Poetry Reading Club: First poem of the month

March brings us “Tulips” (1961) by Sylvia Plath.  In this poem, color and nature imagery are used to great effect, just as in last month’s poem, “Colors passing through us” (1999), by Marge Piercy.  But while Piercy’s poem dazzled us with its sensuous depictions of earthly delights laid out in “all the colors of the world,” in Plath’s poem the earthly realm is no longer a source of sensual delight for the speaker.  It is, instead, a place of great emotional disturbance, and its depiction in two starkly contrasting colors – white and red – makes this clear.  Piercy’s rainbow array of colors produces images that flow from one to another in increasing harmony, culminating in a celebration of life, of living, and of love.  Perhaps this is because, in Piercy’s poem, it is the speaker herself who chooses the bouquet of “new flowers” and offers them to her lover as a gift.  In Plath’s poem, by contrast, the tulips have been chosen for the speaker, and have been sent to her as she convalesces in a hospital ward after an operation.  This stance of passivity makes all the difference.

But while “Colors passing through us” is certainly a celebration of the frenetic activity of life, “Tulips” is not exactly a celebration of the serene passivity of death.  Plath is most often associated with the mid-twentieth century school of confessional poetry.  Confessional poets drew their subject matter from personal, private experiences, ones that dealt with previously taboo issues, such as physical or mental illness, suicide, or death.  Although they often wrote about these experiences in an autobiographical manner, through the use of the first-person “I”, we must remember that “confessional” is not synonymous with “autobiographical.”  Through exceptionally careful craftsmanship, confessional poets transformed potentially limiting lived experiences into far-reaching illuminating, poetic experiences that were relevant to a larger world.

With these thoughts in mind, I have deliberately chosen not to include any biographical details of Plath’s life in this reflection.  We’ll talk about this on Tuesday, and we’ll situate the poem within the context of Plath’s life, in order to see just how she transforms a private, personal experience into a public, poetic one.  For now, it is enough to focus our attention on the images of the poem.

We are lucky to have a recording of Plath reading “Tulips” at a poetry festival in 1961.  Read the poem, and listen to her reading it.  As you do, focus in particular on the contrasting “cool white” and “hot red” images.  The first ones offer relief to the speaker, and to us.  The nurses in their white caps, the gulls bobbing on white-capped waves, the clear water running over smooth pebbles, all these create a sense of peacefulness, of blessed release.  It is, of course, the arrival of the tulips that disturbs the speaker’s sense of tranquility.  The flowers set her room alive, unleashing a terrible cacophony of explosions, talking wounds, awful breathing babies, roaring red engines and jungle cats, and, last but not least, the beating of the speaker’s own heart.  Is this the real source of the speaker’s unease?  The heart’s peculiar insistence on life, on living, in spite of the wishes of the self who inhabits the body?

Plath’s gifts as a poet and a writer are many; chief among them is her ability to transform the ordinary things of this world – the things closest to us – into things we hardly recognize.  Enjoy the poem.  You might never look at tulips in the same way again.

Happy reading, happy listening, and see you on Tuesday,


P.S. For a humorous and insightful line-by-line analysis of the poem, visit: http://www.shmoop.com/tulips-plath/stanza-1-summary.html