacan’s more expanded view of the conscious and unconscious. It embraces the mental, emotional and creative faculties in writing, writing which ‘has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 5). The multiplicity of the poetic artefact is just such a potential, and one which ‘forms a rhizome with the world’; it is essentially non-linear. Yet, even when this potential is articulated, it is not fully realised, it is still a kind of unknown multiplicity (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 11). In some ways, assemblage resists definition, and commentators on the subject often give a clearer impression of its parameters, such as Little’s explanation that ‘there does not exist a fixed and stable ontology for the social world that proceeds from “atoms” to “molecules” to “materials”’, but rather social formations that ‘are assemblages of other complex configurations’ (Little 2012: n.pag.). Deleuze and Guatarri seem more intent on describing those various properties, but the idea of a multiplicity of multiplicities is prominent. Another significant factor in these multiplicities is the unconscious itself. Moreover, assemblage is the unconscious (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 36). If this is true, then the efforts to write from the unconscious under discussion in this paper are appropriately addressed by this particular theoretical discourse, and I will comment shortly on assemblage’s understanding of the unconscious.

Assemblage may be seen as an evolution of previous analytic modes, at the same time as accommodating structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction, and it may well constitute the movement towards translinguistics that Barthes and Derrida foresaw as a future cultural development (Barthes 1969: 11; Derrida 1997: 51-52). The assemblage method is not a model for producing poetry, and authors may be unaware of its conception of the unconscious whilst in practice exemplifying it. Assemblage is one way in which to enhance understanding of the poetic process that the reader may enjoy and the writer may respond to on the page. In fact, this hybrid paper concludes with poetic responses to Plath’s work, as Plath becomes a focus of imagination, and inspires writing which, similarly, looks to the unconscious for new reference points. The discussion of assemblage assists practice since it is sympathetic to intuition and the unconscious.

Firstly, some remarks about assemblage as method. The assemblage of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘The Bee Meeting’ includes: the text of the poem itself; the collection Ariel of which it is part; Plath’s other writings; her use of literary techniques, and the interpretation of words as signs; the secondary literature of the poem; major relationships of the poet; the significance of bees and beekeeping, both within and outside the poem, etc [i]. This assemblage, then, is diverse and wide-ranging and the paper will consider just some of its notable components.

Assemblage acknowledges the indefinable. The uncertainty one may feel around the writing of poetry, particularly from the unconscious, is sometimes uncomfortable, but we may well need this uncertainty and its associated suspension of analytical thought in order to break through limitations of language. American poet Amy Lowell refers to a kind of altered state we get into whilst writing poetry. She also attempts to define a poet as someone, 'of an extraordinarily sensitive and active subconscious personality, fed by, and feeding, a non-resistant consciousness' (Lowell 1972: 201-202) [ii]. A poet sees possibility but accepts some degree of mystery; in Deleuzean terms, the virtual must vie with the indefinable [iii].

Discussing Bergson, Deleuze offers a definition of intuition as ‘immediate knowledge’. This idea suggests rapidity and fluency, but doesn’t preclude data. Intuition is secondary to duration and memory in Bergson’s thought (Deleuze 1991: 13-14), and builds on these existing forms of knowledge [iv]. This intuition is philosophical and aims at precision, which according to Bergson, has been lacking hitherto. Bergson was concerned that philosophy was expected to complete the knowledge that science stopped short of, and somehow synthesise the whole. Such a conception means that philosophy would begin ‘where certitude leaves off’ (Bergson 1992: 122-123). For both science and philosophy, ‘experience signifies consciousness’ (124); where the former externalises itself in relation to context, the latter attempts greater inward depth. But Bergson notes that ‘the matter and life which fill the world are equally within us', and he enjoins the philosopher: ‘Let us go down into our own inner selves: the deeper the point we touch, the stronger will be the thrust which sends us back to the surface’ (124-125). An analogy from philosophy to writing poetry from the unconscious is obvious here.

