So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I quoted this poem when prompted for influences in the comment board for "Growing up Misfit." It has been a favorite since I was a teen because it does something that the best poetry does—it immerses me completely in a separate experience. I've been lucky enough to have a happy marriage, but I now know from experiences with others close to me, and cultural observation all around, that I still may never have been exposed to a greater description of a miserable union than "Daddy". Quite possibly it has contributed to my determination not to have an unhappy marriage. A friend recently criticized the poem for Plath's comparison of her suffering to that of Jews in the Holocaust, calling the tactic "incredibly over the top and melodramatic."
Sylvia Plath — "Daddy"
An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.I have always been sacred of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You----Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you. ...And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf lookAnd a love of the rack and the screw.
In considering the charge against this device, I separate aesthetic grounds from moral grounds. Some people have a strong moral objection to making any comparison against the Holocaust. I reject that objection just as I reject all sacred oxen. Every experience, regardless of how horrible, is open to us as a device for self-expression. That is a fundamental basis for empathy. We can and should argue degrees in action and suffering, but we should never be forbidden to enter into such arguments in the first place. There is also my wariness of convention that confines the Holocaust to Jewish experience. Not for nothing does Plath mention her "gypsy ancestress", and I read the line "I may be a bit of a Jew" entirely as a metaphor.That brings me to aesthetic grounds. I agree with the argument that Plath's comparisons tend towards the the grotesque, and it is only her immense expressive skill that rescues it. In general, Plath cannot escape the charge of egotism that goes hand in hand with the confessional movement. What redeems Plath is that her craft and command of words overwhelms and infact elevates her regular meanness to something that escapes escape the trivial quality of her peers. Her poetic faculties expand her work beyond the microscopically narrow paysage in which she threatens to trap the reader, who thus ends up with entire worlds of insight at his unexpected disposal. It's tempting to wonder what Plath might have accomplished had she not fallen so deeply into the school of confessional poets. If she had elevated her themes, as even her husband and tormentor generally attempted; could she have been as definitive in expressing her times as, say, Sappho? Then again that might be ridiculous speculation, because it's quite likely that her style suited the mean more than the large. "Daddy" is indeed over the top, but it is hard to imagine a better way to express the overwhelming extent to which marriage to Ted Hughes suffocated her in a coffin telescoping at its long polygon to her father, and at its short polygon to her suicide. In reading it even as an impressionable teen, I never thought for a moment that her personal tribulations came close to the sufferings of Hitler's genocide victims (Jews and otherwise). Yet the savage insistence of the metaphors did bring to a gut level her overwhelming despair with an intensity so extraordinarily difficult to accomplish through any other means. I think that is what poetry must deliver, even if it sometimes strains natural correspondences in the effort.I find it interesting to compare Plath to another poem about a broken marriage, one widely admired, and by no less than E.A. Robinson, "Eros Turannos."
She fears him, and will always ask
What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.
The failing leaf inaugurates
The reign of her confusion:
The pounding wave reverberates
The dirge of her illusion;
And home, where passion lived and died,
Becomes a place where she can hide,
While all the town and harbour side
Vibrate with her seclusion.
I respect Robinson's effort, and the tidiness of his verse is almost heroic, with each line refusing enjambment and perpetuating a series of small finalities. I have a soft spot for such virtuosity, but I think that "Daddy" demonstrates by contrast the power of immediacy at all costs.
Plath's influence on me is very profound. It was really study of Plath that allowed me to grow into acceptance of free verse. So many of the other high priests of free verse, in English and French, including Whitman, Ginsberg and Kahn, left me utterly cold, though recently I've been able to appreciate these a little more. I never believed that LaForgue, Eliot and Pound took as much freedom many claim, and it was Plath, who really showed me that craft and free verse were not incompatible. She made it possible for me to listen properly to the great African poets such as Senghor, Césaire, Okigbo and Brutus for the first time. I wander through my own Journey in Plath (and Hughes), and how it relates to my family in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand". "Morning Song" for Udoka and "Metaphors" for his mother are my touchstones upon the birth of my third child.
Having said all that, I think it's perfectly fair for someone to find "Daddy" too grotesque for their taste, and in such cases, I tend to recommend "Mushrooms" instead.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding, Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless, Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
Our kind multiplies: We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.