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Gary Lehmann

Poetry “with a Meinkampf look”


Sylvia Plath’s Daddy is almost certainly the most hate-filled poem I have ever read.   It screams out PAIN in a hundred different ways.  Structurally, it is a masterwork.  The end rhymes and regular rhythms just add to the emotional intensity.  Technically, it is a fine piece of work.  Emotionally, it is profoundly disturbing.   Plath herself has said that Daddy is narrated by “a girl with an Electra complex,” that is a girl whose “father died while she thought he was God.”   And, in fact, Sylvia Plath’s father did die when she was still a little girl, age eight, and the incident did cause her a great deal of pain.
But it would be a big mistake to characterize this poem as autobiographical.  Her father was not a Nazi, nor was he even a German citizen when he became her father. She was not a Jew.  They lived in New Jersey, not Aushwitz.  He was a teacher and a published author.  By all accounts, he never abused or neglected his daughter.  Still, something was going on.  The poem contains way too much vehemence to have emanated from thin air.
Scholars and critics have spilt much ink trying to decipher this mystery.  How could so much hatred have come from no where?   Where did Plath find such vituperation?
One explanation comes from her biography, but it is by no means a complete explanation.  In January of 1959, Sylvia signed up for a course at Boston University in Creative Writing taught by Robert Lowell.  The class met late in the afternoon.  From notebooks Sylvia was keeping at that time, we know that she found the professor rather dull and unimaginative. She came to befriend another auditor of the class, the poet Anne Sexton, a strange girl.  She was a chain smoker who thought it was impolite to drop cigarette ashes on a classroom floor, so she took to using the heel of her shoe as an ashtray.   During the class, Anne started an affair with a fellow student, an editor at Houghton-Mifflin named George Starbuck.   They sat together.
Sylvia took the class to get some quality feedback on some of her recent poems, but the class wasn’t working out very well.  After classes, she invited Anne and George to join her for a drink at the Ritz-Carlton.  The three tumbled into the front seat of her Ford and parked in the loading zone behind the hotel.  “It’s okay,” Sylvia explained, “we are only going to get loaded.”   After a few drinks, or even a few more than a few, they went on to the Waldorf Cafeteria where they could get a dinner for just 70 cents.  It turned out that this is where most of the real learning occurred.
Robert Lowell at first underestimated the work of Sylvia Plath and openly favored Sexton in class discussions.  Plath got angry about it.  When he challenged the class to start writing things that were more daring, more edgy, Plath wrote from her heart and tried to demonstrate that a poet, like an actor, could take on any part she favored.
The poem, Daddy, wasn’t published until years later after Plath took her own life.  Marjorie Perloff has taken the poem to task as “empty.”  She says the emotions are shammed, mere “histrionics.”   Seamus Heaney is not as hard on her.  He says she is using a larger cultural context for a “vehemently self-justifying purpose.”  I think that means she is expropriating the Nazis and the Holocaust for her own purposes without worrying about who she might hurt or insult in the process.
So the criticisms come down to two basic kinds.  Either Ms Plath is trivializing the Holocaust by invoking references to it to describe minor personal affairs which have no real comparison, or she is trying to exaggerate the magnitude of her own experiences by referencing real tragedies. 
In either case, both critics appear to be accusing her of bad taste.  They are both saying she has pushed the Nazi metaphor beyond reason into the realm of the ridiculous, even the insulting.   All evidence suggests that her father did not abuse her, but even if he did, does she have the right to compare her personal suffering to the heartless extermination of millions of innocent people?   As Perloff says, “whatever her father did to her it cannot be what the Germans did to the Jews.”
Another approach to this poem sees it as a dispossession.  The little girl who narrates the poem is acting out her frustration with being born female.  She hates her father, her husband and all males.  More or less in chronological order, she recites her grievances.  The title, Daddy, is a reflection of her infantile persona.  The fact that she exaggerates and blows things out proportion is appropriate for a little girl who is totally self-centered and in pain.   She is releasing the anger she has bottled up ever since her father abandoned her by dying.
The most unusual approach to the poem has been offered by Steven Axelrod.  He posits the idea that since her father and her husband were both published authors, perhaps Sylvia is writing this poem to exorcise the demon which has latched onto her, because she is a writer.  She is trying to escape what Axelrod calls the “buried male muse.”   In this interpretation, Daddy is like a written record of a primal scream, a desperate cry to be released from her mental prison.  
Some biographical details might help at this point.  In 1962 Plath separated from her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes.  Their relationship was turbulent. There was another woman.  The time had come.  During the last months of her life, one of the coldest winters on record, Sylvia wrote as if she were in a hypnotic trance.   She was desperately poor, snowbound, with her two children in an unheated flat outside of London.  The electricity went off periodically.  There was no money for candles.  Pipes froze.  The whole family had colds and sniffles.  Yet, she pushed on writing two or three poems a day.  By February she was exhausted and desperate.
Ted left her in December.  In January, her book The Bell Jar was published.  February 11, she committed suicide.  She put the children down for their naps, went into the kitchen and turned on the gas.  Daddy was still in manuscript form on the kitchen table.  It was only published a few years later with the poetry cycle called Ariel.
Anne Sexton, who spent many hours talking with Plath about suicide, says the poem is a testament to Sylvia’s suffering, a prelude to her death, but that the poem neither justifies her suicide nor is it validated by it.  The poem has to stand on its own feet.  “Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem,” says Sexton, by which I think she means that the poem is a work of art.  Suicide is a personal act of negation.  Sylvia Plath herself observed that if a poem is any good, it goes on “farther than a lifetime.”
So where does all the hatred come from in the poem Daddy?  It’s anybody’s guess.  Is the poem a suicide note?   You tell me.  It was there on the kitchen table when she turned on the gas. Is there a causal relationship between the poem and her death?  Maybe.   Perhaps Plath, cold, hungry, abandoned and frightened, simply killed herself out of despair -- as so many others have done.  Maybe Robert Lowell was right when he speculated that, in the end, she simply decided that “ simply not worth it.”    Writing the poem may have had some part in convincing her, but it certainly isn’t any better a poem because of any part it may have taken in creating the circumstances surrounding her death. 
Anyway you look at it, Daddy remains a profoundly disturbing poem.

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