One should, at the same time, consider the parameters of discovery of the self into which we delve. If it is the case that even the philosophical system ‘is an assemblage of conceptions so abstract, and consequently so vast, that it might contain, aside from the real, all that is possible and even impossible’ (Bergson 1992: 11), then surely poetry, which often makes no claim for absolute precision is a kind of infinity, a multiplicity of multiplicities of just such a kind as assemblage tries to articulate, and ultimately indefinable. Importantly, also, for the discussion of the unconscious and poetry, Deleuze is certain that there is ‘more in the idea of nonbeing than that of being,’ that is, the negation implies all the properties of the thing itself, together with an enhanced sense of what is yet unknown about it (Deleuze 1991: 17). This celebration of the negation helps give a stronger idea of the range of what might be uncovered by writing intuitively and from the unconscious, i.e. that it is perhaps limitless.

Amy Lowell’s ideas on the unconscious and how that realm might be accessed for poetic material are part of this multiplicity. She comments:

I do believe that a poet should know all he can. No subject is alien to him, and the profounder his knowledge in any direction, the more depth there will be to his poetry. I believe he should be thoroughly grounded in both the old and the new poetic forms, but I am firmly convinced that he must never respect tradition above his intuitive self. Let him be sure of his own sincerity above all, let him bow to no public acclaim, however alluring, and then let him write with all courage what his subconscious mind suggests to him. (Lowell 1972: 203) [v]

Working from the unconscious in poetry is facilitated by responding, often rapidly  and perhaps within a time limit, to a stimulus, be that a word or phrase, a line of a poem, strong emotions (Lowell says this must be present to stimulate the unconscious) and visualisations or exercises which trigger dormant memories. The less self-conscious this process, the better. We find ways to trick the analytical faculty into stepping aside. It is not the only way to compose, and it can be interchanged with other methods based on observation and description; Lowell suggests that inevitable gaps in what the unconscious delivers must be filled by what she calls the ‘conscious training’ of artifice (Lowell 1972: 202).

Unlike many writers, Lowell loves the empty page: ‘I seldom compose in my head. The first thing I do when I am conscious of a poem is to seek paper and pencil. It seems as though the simple gazing at a piece of blank paper hypnotized me into an awareness of the subconscious’ (Lowell 1972: 202). What we come to know in writing poetry from the unconscious is something of that potentially limitless storehouse of material. It has been said that ‘the modern artist doesn’t have to look for a subject matter outside themselves’ (Pollock 1950: n.p.). Diarist Anaïs Nin writes, ‘With me my unconscious is so vast, so tremendous, like a vast ocean which is constantly manifesting its presence, threatening to drown me, but which I can clarify and control as I live it out’ (Nin 1979: 239). Writing from the unconscious helps bring aspects of personality, and examples of the human condition, into conscious awareness, and encourages the appreciation of the present.

The term unconscious has been modified and developed by assemblage to that of schizoanalysis, which claims that psychoanalysis subjects the unconscious to hierarchical structures and ‘bases its own dictatorial power upon a dictatorial conception of the unconscious’, and cannot change its method (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 17). Schizoanalysis focusses on multiplicity, complexity and differentiation and treats the unconscious as an ‘acentered system’, a rhizome (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 18). The assertion that psychoanalysis cannot change its method is paralleled in the belief that the sign itself is based on an originary premise: the linguistic ‘tree’ is concerned with tracing and reproduction, the signifier points back to an original or definitive signified. One of the goals of psychoanalysis is ‘to explore an unconscious that is already there from the start’, whereas the rhizome of assemblage ‘does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 12). Fundamentally, schizoanalysis attempts to understand ‘how the unconscious works’; rather than being the theatre of Freud, it is a factory (Buchanan 2014: 11). Having said that, it is important to note that psychoanalysis is not completely rejected by assemblage, but is developed as an idea, ‘to include the full scope of libidinal and semiotic factors in its explanation of social structure and development’ (Holland 2005: 236).

The distinction assemblage makes between schizoanalysis and the linguistic tree is further emphasised by the statement that ‘not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 7). This idea helps define the challenge assemblage makes to semiotics, to embrace ‘memories, images or immaterial artistic signs’ (Semetsky 2005: 243). Even thoughts have an image associated with them, by which we generally understand what a thought is (Deleuze 1994: 131). Memory is a factor that is difficult to conceptualise with traditional structuralist readings of works, yet, at times, we feel sure that memory has made its presence felt in a text, and that words have the capacity to convey and respond to memory, as well as to evoke it [vi]. Assemblage, then, is an expanded approach to analysis, which includes these supra-linguistic factors in its reading. The rhizomatic paradigm, by establishing ‘connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 7), includes the structural elements of semiotics (which are still useful tools) but is not limited to them.

