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Tulips
Tulips
by Sylvia Plath

Sound Check

Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?

A Flooded River

It's All About the Vowels

The best way to talk about sound in this poem is to jump right in the deep end, so let's take a look at the first stanza to see what we can uncover. Read the first four lines aloud to yourself. What do you hear? If you're anything like us, you hear a lot of "I" sounds: excitable, white, quiet, I, lying, myself, light.

Okay, so the next step is to ask ourselves, what's the effect of these "I" sounds? How do they help us understand the poem? For one thing, "I" is a long vowel sound, and that lengthy sound causes us to slow down when we read the poem. Plus, it creates its own kind of rhythm – like the whooshing of water – by repeating the same slow sound over and over and over again. See if you can find similar repetitions of long vowel sounds in the poem, like long A's or E's. Does the repetition of these sounds have the same effect?

More Water (Yep)

Let's get back to that idea of whooshing water for a minute. We don't know about you, but Shmoop hears the sound of water just about everywhere in this poem. The whoosh and gurgle and splash of currents and waves. Most of the power and chaos is happening below the surface, so usually all we hear is the steady, rushing sound of her pain: "The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble" (11). "Pass and pass" – it isn't a violent sound, but it is steady, insistent, urgent. It flows.

But every now and then, harsh sounds interrupt this steady rhythm: "I am sick of baggage" (line 18). Do you hear the snap-crackle-pop of that word? Sick. It leaps right off the page and into our ears. Or think about the phrase, "eat my oxygen" (line 49). Such hard consonants cause us to slow down and linger over the somewhat clunky phrase. For a moment, we are highly focused on the horrifying image because the very sound of it forces us to pay attention.

In fact, in a good poem, that's exactly what sound does; it directs our attention. It can slow our reading, with phrases like "red lead" (line 42) or "walls, also," (line 57) or speed it up with quick, light phrases like "Stupid pupil." A brilliant poet like Plath can put these tools to work shaping our understanding of the poem.

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