American Poets -- the Strangeness Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Apparently Plath wrote the poem during her stay in the hospital, which can be a depressing place notwithstanding all the nurses and orderlies dressed in white. The appendectomy followed a miscarriage that Plath had suffered through, so given those realities in the poet's life -- especially for a woman to lose a child she had been carrying -- one can identify with the bleak nature of the poem. Confronted with the birth that turned out to be death, and then a painful appendectomy, the tulips are used as something of an abstraction and the redness of them gives her pain because it "corresponds" to the wound in her body from the surgery.

The opening stanza's first few lines seem rather peaceful and restful: "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here / look how white everything is / How quiet, how snowed-in / I am learning peacefulness / lying by myself quietly / as the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands…" but by the fourth line in the first stanza, the reader is hit with the truth about this poem, which is that the poet feels like the life has gone out of her and she has turned her clothes "up to the nurses" and her "body to surgeons"; those knife-wielding physicians and the environment she is in let the reader know this poem is going to be very personal and perhaps very depressing.

Anyone who has been in a hospital for any length of time can identify with the lines that compares nurses to birds: "The nurses pass and pass / they are no trouble / they pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps / doing things with their hands / one just the same as another / so it is impossible to tell how many there are." Ocean environments are always places where ubiquitous seagulls sway in the wind and scurry along the sand, and they all look alike, and they are all free.

Meanwhile the tulips "eat my oxygen," the poet writes. She would like to get rid of them the same way she would like to depart from the "trappings of her life and the family she has"

(Dobbs, 1977). Instead of tulips the inference from the poet is that she would prefer death:

"Now I have lost myself / I am sick of baggage / My husband and child smiling out of the family photo / their smiles catch onto my skin / little smiling hooks."

Smiles and hooks don't normally blend together very well; except when a young boy catches a catfish and smiles at his achievement on a summer day with a worm on his hook, a woman in a hospital who has been given flowers to cheer her up doesn't imagine smiling hooks. In fact the tulips have ruined her day. She prefers to be depressed and dark to happy and bright: "The tulips are too red in the first place / they hurt me & #8230; their redness talks to my wound / it corresponds / they are subtle / they seem to float / though they weigh me down."

Margaret Dickie explains that Tulips is certainly not cheerful, but it moves from "cold to warmth, from numbness to love, from empty whiteness to vivid redness," and this is done through "associative imagination" (Dickie, 1979). What Dickie is alluding to is the last stanza of the poem, in which Plath admits that despite the negative images and thoughts of the preceding stanzas of the poem, the walls "…seem to be warming themselves" and like the tulips, the poets' heart opens and closes and there is a sense that the tulips have bloomed "…out of sheer love for me." A woman in such desperate straits needs love, and the last two lines take Plath away to the sea, a peaceful thought, albeit her health is not what it should be.

Is this poem designed to be a criticism of the hospital environment? No, although it certainly comes out that way in passages. The problem is health, and the heart is numbed and made bitter -- in contrast to the cheery red tulips -- and the heart wants a chance to experience that darkness without being intruded upon by all the trappings of the hospital and its nurses, who are too many to count.

Critic Barbara Hardy believes that the poet gradually accepts the tulips, a process which symbolizes the poet (and patient) as being able to reluctantly accept a return to life. "The flowers really do move toward the light…do take up oxygen… [and are] inhabitants of the bizarre world of private irrational fantasy"

(Hardy, 1970). The poet is perhaps actually hallucinating at the beginning of the poem, Hardy comments, since the poet's head has been propped up (by the nurses) on the pillow is like "an eye between two white lids that will not shut"; and those nurses may be too many to count but they bring the poet sleep "…in their bright needles."

Why does the poet insist that the tulips should be "…behind bars like dangerous animals"? Perhaps it is that the speaker's frustration with the loss of a baby and a subsequent surgery leads her to see the bright red tulips as an intrusion into her white world, and therefore dangerous.

Mushrooms -- Sylvia Plath

The first image that comes to mind when reading carefully through Plath's "Mushrooms" is that the mushrooms could represent the group in society that is hidden from the eyes of the majority. It could be the low income, hardy folks that "Nobody sees…" and are nothing more than "small grains" in the sand of society. Not only are they not seen, they do not hear and do not see: "Our hammers, our rams / Earless and eyeless / perfectly voiceless."

If this is indeed the reader believes that the stealth theme of "Mushrooms" is about the unseen, unheard lower belly of society, then the following lines fit in very well to that threat of thought:

"We…diet on water / on crumbs of shadow / bland-mannered, asking / little or nothing / So many of us! / So many of us!"

The other path this poem may be metaphorically taking is the theme of feminism, and how women are often pushed into the shadows of the power structure. "We are shelves / we are tables / we are meek / we are edible." The second line in the poem would seem to be an embrace of the feminine side of life -- "Whitely" is a very womanly image, given that women have acquired a kind of purity, virtue and even innocence when juxtaposed with the hard-core man in the society.

The accuracy of linking women that are ignored and have little voice -- and lower income people that are also not heard -- with the growth of mushrooms is near genius, if that is what she was creating. Whether or not Plath is pointing to those sub-cultures in society, a reader can let his or her imagination run in those directions. For the feminist, "We shall by morning / inherit the earth / Our foot's in the door" is a proud and bold prediction for a future that is far more fulfilling than the present.

Certainly an alert reader can recognize that the line about the meek, and how they "shall inherit the earth" is one of the Beatitudes, and hence Plath brings the Holy Bible into the picture; and whether she is alluding poetically to the marginalized poor people or the still not liberated female gender, the ending is very hopeful, and rebellious too. "Nudgers and shovers / in spite of ourselves" seems to be saying, we are not built to move mountains or push our way into positions of authority, but that day is coming when we will have a larger role in the world.

What could be more ready for fertility than a woman ovulating -- waiting to give birth and to "Take hold on the loam"? When thinking of how mushrooms are grown, in "leafy bedding" and "shoulder through holes," those images could relate to the feminine gender. Is that too radical a viewpoint? There is another image in this poem that could be considered as a possible metaphor and that is the cloud that forms after an atomic weapon is exploded is mushroom shaped.

Given that Plath committed suicide in 1963, and that she was depressed during the last years of her life -- and carried the scars that resulted from her husband's infidelity -- one can speculate as to what she really meant by mushrooms. And in conclusion, having one's foot in the door doesn't mean that the door has opened by any means. Many groups and cultures have had a foot in the door but never were able to pass…

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