Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Musings Of A Tortured Soul: Daddy (Sylvia Plath’s poetry takes precedence over her personal demons)

I think that all the numerous comments speculated about the suicidal bent of Plath’s personality, how she did or didn’t or should have or shouldn’t have blamed Hughes, Otto Plath, or Hitler, for her pain, or try to trace out what stanzas are about Hughes and what ones about her father are grievoulsy missing the point.

This poem is about something much bigger and more important, even more disturbing, perhaps, than Plath’s private struggles with her father’s death or her childhood mistreatment, nor with her husband’s “bastardies, usages, desertions, and doubleness,” as she says in another poem, or even really her own psychology. Rather these items are all used as vivid show-pieces, as illustrations of what she is saying about the prevalent, underlying attitude of civilization in the Twentieth Century. She merges her sexist, narcissistic, power-loving and sadistic (at least, as she portrays them) father and husband almost into one figure, and connects them to Naziism, which is only the most known and visible example of the sort of cruel, destructive vein in human nature as manifested on the political world stage. By making this parallel, she shows how this attitude of sadistic domination pervades all levels of social relations from the family to the state. And she doesn’t particularly blame these specific men for their cruelties, but rather pins it on their susceptibility to this larger force, as were the rank-and-file Nazis — she suggests it was preternatural in her father, like his “Aryan Eye,” and that her husband must have learned it, as he has a “Meinkampf look” and wears black, which is equated in many of her poems to comformity to social attitudes.

Sylvia Plath’s poetry is well known for its deeply personal and emotional subject matter. Much of Plath’s poetry is confessional and divulges the most intimate parts of her psyche whether through metaphor or openly, without creating a persona through which to project her feelings, and through the use of intense imagery. Plath’s attempt to purge herself of the oppressive male figures in her life is one such deeply personal and fundamental theme in her poetry. In her poem, “Daddy”, which declares her hatred for her father and husband, this attempt is expressed through language, structure, and tone.

Sylvia’s father, Otto Plath, was a German immigrant and an entomologist who specialized in bumblebees. Plath described him to a college roommate as “an autocrat . . . I adored and despised him, and I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him.” Plath’s father was a tyrant and ruled over her with an iron fist. Plath felt that her father, to suit his particular needs and whims, molded her. Plath’s relationship with her husband, poet Ted Hughes, was not much healthier. In 1962, after only seven years of marriage, Plath learned that her husband was having an affair. Two months later and five months before Plath committed suicide, Hughes left her for Assia Gutman. Plath had been subservient and coy towards Hughes, deeply loving and admiring him.

Hughes took Plath for granted and left her when he was no longer interested. She was devastated.

It is through such poems as “Daddy” that Plath expresses her feelings of malice toward her father and husband for the way that they treated her. Plath felt dominated by both her father and husband. “Daddy” describes these feelings of oppression and her battle to overcome the power imbalance. The intensity of this conflict is made extremely apparent as she uses examples that cannot be ignored. The atrocities of Nazi Germany are used as symbols of the horror of male domination. The constant and crippling manipulation of men, as they introduced oppression and hopelessness into her life, is equated with the twentieth century’s worst period. Plath’s father is transformed into a “Panzer-man,” a “Fascist,” and a “bastard.” Words such as Luftwaffe, the aircraft known as the “Angels of Death” used by Adolf Hitler during WWII, and Meinkampf, Hitler’s political manifesto, are used to characterize her father and husband as well as male domination in general. The frequent use of the word black throughout the poem also conveys a feeling of gloom and suffocation.

Plath felt oppressed and stifled by men throughout her life. The first stanza of “Daddy” conveys her feelings of domination by her father:

You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Plath uses similes and metaphors to describe herself as a foot being cowed by a black shoe—her father—in which she barely dares to move. Other very intense similes and metaphors such as “Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belson,” and “I think I may well be a Jew” clearly show the feelings of anguish and hopelessness she felt under her father’s control.

Strong images are presented throughout the poem. The words “marble-heavy, a bag full of God” convey the omniscience of her father’s authority and the weight it imposed on her throughout her life. Another strong image is the comparison of Plath’s husband to a vampire: “The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know.” This stanza accounts the way Plath’s husband stripped her of her sense of self. Plath gave Hughes her trust and he gained total control over her, which he used to his advantage, thus “drinking her blood.” Additionally, Hughes and Plath were married for exactly seven years before he left her for Gutman- the same duration in which the vampire drank. The poem is written in stanzas of five brief lines. Though the lines are short, each contains imagery and metaphor that is powerful enough to convey Plath’s feelings without supplementary words. An example of this is: “If I’ve killed one man I’ve killed two-The vampire who said he was you.” The forceful, almost gruesome imagery of these lines overcomes the concise line scheme.

The tone of this poem is of a woman engulfed in spite and hatred. This outrage, at times, slips into the sobs of a child. This is evident in Plath’s continued use of the word daddy and her childlike repetition of words: “You do not do, you do not do” and “Daddy, daddy, you bastard.” Fear from her childhood moves her in directions that will take her far from herself. In one line in the poem she brings us starkly into the world of a child’s fear. She uses words that sound like the words of a child staring out at us from behind “a barbwire snare.” To her father, she says, “I have always been scared of you.”

