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Confessional Poetry: Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath, born in Boston in 1932 and died in London in 1963, is an American poet who expresses a sense of alienation and self-destruction in her writing. Her works, such as the poem collection Ariel which includes "Daddy," "Tulips," and "Lady Lazarus," and her only novel The Bell Jar, are closely related to her personal experiences. Her literary journey started when Plath published her first poem at eight. She won several writing contests and sold her first poem to The Christian Science Monitor in 1952 ("Guide to Sylvia Plath's Materials," 1989). In 1951, she enrolled at Smith College and achieved tremendous creative, intellectual, and social success (Wagner-Martin, 2003). As it is stated, "Sylvia was at war within herself, that the 'real' Sylvia – violent, subversive, moonstruck, terribly angry – fought for her existence against a nice, bright, gifted American girl" (Stevenson, 1998, p. 163). Thus, she also struggled with severe depression, which led to a suicide attempt and a period of psychiatric hospitalisation.

Sylvia Plath (n.d.)

During her last three years, Plath devoted herself to literature and wrote about herself and her confessions. Her feelings such as confusion, anxiety, and doubt were transmuted into her writings. Her novel The Bell Jar, published in London under the pen name Victoria Lucas in 1963, covers the mental breakdown and recovery of a young college girl, which mirrors Plath's own breakdown and hospitalisation in 1953 (Wagner-Martin, 2003). Also, her poems, such as "Daddy," examine her conflicted bond with her father, who passed away when she was eight. In 1963, after this burst of productivity, she ended her life.

Confessional poetry concentrates on extreme moments of individuals, their private experiences, and their psyche. (Drabble et. all., 2022). In that sense, confessional poetry differs from traditional poetry by deconstructing the standard notion of poetry and investigating new poetic styles in which poets express their inner sentiments and unsaid words via their compositions (Uroff, 1977). Plath's poetry is commonly identified with the confessional movement and compared with poets such as her instructor, Robert Lowell, and her fellow pupil, Anne Sexton.

In an article named "How Ariel Changed the Face of Femininity and Free Verse" by Thea Voutiritsas, 2019.

Plath's poetry throws up a welter of concentrated images made even denser by her elliptical, allusive syntax, again recalling a kind of half-structured association used by people in analysis, as one after another of the layers of pretense and psychic scar tissue is stripped away (Molesworth, 1976, p. 173).

Though Plath is regarded as a confessional poet, the feminist issues she addresses should not be neglected. Almost every poem in Ariel reflects women's issues in a patriarchal society. Plath is regarded as a feminist aiming to be equal and her true self since disclosing a woman's life to others was not acceptable in her time since her writings "reflect the themes such as the objectification and dehumanisation of women, their oppression and a conflict between work and family life" (Choudaraju, 2019, p. 742). Plath redefied the expectations of women and tried something different: Through her work, she represented a defiant and educated female voice in a male-dominated culture.

Plath's poem collection Ariel addresses her mental sufferings and desire to discover her true self. In Plath's poem "Tulips," published in The New Yorker in 1962, she portrays a woman in a hospital receiving a bouquet of tulips that annoys her with their vividness. The nurses bring her numbness with "bright needles," and as she succumbs to the anesthesia, she states that all she wants is to be completely empty. Her initial reaction after exiting the operating room and its anaesthetised state is to protest that the tulips are hurting her, watching her, and consuming her oxygen. However, then the speaker associates the tulips with her heart rather than her wound. Here for once, her manipulative mind produces its own treatment.

Abstract floral tulip painting by Holly Van Hart, (n.d.).

I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
. . .
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health (Plath, 1965, p. 11-12).

"Tulips" is a unique poem among Plath's writings, not because it shows how the mind may produce hyperboles to torment itself, but because it reveals how this creative ability can have both a positive and negative purpose. The poem does travel from numbness to love, from cold to warm. The speaker herself is shocked by her abilities, and the poem concludes on a hesitant note, journeying toward a faraway notion of health. Yet, overall the poem depicts how the mind may intensify its sorrow by objectifying it. Consequently, confessional poetry centers on an individual's psyche, experiences, and emotions and mirrors them into verses by carrying the autobiographical details of the poet's life (Drabble et. all., 2022). Being one of the confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, Sylvia Plath presents speakers varying from 'madwomen', 'hysterical virgins' and 'father-killers'. These speakers are absorbed in their routines and distanced from reality. They are not eager to start all over in life; in brief, their efforts are focused on constructing a barrier to self-revelation. Thus, it can be concluded that Plath opted to deal with her experiences by inventing these speakers to cover then-taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, familial drama, and suicide.

Bibliographical References

Axelrod, S. G., & Dorsey, N. (1997). The Drama of Creativity in Sylvia Plath’s Early Poems. Pacific Coast Philology, 32 (1), 76–86.

Choudaraju, N. (2019). Concept of Feminism in the Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2006). Plath's TULIPS. The Explicator, 64(3), 177. Pdf. Retrieved from

Drabble, Margaret & Stringer, Jenny & Hahn, Daniel. Confessional Poetry. Oxford Reference. Retrieved 4 Aug. 2022, from

Ghasemi, P. (2008). VIOLENCE, RAGE, AND SELF-HURT IN SYLVIA PLATH’S POETRY. CLA Journal, 51(3), 284–303.

Guide to Sylvia Plath's Materials in the Lily Library. (1989). Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana. Pdf. Retrieved from (where is the author or editor? there's no author)

Molesworth, C. (1976). “With Your Own Face On”: The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry. Twentieth Century Literature, 22(2), 163–178.

Nelson, D. (1945). Confessional poetry. The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945, 31-46. E-Book. Retrieved from

Plath, S. (1965). Ariel. Harper & Row Publishers. New York. Pdf. Retrieved from

Schwartz, M. M., & Bollas, C. (1976). The Absence at the Center: Sylvia Plath and Suicide. Criticism, 18(2), 147–172.

Stevenson, Anne. (1998). Bitter Fame: A life of Sylvia Plath. New

York. Penguin. Retrieved from

Uroff, M. D. (1977). Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration. The Iowa Review, 8 (1), 104–115.

Wagner-Martin, L. (2003). Sylvia Plath: a literary life. Springer. E-Book. Retrieved from

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Melis Güven

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