To summarise, assemblage rejects the originary authority of the fixed unconscious and, likewise, of the linguistic tree, for the rhizomatic model, which provides a more complete cultural context for expression, including language. Derrida’s assertion that the era of the sign, with its definitive signified, shares the epoch of divinity and the idea of God is a useful complement to these thoughts (Derrida 1997: 13-15). Modern artists such as Pollock and Plath – ‘I talk to God, but the sky is empty’ (‘Cambridge Notes [February 1956]’, Plath 1977: 210) – moved away from the originary model. The self is, arguably, now the primary subject of art. According to Derrida, even the book, together with ‘pre-supposed’ concepts, such as ‘being’, share the lineage of the sign and divinity (Derrida 1997: 18-20). And so the ‘becoming-self’ of assemblage is of particular relevance to our understanding of the work of the contemporary artist or poet.

Plath’s persona, the magician’s child in ‘The Bee Meeting’, is surely an embodiment of the construction of the unconscious. We suspect that the self is the focus of her work even without reading assertions such as those of her husband that ‘her painful subjectivity was her real subject’ (Hughes 1977: 15). The subjectivity of the poem throws up numerous questions for the reader: is the voice the queen bee, or is she being forced to become a beekeeper, like the other villagers? Will she be cut in half, but remain fearless because she has survived this before? Is she to be operated on? Does the poem allude to a hallucination caused by anaesthetic? Is something more deadly presaged? The poem begins:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers –
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

(Plath 1985: 57)  

The villagers assembled at the bridge to meet the narrator are a formidable group. She is unprepared and without protection, whereas they have veils for the danger that lurks. She is unprepared and uninformed. Metaphorically, she is nude and unloved, the secretary of bees buttons the cuffs at her wrist and the slit which extends from neck to knees; she is passive and cared for, but frightened. She is led through a beanfield, maybe to her death. The archaic hats of the others suggest ‘knights in visors’. The strips of tinfoil in the garden wink with knowing; this personification contrasts with her own unknowing. Dusters and bean flowers are also personified, with sinister associations – the latter having ‘black eyes and leaves like bored hearts’ – creating an air of discontent. The tendril of the bean flowers may even draw up blood, but they will themselves become edible. Perhaps the narrator, too, will be a sacrifice.

She is given more beekeeping paraphernalia leading her to the ‘shorn grove, the circle of hives’; the hawthorn smells sick, as the voice projects feelings into the imagined space. The tree’s body is barren, ‘etherizing its children’ (58), and the distinct medical reference and allusion to barrenness and children suggest a memory of miscarriage. In this reading, the villagers might be medical staff, along with attendant visitors or well-wishers. Perhaps the poet is investigating an experience in terms of an allegorical meaning, one which might shed light on feelings and reactions, beyond the shock of loss of life and the unfortunate mundanities that accompany it. The assemblage of the poem is more than a description of experience, it houses symbol, association and a search for identity amidst the expectation of giving birth (possibly at the same time as the cancelling of those expectations) [vii]. Moreover, there is an important struggle going on between the narrator and the villagers. Whilst the social structure of the villagers may suggest a hierarchy, the possibilities of the poem do not.

The voice is in a state of protest. The restrictions made on her resemble those of language on the individual practitioner, which, as Deleuze and Guatarri write, ‘imposes upon the child semiotic coordinates possessing all of the dual foundations of grammar’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 75-76), and, we may suppose, any biases that accompany the appreciation of language and its system. This concern is also comparable to the image of the school teacher posing problems in the classroom, of the kind which must be defined only in terms of their solution (Deleuze 1991: 15) [viii]. Elsewhere, Plath writes of the need to assert the self: ‘I too want to be important. By being different’ (Plath 1977: 209). Remember, the assemblage is the unconscious; the individual is ‘becoming-animal’, ‘not content to proceed by resemblance’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 233) because that is a limitation; it is natural at every level to assert the self. It is useful to note that in assemblage theory itself, the macro is not privileged above the micro (Little 2012).

The fear of loss of identity is part of the struggle of Plath’s poem. This fear may be closely associated with living with others, even with animals, no less for the writer, and perhaps more so. To complicate matters, writers are like sorcerers because they can associate freely with any group and may become merged with ‘an unknown Nature – affect. For the affect is not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 240). This is disturbing and perhaps explains Plath’s situation in ‘The Bee Meeting’. She fears consumption by the village; they will operate on her, they will kill her – what is she to do?

