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In "Tulips," the imagery of forced seeing, of vision itself as the source of the exacerbated sensibility, assaults us everywhere:

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff 

Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.

Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.

The comic, almost spitting disgust of the assonance in the phrase "stupid pupil" adds to the allusive parody of Emerson's "'transparent eyeball" from Nature. But this painful, forced seeing is still, one feels, better than the anesthetized drift that constantly threatens to overtake the poet. But whatever the reader might feel, Plath seems consciously desirous of either the drift or the pained fixation, as long as it provides her with an extreme experiential locus.

I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books 

Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head. 

I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

The openness to experience that some regard as one of the hallmarks of American literature becomes, in Plath's poetry, an ironically balanced pointer that can tip toward either salvation or annihilation.

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

How free it is, you have no idea how free--

The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,

And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.

It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them 

Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

These alternatives, salvation or annihilation, are here joined in a single image-turned-simile; and the toneless quality of the lines parodies the transcendent religious structure that lies behind them, just as "stupid pupil" parodies Emerson. "So big it dazes you" and "you have no idea how free" both originate in the vocabulary of schoolgirl intensification, and Plath built her language almost exclusively out of various forms of intensification. Condensation, catachresis, metonymy, and the verbal strategies of riddles and allusive jokes: all these and more are devices both to record and to ward off the numbing that results when ordinary consciousness is faced with an overwhelmingly fragmented objective world, a flood of facticity that simply will not submit to tenderness or mercy.

One of the standard critical cliches at sprang up around confessional poets was that the language itself provided their salvation, that the redeeming word could set right what the intractable world of egos, projects, deceits, and self-destructions had insidiously twisted. This axiom still putatively left room for individual poets to develop personal styles and remain recognizably confessional. Oddly enough, however, when thrown back on a radically personal axis, the poetry often ended up being simultaneously god-haunted and narcotized, as if narcosis and transcendence were mirror images of each other. In the poetry of Plath and Sexton, we find not only the subject matter but also the very structure of their imaginations returning again and again to an irreducible choice: the poet either must become God or cease consciousness altogether. Haunted by the failed myth of a human, or at least an artistic, perfectability, they turned to a courtship of nihilism.


From The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1979 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.