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Friday Poem: Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath is one of those figures whose private life almost outstrips her literary one.

PLath blue plaque

 Image courtesy of Spudgun67 via Flickr 

Despite her contribution to the confessional poetry mode, posthumous Pulitzer in 1982, and sole novel The Bell Jar, commentators often focus instead upon her tempestuous marriage to the poet Ted Hughes, her well-documented depression, and her death from suicide at the age of 30.

Yet I knew nothing about this when I first encountered her work at secondary school. Instead, it was a moment when I really finally understood what poetry was about. From there, I went on to read The Bell Jar multiple times, choosing it as a text for an independent study, and remaining fascinated by Plath’s use of language.

That encounter with Plath came in the form of ‘Daddy’, a poem from that Pulitzer-winning anthology, Collected Poems, edited by Hughes himself. Then unaware of the death of Plath’s father when she was a child, and the gap between her experience and my own, this still spoke to me so completely that I had a copy stuck on my bedroom wall throughout my teens, to the point that I could almost recite it. Not pretty or flowery, but brutally honest and almost aggressive in tone, it showed me what poetry could be and made me realise that Literature was where my heart really lay.


Daddy by Sylvia Plath


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.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
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 thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

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 gipsy 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 scared 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.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black 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.

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