As suggested above, the dangers to the narrator might include an operation. A surgeon is named, though he has a green ‘helmet’, rather than the green mask, gown and head covering of the medic. This characteristically odd and disruptive metonym suggests some ancient rite and extends what a structuralist reading might see as a code of the archaic, begun by the words ‘visor’, ‘knight’ and ‘breastplate’. These valorised terms are predominantly male; ‘midwife’ is the only female role mentioned, but doesn’t in any way stand out from the group. Additionally, the surgeon could be butcher, grocer or postman, as if it made no difference, as if she were equally vulnerable to whatever error or control these villagers might impose. She cannot escape, and the gorse, already dangerous, is armoured. If she were to run, she would have to run forever. The simile contained in ‘The white hive is snug as a virgin’ suggests that the only answer to the natural toils of childbirth is to remain chaste; this solution is not judged, but seems inherently quaint and limited, and she is not associating herself with this group. 

The complex nature of the subject matter of ‘The Bee Meeting’ recalls Alvarez’s discussion of the poem ‘Ariel’, where he claims that the difficulty of interpretation ‘lies in separating one element from another.’ In that poem, he sees each combination of rider and horse, horse and earth, and the dew on the earth and the rider, as one. The reader is made to feel the forces at work, through ‘inward detail’, rather than to see each element clearly (Alvarez 1970: 61). The same need to feel one’s way through the work rather than ‘understand’ it is at work in ‘The Bee Meeting’. Alvarez’s reading accords with assemblage’s acceptance of the indefinable and, more specifically, that the concept of the code is too limited and unstable to comprehend the whole, ‘since a code is the condition of possibility for all explanation’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 77). For example, the archaic code mentioned above cannot shed light on all passages. Even the importance of metaphor and metonymy is called into question by assemblage, because these features are ‘merely effects; they are a part of language only when they presuppose indirect discourse’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 77). The identification of individual techniques such as metaphor and metonymy are subsumed in the limits of the code. The privileging of indirect discourse in assemblage seems validated indeed by the further point that there are ‘all manner of voicings in a voice’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 80). The uncertainty the reader feels around what the persona of Plath’s poem is experiencing seems to come from just such a use of free indirect discourse, i.e. we are not always sure which feelings and events are attributed to which character.

The questions that prefigured this discussion – concerning who were the bees and who the beekeepers and what danger the voice of the poem might be in – are to some extent answered and to some extent not. Even when some apparent clarity emerges, new doubts and concerns about characterisation also appear. Plath’s poetry is illustrative of the ‘pure multiplicity that changes elements, or becomes’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988: 27). Multiplicity escapes ‘the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one . . . to succeed in conceiving the multiple in the pure state’ (Deleuze and Guatarri: 32). In other words, the multiple is seen in the individual (like the universal in the particular). At another level, Plath seems to be trying to escape the multiple of society, simply because it does not accept the singularity of her being, or wants to assimilate it too violently; this is her impulse for survival.

Finally, it is clearly revealed that the villagers are hunting the queen. She will in time be displaced by the young (‘the new virgins’) but will live another year first. The terms ‘bride’ and ‘murderess’ are used in quick succession, conflating unlikely concepts, rather than clarifying images or ideas. The villagers are moving the virgins. Plath concludes:

I am exhausted, I am exhausted –
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished,
           why am I cold.

(Plath 1985: 59)

Can we now be sure that she is the sacrifice that was foreshadowed? The villagers congratulate themselves. Perhaps the operation follows a birth, then? Or does the contrasting sense of loss in the tone of the poem suggest miscarriage, or distress over the very birth that the others celebrate? Does loss belong only to the voice of the poem? The narrator may be imagining or projecting qualities onto the villagers, or she may perceive them with some symbolic accuracy and give insight into their character, explaining them (as Bergson would say); the struggle to assert the self continues in uncertainty. The final question does not include a question mark, as if it is a statement that cannot be answered, or a construction of the unconscious that cannot be brought to completion.

