The Collected Poems

by Sylvia Plath

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath was published by her husband, Ted Hughes, nearly twenty years after her death by suicide. Containing the vast majority of Plath's poems, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, the first time in history this award has been given posthumously to a poet.

Containing nearly three hundred poems, the book is organized chronologically and covers roughly the years 1956 through 1963. This allows the reader to follow the evolution of thoughts and themes that Plath explored over her career as a poet. It contains both previously published and never before published works, and it is considered one of the seminal books of this truly unique American poet.

Early poems, like "Conversation Among the Ruins," are Romantic in nature and are clearly influenced by classical poetry. In addition, though, they already touch on the topics that will later come to be known as Plath's major themes—including death, nature, and myth.

While you stand heroic in coat and tie, I sit
Composed in Grecian tunic and psyche-knot,
Rooted to your black look, the play turned tragic:
Which such blight wrought on our bankrupt estate,
What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?

Plath's later poems undergo structural and tonal shifts that are echoed in her novel, The Bell Jar, and that point toward her final volume of poetry, Ariel. In "I Am Vertical," for example, which was written before the Ariel poems, Plath treats dying as a natural process that she looks forward to, something that will finally harmonize her being with that of the world around her.

And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

The Collected Poems also contains around fifty poems from Plath's youth (i.e., those written or published before 1956). After all, Plath composed her first work at the age of eight and published a poem in a respected periodical (the Christian Science Monitor) before graduating from high school. The juvenilia contained in this volume experiment with theme and style even more than her later works, but her major and lifelong interests are nevertheless instantly recognizable.

As the poems move forward in time, both Plath's skill as a poet and emotional state dive into deeper and deeper water. Violent and disturbing imagery is treated with a masterful use of poetic technique to produce pieces like "Insomniac."

Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.
Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.
His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.
Each gesture flees immediately down an alley
Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance
Drains like water out the hole at the far end.

The Collected Poems also includes multiple canonical poems from Plath's Ariel period, such as "Tulips," "Daddy," "Ariel," and "Lady Lazarus" (quoted below). These are marked by what became Plath's signature incisive urgency and uncanny, oracular voice.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

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