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The Ingenuity of Confessional Poetry: Tulips by Sylvia Plath

One of the most important 20th-century incandescent American novelists and poet, Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. As Jo Gill states in The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath, "Plath is known as a poet but she saw her real vocation at various times as being a writer of prose fiction or as an artist."

Sylvia Plath

Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath. Otto was a German immigrant and a professor of Aurelia Schober. When she was eight, Plath published her first poem and won so many literary contests. Sylvia Plath was affected by her father's death, and this horror shaped a sensitive child into a hypersensitive individual. Also, Plath kept a journal since she was eleven and wrote about her experiences, daily life, inner conflicts. She published her poems in regional magazines and newspapers as well. As she was building her promising future, she entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1951 and achieved artistic, academic success. However, Plath succumbed to depression and attempted suicide many times. This is also why she stayed in the hospital due to psychological problems.


Plath at the Quadigras dance, Smith College 1954.

She graduated from Smith with the highest honors in 1955 and moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright fellowship. After she met Ted Hughes, Plath married the English poet in 1956. Plath came back to Massachusetts in 1957 and started studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later, in the United States. She then returned to England and gave birth to her children Frieda and Nicholas. However, Plath and Hughes separated in 1962, after Hughes’s affair with another woman. Because of constant depression and due to mental problems, she committed suicide and died on February 11, 1963, in England.

Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes in England, 1956

Plath wrote her poems while the New Criticism movement began to spread into the literary works, and she affected this period. As Andy Hines mentions, "New Criticism was an American critical movement that insisted poetry should be read as a distinctive object of communication, not a moralizing lesson or a biographical example." In other words, the supporters of New Critics generally don't emphasize the background of the author. Rather than digging the sources, they are focused on the work and effort. Jo Gill underlines, "Plath’s maturity as a writer coincided with the rise of what has become known as the ‘confessional’ mode of poetry." Plath's poems generally focus on a confessional aspect of life, and she sees writing poems as a tool to express her thoughts. She found her inner voice by expressing untrodden emotions which were still oppressed from childhood. Plath uncuffs the unremitting sensations of her state of mind by writing in a confessional style. As Deborah Nelson once said, "One of Plath’s most original contributions to the history of poetry is the emotional force of her poetry."

Confessional poetry relates experiences with the integrity of living, and it discloses hidden parts of the private mind wavers of an individual. In this way, a writer finds the "self" by highlighting the delusion in which grasping unheeding demeanor of a person. Deborah Nelson states, "Confessional poetry represents a counter-discourse of privacy, one that undermined the sanctity of the home and deflated the value of privacy by attending to its deprivations." In her poems, Plath is not only interested in the mundanity side of her poems, but she also personified each word to intertwine intricate mind pieces.

The poem "Tulips," written in 1961, is a free-verse poem and was published in The New Yorker in 1962. This poem was found in the collection of poems titled "Ariel", which was published by her ex-spouse Ted Hughes, after her death. Even if she never saw her published book, in one of her interviews she expressed her thoughts about how it feels to write a poem: "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind."

''The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly

As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses

And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons''

Plath described her experience while she was recovering from an appendectomy. In this hardship, she received tulips as a present. These tulips inspired her in many ways to write a poem. The speaker, Sylvia Plath, found herself in hospital, and due to anesthesia, she felt numb. She found tranquillity and got rid of all her concerns as she went to sleep. She experienced a sense of nothingness as if she delivered her soul to the other world and reached the ultimate flabby cells of the body.

''The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.

Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe

Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.

Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,

Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,

A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.''

Initially, tulips emerge as red, just like the blood, they gush from the body and bother Plath. She doesn’t want to pay attention to their existence because as soon as she catches red tulips, it reminds her of the unhappy outside world. Plath, bothered by Tulip’s flesh and blood, realizes a new sense of the vicious case. She witnesses their breathing and begins to think about her state of mind and all the torturous experiences were combined and interpreted as an awful baby. The reason for making connections with the baby is because she was also responsible to raise a child. Based on that information, pure white tulips also become a factor in her dilemma. She was torn apart between motherhood and being an independent woman. She links the flowers as a kind of negative trigger for her inner peace. The tulip's redness and her wound are combined together and they constructed a vivid picture of her restless pain. Although "Tulips" seem indistinct at first glance, they flutter inside Plath's soul, and she stumbles again into the place, where she had been before in a hurtful way.

"The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.

The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;

They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,

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 depicts tulips as if living creatures. They are always waiting in ambush just as wild animals in the woods. Plath's inner world encounters the various animals and she had to escape those animals. This is a representation of her inner soul-crowded emotions trying to escape the cruelness. Finally, Plath perceives the presence of her heart. She accepts it while opening and closing through the course of her life. She stops resisting and reveals her fragile pieces with the help of her heart and accepts just the way they are. Two last sentences of the poem end a hopeful mood and open a path to health.

Sylvia Plath with her children Frieda Hughes and Nicholas Hughes


Gill, Jo, The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath, Cambridge University Press; 1st edition, October 27, 2008

Ashton, Jennifer, The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945, Cambridge University Press; Illustrated edition, February 8, 2013

Hins, Andy, New Criticism, RoutledgEncyclopedia, retrieved (October 25, 2021)

Orr, Peter, A 1962 Sylvia Plath Interview with Peter Orr, ModernAmericanPoetry, retrieved (October 26, 2021)

Image Resources

Plath at the Quadigras dance, Smith College 1954 [Photograph]

Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes in England, 1956 [Photograph]

Sylvia Plath with her children Frieda Hughes and Nicholas Hughes [Photograph]


Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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