One is also tempted to ask questions that may be answered outside the text. For example, one might speculate that the magician is an allusion to Plath’s father, a Professor of Biology, and an expert on bees. One might also contemplate the fact that Plath often referred to her father in other poems (such as ‘Daddy’ and ‘Little Fugue’), as well as, in other writings, a need for a father figure (Plath 1977: 210, 211, 222). Ted Hughes writes about her preoccupation with her father and his early death in numerous poems (‘The Afterbirth’, ‘The Table’ and ‘The Bee God’), and what Hughes perceived as her tendency to project these preoccupations onto her husband (Hughes 1999: 130,138). Considerations such as these could be viewed as variations on the intentional fallacy, but, in an assemblage, all linkages are embraced, without hierarchies, since it is intrinsically understood that no explanation can be accepted as an authoritative understanding of a text, and none is desired.

Plath’s notebook entry ‘Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers (June 1962)’ narrates the incident on which ‘The Bee Meeting’ is based[ix]. She and Hughes meet with local beekeepers with a view to learning the craft and keeping a hive. The real villagers include the rector and the midwife[x]. Plath has not brought a sweater, and is also without the proper paraphernalia. Everyone else has some kind of hat; Sylvia has none. A certain Mrs P (the ‘secretary of bees’ of the poem) produces a boiler suit, into which she is helped, and Charlie Pollard finds her ‘a fashionable white straw Italian hat’, which enters the poem exactly as originally described. In general, the hats used at the meeting give Plath the impression of a ceremony and a ‘strange rite’. Her own veil ‘seemed hallucinatory’, which term captures the atmosphere of the poem itself. Plath describes herself as being in a kind of trance, and thoughts of her father flood her mind: ‘"Spirit of my dead father, protect me!" I arrogantly prayed’ (Plath 1977: 246-249). This hallucinatory atmosphere certainly comes across in the poem itself (just as the sense of a dream pervades the story ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’)[xi]. The villagers cannot find the queen bee on that particular evening. The notebook entry for the following day records Plath and Hughes collecting their hive. This is almost certainly the long white box of the last stanza of the poem. It is intriguing to think that comparatively pragmatic issues could have been handled in such a trance-like way in the poem; the reason for her coldness may well have been that lack of attire, rather than the imminence of death.

Perhaps the voice of the poem is trying to accept defeat and death in some way, or is simply caught up in the problematic amidst the feelings of disempowerment, the drama of life enacted on paper. An ex-room-mate of Plath’s claimed that the young poet ‘was driven, periodically, to stage a symbolic salvation with herself as the suffering victim . . . almost as though only by being snatched from the brink of death could she confirm her worth’ (Steiner 1974: 51). In terms of her perception of events, too, Plath’s preponderance for the extreme is noted (Steiner: 30-31). The above quotation seems to suggest some of the poet’s impetus, as well as a possible answer to a central question posed by schizoanalysis: ‘Why do people fight for their own servitude as stubbornly as if it were their salvation?’ (Holland 2005: 236), since it hints at a preoccupation with trauma.

Though the work of poets like Plath might be said to defy limitations of interpretation, one is conscious that writing does not guarantee resolution. Writing is the expression of a desire, and like the desire of assemblage, is inherently positive, since it creates, and asserts, and puts words onto the page; it is not speechless (Buchanan 2014: 25). According to assemblage theory, desire produces Kantian ‘objects’, which are intuitions (Buchanan 2014: 12). Like the market reacting to the Oedipal nuclear family, the poet is ‘freeing desire from capture . . . thereby producing schizophrenia as the radically free form of semiosis and the radically free form of universal history’ (Holland 2005: 237). One might say that the limitations of language and context are also probed and escaped by this free form semiosis, and compensate for the idea that ‘Whenever a multiplicity is taken up in a structure, its growth is offset by a reduction in its laws of combination’ (Deleuze & Guatarri 1988: 6). Though this sense of restriction in language use is a difficulty which many writers express, and surely all feel, it is overcome with an acknowledgement of mystery. Limitation is defied just as interpretation is defied (the unconscious assemblage is infinite).

Some degree of uncertainty is the inevitable result of this defiance. Commenting on uncertainty and disconcertion, Kristeva notes Jentsch’s idea that the value of signs may be reduced in such a way that ‘The symbol ceases to be a symbol’, and takes the place of the thing symbolised, assuming an importance beyond the merely arbitrary limitation of the sign (in the Saussurean sense). She writes that, ‘the material reality that the sign was commonly supposed to point to crumbles away to the benefit of imagination’ (Kristeva 1991: 184). This is a crucial idea that supports assemblage’s attempt to reconsider the symbol, highlighting imagination and its power to illuminate, rather than to explain. In a poem, one is free to depict another reality: ‘What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination’ is the poet’s cry (Plath 1977: 223).

