More than 50 years after her death, it’s difficult to untie Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy from her sensational, tragic trajectory: a troubled poet who succumbed to her mental illness. And yet, she was so much more than those last days: a Fulbright scholar, self-aware and brilliant, with a voice that’s evocative, turbulent, and unflinchingly confrontational. Like hundreds of other young women, I turned to Plath, with her pure, fearless authenticity, to ferry me through the tangle of growing up.
“Tulips,” a poem published posthumously in 1965 in her most famous collection of poems, Ariel, burns with the achingly vivid imagery and unrestrained fervor that was Plath’s trademark. Composed after a stint in hospital recovering from an appendectomy, the poem finds Plath lying in an all-white room as she considers a bouquet of tulips next to her:
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.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And 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.
Reading “Tulips” now, I am always struck by the stark clash of red and white, the almost carnivorous quality of the flowers, and the desperate desire to be left alone. It was a desire that began creeping up on me too as I passed from girlhood to womanhood and the world, which had once seemed so light and open, started imposing its constraints. Suddenly, my body was a double-edged weapon; at night, I walked quickly, with my arms crossed over my chest. Suddenly, I entered a world that had been set up without my permission and seemed, sometimes, to whittle my ambitions down. Tulips put into words all the feelings I could not say—portraying the real life of one women, and in doing so, revealing a part of us all.
In the midst of composing Ariel, Plath sensed that she was creating something special. “I am writing the best poems of my life,” she wrote in a letter to her mother. “They will make me famous.” So many years later, I read this poem and the pain in it—barely restrained by the language—still stings afresh.