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Imagine you're a twenty-eight year old tortured soul. You've recently miscarried, and now you're lying in a hospital bed, recovering from an appendectomy. Now go ahead and write a poem. Seem tough? Well, this is exactly the state of affairs Sylvia Plath found herself in when she was inspired to write "Tulips," written in 1961, but published after her death in 1965.
Don't let the name of the poem fool you. If you know anything about Sylvia Plath, you probably know that she committed suicide, and in a pretty gruesome way. It's usually the first thing we think of when we think of Sylvia Plath (definitely not tulips, at least). She struggled, pretty openly, with depression for years, and attempted suicide several times before she finally succeeded in ending her life in 1963. Of her first attempt, she said that it felt like she had "blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that [she] honestly believed was eternal oblivion" (source). Hmm…that sounds an awful lot like our speaker, who
[…] only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free (29-31)
Except in "Tulips," the speaker seems to want to succumb to whiteness, not blackness. Still, this poem's themes of freedom and confinement, isolation, and suffering are unsurprising given Plath's personal history. The speaker at times sounds like she's on the brink of being suicidal, and there are definite breaks with reality throughout the poem.
But then again, maybe we're just reading these things into the poem because we know so much about Plath's troubles. Her story is so well known, it has become hard to separate her writing from her mental illness. But separate they are. Plath's emotional turmoil is important, of course, and this poem is in no way trying to sugarcoat the pain of life. In fact, illness itself (and the suffering that goes along with it) is one of the main issues the poem tackles. But when you read "Tulips," you might want to try to take a step back from the details of Plath's life and really just sink into your own experience of it.
After all, we don't love this poem because of who Sylvia Plath was (although she was fiercely cool). We love it because it's full of astonishing, exciting, moving images, and because it shares an experience of pain and suffering in an original, unusual way. We're willing to bet you'll love it for some of the same reasons we do.
We need poems for happy times, to make us laugh or to help us celebrate. But we totally need poems for the hard times, too. Sometimes they can make us feel better, and sometimes they can just be a way to scream out – to let the world know we're hurting.
Of course we hope you've never felt as blue as the speaker of "Tulips," and we definitely don't want you to read this poem just to bum yourself out. But anyone who has felt alone or scared or sick (and that's got to be all of us at one point or another) will recognize something in this poem.
It can be a truly awesome experience to see difficult, familiar feelings transformed into beautiful poetry, and Sylvia Plath does this about as well as anyone we know. Her imagery can be quite brutal, but also incredibly moving. Even just the last three lines, with their mix of sadness and hope, pain and joy, make the reading of the whole poem worthwhile. Give it a try. We're pretty sure you'll agree.
Smart People Talk "Tulips"
Here are some excerpts from some smart folks who have written about this poem. This whole site, the "Modern American Poetry Site" is well worth checking out – it's packed with great stuff!
All About Plath
Here's a bunch of good links on Plath's work and her life. Poke around for videos, recordings, news stories, etc.
A 2005 movie adaptation of Plath's life, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the poet.
A&E's Biography Talks Plath
The long running show devoted an entire episode to our poet. Here's the info.
A (Very) Short Film Based on "Tulips"
You have to be careful with YouTube videos, but this is really well done: bleak and scary and intense, just like the poem. This one really is worth a look. (We should know, we've watched a lot of YouTube poetry videos!)
Sylvia Reads Sylvia
This is a recording of Plath reading from Ariel. "Tulips" isn't in here, but there's plenty of great stuff. She's got an amazing vocal style all her own. Just have a listen; you'll know what we mean.
Giving it a Shot
How do you think this guy does? Does he do the poem justice? How does it sound being read by a man when (we think) you imagined it being spoken by a woman?
A Collection of Plath Photos
Here's a bunch of interesting photos from Plath's life, collected in one spot.
Plath talks all about the heat and intensity of tulips. We think these really fit that imagery.