The signified is gone. An assemblage comes to light that is not pre-ordained or already existent, not a representation of the unconscious, but another reality coming into being, an expression of the being-unconscious, as part of the fullness of the becoming-self. Assemblage helps describe the contents and effects of a poem. We see in Plath’s ‘The Bee Meeting’ the uncertain and indefinable struggles of an individual within society. We feel our way through the poem, rather than understanding it completely, and despite those struggles and oppositions gain a sense of the multiple in the individual, even in one who dramatises her own life. We see writing as the expression of a desire, spurred on by intuitive impulses, and not a move towards resolution. As suggested, assemblage is not a method of writing poetry but a particular approach to analysis. Like any analysis, its ability to help us appreciate writing also opens up possibilities for practice. Assemblage gives greater permission, in a way that structuralism, still so influenced by New Criticism, does not, to explore the life of the poet for clues to understanding. 

A poet who celebrates multiplicity of character and investigates the unconscious (and therefore the assemblage), may bring new expressions of the self to the surface through her art, but perhaps most importantly, it is the imagination of art which forces us to consider the indefinable in life and to re-evaluate biases and received notions. Plath exemplifies the active unconscious that Lowell spoke of, and an accompanying non-resistant consciousness. The becoming-self, rather than the fixed self, may well be understood intuitively by poets in and through their creative practice, exemplifying assemblage. Plath’s example leads me both to a desire to write poetry and to escape the confines of the conscious, and so I append to this discussion several poems of my own to extend the conclusion.


towards grace

‘This is the silence of astounded souls’  — Sylvia Plath

black clouds are skating
the sea empties out
no tide comes
no tsunami

crabs walk uncovered
sea birds scavenge
for what’s not there

worms yell
earth screams at the run-off
with a full throat

of gravel


I didn’t mean to scare you
I said I’d be myself
you saw changes
I dressed in chicken feathers
drew Cleopatra lines on my face

when I’m sorry
I don’t want to take you with me
just get the work done
come back from the coal face
wash the dirt of digging

there’s a hole in the sky
where they stuffed chip packets
your desk drawer is a tunnel
to the land of the sparkling stream


grey sunrise
pale orange trees
push into you dressing emotion
with jackets of unseasonal rain
leggings of regret

out of the darkness
crows jabber
a light cursers the horizon
somewhere today
the storm will stutter


I hope to bring  

know I was real
at the cliff’s edge

listening to experience
with room to light a fire

the rising smoke
tells others where we are
for better, for worse




‘The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God’ — Sylvia Plath

imaginary conversation    I bite my mouth

after lunch    food swept away
I leave Sylvia   
on the table

she tells me she feels sorry
for her children

only then do I think    what a selfish woman
who talked nonchalantly   
and left them

she caged images for me
that I wrestled with for years
put myself in a cage
and let out

she won’t go away
and I won’t leave her

in a moment of disturbance
when I seem to have no focus
I reach again

[i] I am indebted to Glenn Fuller’s lecture on assemblage method (29/04/15, University of Canberra), in which he gave the example of the coffee assemblage.

[ii] I will assume the term ‘subconscious’ is synonymous with ‘unconscious’.

[iii] Deleuze and Guatarri have developed ‘possible’ to ‘virtual’ and ‘symbols’ to ‘capacities’, from Bergson’s early forays into ‘assemblage’ (Bergson uses the term frequently, even writing in 1911).

[iv] Bergson also believes that intuition must have recourse to symbol in order to move towards explanation (Bergson 1992: 109), which encapsulation may well be illustrative of the unfolding of a poem.

[v] Lowell’s article was first published in 1930, significantly predating ideas about the unconscious which preoccupied later poets such as Robert Bly, and which became known as ‘deep image’ poetry.

[vi] Derrida discusses the force of a text, as opposed to its form, and that when we lose sight of creativity, or the energy for it, we focus on form, the results illustrating the thought that ‘literary criticism is structuralist in every age, in its essence and destiny’ (Derrida 2001: 3).