In the poem “Daddy,” Plath announces her rebellion from the oppressive forces and ties that have held her back throughout her life. She denounces them all and frees herself of their demands in the last stanza:

There’s a stake in your big fat heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

This stanza reveals that Plath has finally ridden herself of her father’s control- he is dead now. Plath is most likely represented in the villagers who “never liked” her father and are now “dancing and stamping on him,” rejoicing over his death. She always knew he was a monster and no she is rid of him. Plath has cleansed herself of the domination placed on her by her father and husband.

Reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry is a bit like our fascination with a car crash: it compels us to look but then be aghast and often disturbed by what we see.

Plath’s poetry is intriguing because of its exploration into the conflicting world of death and despair, motherhood and birth. Her work can be full of rage and violence, rich with vibrant imagery and language, “Naked and bald in their furs”, then mysterious, admonishing and conflicting, “the black man who bit my pretty red heart in two”. Above all, Plath’s poetry is a candid commentary about the life of a modern woman, wife, mother, sexual stereotype and creature of nature.

Even though her life and her reputation have been marked by her mental illness and eventual suicide, when studying her poetry it is more important to consider her writing for its honest exploration of intimate insecurity in a patriarchal, conservative world. By all means have an awareness of Plath’s personal demons but keep in mind that it is her poetry that must take precedence and even in her darkest moments the work remained paramount.

In Plath’s final journal entry she wrote, “A bad day. A bad time. State of mind most important for work. A blithe, itchy eager state where the poem itself, the story itself is supreme.”

In The Applicant, Plath gives us a brutal commentary on sexual stereotypes and the double standard that exists between men and women. A poem that possesses an extraordinary sense of voice, it is full of rage, the “applicant” is interrogated to establish if “you are our sort of person”. It possesses all the detachment and indifference of the time; a society where it’s not about humanity but about productivity, output and commodification. The dismembered human being is reduced to, “A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch/A brace or a hook/ Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch”.

As a comment about society, about marriage and about capitalism, The Applicant is all about entrapment and being “a living doll”. Note Plath’s use of the pronoun “it” and the repetition of words such as “talk” and “marry”. Here the speaker is in contempt and pitiless. Like the banter of a salesman or the patronising rhetoric of a pompous father, the voice is mocking while Plath is enraged. This poem bespeaks of contemporary indifference, where cliches such as “have a nice day” do nothing to disguise the self-interest and platitudes endemic in the modern age.

As a confessional poet, Plath’s Morning Song provides us with a complex outburst following childbirth. No Anne Geddes sentiments here, Morning Song is spontaneous and confronting. Plath exposes us to feelings of love, detachment, bewilderment and rejection, where her feelings - “I’m no more your mother/Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand” - suggest a clouded alienation and loss of individuality. The traditional image of a new mother is shattered with Plath’s evocative image of her stumbling from bed, “cow-heavy and floral/In my Victorian nightgown”. In every way, Plath feels ridiculous and is both the subject and the object of the ridicule.

However, Morning Song is not a dark poem, rather, it is honest in its portrayal of new motherhood. Language such as “love”, “bald cry”, “moth-breath”, “mouth opens clean as a cat’s” and “clear vowels” possess confidence, strength and tenderness. Such is the miracle of childbirth for a woman; it is both joyous and frightening, happy and uncomfortable, confusing and rewarding.

Once again, extraordinary imagery is a feature of her disturbing Daddy. The notion that this poem, as its title would suggest, is about innocence and a child’s devoted relationship with her father is soon shattered as Plath stomps like a “black shoe” on her dead father. It also becomes a vitriolic outburst towards her husband and subsequently becomes an eruption about patriarchal power, neglect and abandonment.

It is a complex poem full of confusion and emptiness where hyperbole, parody, allusion and repetition are configured with a simple, controlled rhythm. The confusion of Plath’s feelings for her father is echoed in “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God” where Plath conveys the coldness and alienation of marble with the warmth and security of God. Daddy is about monsters and victims where Plath includes war and the horrors of the Nazis towards the Jews to highlight her pain at the hands of the ominous male power.

The relationship in the poem is between “I” and “you” and it is clear the “I” is suffering: “I could never talk to you.” Images of “your neat moustache”, “The boot in the face” and “the vampire who said he was you” all provide the reader with a disturbing portrait of the suffering voice.

There is no ambiguity in the speaker’s “At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you” with a sense of desperation clear through the repetition of “back”. It is the final attack, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”, where the reader is forced to acknowledge a tormented and tortured soul. In destroying the “vampire” Plath is attempting to exorcise the memory of her father and, more recently, her husband’s desertion.

So what can we make of Sylvia Plath’s poetry? Is it all bleak and pessimistic? How can we discuss her tortured life and find anything positive? The work is indeed dark, tormented and confused but it is also amazingly lucid and candid. The honesty of her poetry is far more engaging and important. She speaks with poignancy and frankness, often using words to spear absent, unknown or intangible adversaries. She has provided us with a rare glimpse into the effects of the modern world and its “Voicelessness”.