[vii] Though the term symbol has been updated by assemblage, it is still employed by Deleuze. Symbols from nature are discussed rapturously as being capable of enhancing understanding and freeing the imagination; Deleuze gives a clear example from Kant of the association between the words ‘beauty’ and ‘good’, a connection which is beyond the rational. Curiously, this same ability of the symbol is not extended to art (Deleuze 2008: 46-49), which suggests a kind of traditional binary opposition between nature and art of the kind that assemblage attempts to dissolve, even as it notes the difficulty of escaping binaries and the tendency merely to create new ones.

[viii] Deleuze regards the preoccupation with solutions when establishing philosophical problems as an error, which should be corrected simply by uncovering problems (Deleuze 1992: 15).

[ix] Plath wrote several other poems based on these incidents; ‘The arrival of the bee box’, ‘Stings’ and ‘Wintering’ appear in Ariel, and ‘The Swarm’ in Collected Poems.

[x] In a 1962 interview Plath reveals that the local midwife, of whom she was fond, taught her how to keep bees (Plath 1996: 880).

[xi] The second edition of this prose collection includes the story ‘Among the bumblebees’ which narrates a young woman’s relationship with her father; he catches bumblebees and dies young after a protracted illness (Plath 2001: 258-266).



Works cited: 


Alvarez, A 1970 ‘Sylvia Plath’ in C Newman (ed) The Art of Sylvia Plath – A Symposium, London: Faber & Faber

Barthes, R 1968 Elements of Semiology, New York: Hill & Wang

Bergson, H 1992 The Creative Mind – An Introduction to Metaphysics, New York: Carol

Buchanan, I  2014 ‘The “Clutter” Assemblage’, in I Buchanan, D Savat & M Svirsky, (eds), Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art, London: Bloomsbury

Deleuze, G 1991 Bergsonism, New York: Zone

Deleuze, G 1994 Difference and Repetition, trans. P Patton, New York: Columbia University Press

Deleuze, G 2008 Kant’s Critical Philosophy, London: Continuum

Deleuze, G and Guatarri, F 1988 A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B Massumi, London: Continuum

Derrida, J 1997 Of Grammatology, trans. C Spivak, Baltimore MA: John Hopkins University Press

Derrida, J 2001 Writing and Difference, trans. A Bass, London: Routledge

Freud, S 1966 ‘A note on the unconscious in psychoanalysis’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XII, trans. J Strachey, London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 260-266

Freud, S 2004 ‘The Uncanny’, J Rivkin and M Ryan (eds) Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn., Oxford: Blackwell

Holland, E 2005 ‘Schizoanalysis’ in A Parr (ed) The Deleuze Dictionary, New York: Columbia University Press, 236-237

Hughes, T 1977 ‘Introduction’, in S Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and other prose writings, London: Faber & Faber

Hughes, T 1999 Birthday Letters, London: Faber & Faber

Kristeva, J 1991 Strangers to Ourselves, trans. L Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press

Lacan, J 2006a ‘The insistence of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud’, in J Lacan Ecrits, trans. B Fink, New York: Norton, 412-444

Lacan, J 2006b ‘Position of the unconscious’, in J Lacan Ecrits, trans. B Fink, New York: Norton, 703-721

Little, D 2012 ‘Assemblage theory’, http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/assemblage-theory.html
(accessed 3 June 2015)

Lowell, A 1972 ‘The Process of Making Poetry’, in G Perkins (ed), American Poetic Theory, New York: Holt, Reinhardt & Winston

Nin, A 1979 The Journals of Anaïs Nin, Volume 2 1934-1939, London: Quartet Books

Plath, S 1965 Ariel, London: Faber & Faber

Plath, S 1977 Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and other prose writings, London: Faber & Faber

Plath, S 1981 Collected Poems, London: Faber & Faber

Plath, S 1985 Selected Poems, London: Faber & Faber

Plath, S 1996 ‘An Interview’, 20th Century Poetry and Poetics, ed. G Geddes, 4th edn, Toronto: Oxford University Press

Plath, S 2001 Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and other prose writings, 2nd edn, London: Faber & Faber

Pollock, J 1950 Interview, http://www.neiu.edu/̴wbsieger/Art201Read/201-Pollock.pdf (accessed 28 May 2013)

Semetsky, I 2005 ‘Semiotics’, in A Parr (ed) The Deleuze Dictionary, New York: Columbia University Press, 242-244

Steiner, N H 1974 A Closer Look at Ariel – a memory of Sylvia Plath, London: Faber & Faber