Her writing is real, raw and truthful, capturing the tragedy of individuals becoming “Orange lollies on silver sticks”. Certainly her poetry provides a real insight into life and death, desire and failure where the beauty of Plath’s work lies in its unequalled hunger for happiness.

Reams have been written about Sylvia Plath and her relationship with Ted Hughes; here’s the final paragraph of an interesting essay I found on the web:

“By analyzing “Daddy” in terms of the vampire metaphor we see how the poem attacks the speaker’s husband on a symbolic level while condemning her father on a literal level. Although Heather Cam points out that “Otto Plath and Ted Hughes . . . are no more a Nazi Daddy nor `a man in black with a Meinkampf look’ than Plath is a gipsy Tarot mistress who feels herself to be Jewish”, the vampire metaphor corresponds exactly with the poet’s situation at the time she wrote the poem. While she had once loved her husband, she was suddenly forced to realize that he was capable of treating her horribly. In writing “Daddy” she seems to have realized the degree to which her feelings of abandonment following her father’s death, which was out of Otto Plath’s control, set up the devastation she felt following Hughes’ departure, which was his conscious action. It is only natural that she would find an image which would link the two men but condemn only Hughes for his abandonment of his family. Seeing Hughes as a monster, Plath wrote “Daddy” in an attempt to overcome her feelings for him while exorcizing the memory of her father’s equally painful though unintentional abandonment. Despite the mixing of father and husband in the antagonist of “Daddy” it is obvious which man Sylvia Plath is addressing with the poem’s last line, written during the breakup of her marriage and three months before her suicide: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”.

“Seizing a mythical power, the Plath of the poems transmutes the domestic and ordinary into the hallucinatory, the utterly strange.”

The above statement is everything that makes Plath’s poetry captivating, tragic and strange all at the same time. She translates her feelings of utter despair into something amazingly unique and bizarre. Her poems are emotionally tormenting because they are so autobiographical and express her unbridled feelings and thoughts of her very troubled self. Her poem “Daddy” is especially troubling as she expresses so much anger and resentment toward her father who left her alone to face the troubles of her life absent of his presence and guidance. I believe she blames her father for a number of difficulties she had while growing up without a father figure after the age of 8 years old. I felt the poem “Daddy” demonstrated how deserted and alone she felt when her father’s premature death took place, she seems to be holding him at fault and resenting him for dying. I would speculate that perhaps her father was suicidal in not attempting to care for his serious condition of diabetes; his death could have been looked upon as extremely selfish in her eyes simply because of his unwillingness to care for his worsening health condition. Plath is a troubled soul and is clearly lost in the depth of her thoughts and unresolved feelings of anger, resentment, despair and depression. After reading the poem “Daddy” I felt such empathy for Plath as I can only imagine the piercing emotions that emerge from her writings as she expresses her darkest, loneliest and most vulnerable feelings and thoughts.

In her poem “Purdah,” she sounds less tragic and depressed but nonetheless the essence of “Purdah” tells me that she is feeling trapped by her life as a wife and as a mother. I felt perhaps her use of the various birds such as the “purdah,” “parakeets” and the “peacock” was not accidental.

She is indeed like a bird whose very nature demands that she fly and live freely, however she is trapped in a birdcage and her wings are clipped so that she may become domesticated and controlled. Women’s roles were influenced by the social norms of society and there was much pressure for talented, career-driven women to marry and have children.

I believe this is a common theme in Plath’s poetry and these types of poems express her stance against the stereotypical roles women were pressured into taking.

I shall unloose –

From the small jeweled

Doll he guards like a heart –

The lioness,

The shriek in the bath,

The cloak of holes.

“The Applicant” reads as a more controlled poem in my opinion, however Plath is still protesting (as she should) and is expressing the emotional and physical condition of the female role in society at that time; she describes the role of the wife, which she refers to in “The Applicant” as “a living doll.”

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,

In fifty, gold.

A living doll, everywhere you look.

It can sew, it can cook,

It can talk, talk, talk”

The reference to “It” is in itself an insult and further stressing that women in that era were looked upon as possessions of their husband rather than actual independent and intelligent thinkers; women had an equal right and intellectual ability to take on the male-dominated roles of working for a living. Women have the right to choose between a life unfulfilling and unchallenging of the soul, body and mind or a life where they are seen as counterparts and as co-workers and not as prized possessions or “living dolls.” I very much admire Plath and other writers and poets in her time that used their talent and eloquence in their writings to bring about change in society. Plath’s words are moving and inspire me to realize that while our so-called modern society has changed so much in the last 50 years we still need to look forward and be open-minded to more change. I can only hope that in my lifetime I will be privileged to encounter new brilliance that can even come close to Plath and her generation of genius writers. I felt that Plath was courageous in her expressions even though dark and alone, her brilliance and emotion relate to so many different people who experience severe depression and loneliness. She doesn’t seem to be hiding a single thought and that is what makes Plath so appealing to me. In her inability to finally live with the intricacy of her depressive condition and her own thoughts she has an amazing ability to express those feelings in a way that make those dark and lonely thoughts seem intriguing and beautiful.

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