”Daddy” – Ach, du


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.


“Garish, sarcastic, and profane, ‘Daddy’ is one of the strongest poems ever written by a woman. With driving power of voice, it marries the personal to the political against the violent backdrop of modern history. Like Emily Dickinson, another shy New Englander, Sylvia Plath challenges masculine institutions and satirizes outmoded sexual assumptions.”

Camille Paglia’s high appraisal of Sylvia Plath’s powerful poem from 1962 is indeed justified but so is the acclaim Paglia herself received from wildely impressed literary critics for her analysis of the poem in her studies of English language poetry in “Break, Blow, Burn” (2005)  especially for her  insight into the both tragic and hilarious universe of Plath. Hence the only way to do justice to Paglia’s lucid and elegant writing is to quote what is possible without infringing upon copyright rules – which is not much – and leave the details to the reader herself to interpret, or, better, go to the book store to get the book! In Bangkok I found it at the Japanese book store, Kinokynia, so there should be no problem to get it in Tokyo or other big cities in Asia – or in US and Europe, of course.

“‘Daddy is a rollicking nursery rhyme recast as a horror movie”, Paglia continues. “Its arguable premise, simplistically read, is that women are kept in a state of perpetual childhood by domineering fathers and husbands. Hence Ariel, the 1965 book where this poem appeared two years after Plath’s suicide at thirty in London, became a manifesto of the resurgent women’s movement. Her claims seemed to have special force because she had paid for them with her life… In the last months of her life, when she was separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and struggling to care for two small children, Plath’s work gained a furious intensity. She was absorbing the heedlessness of Beat poetry with its cheeky raunch and casual expletives, though she never abandoned structure and symmetry. ‘Daddy’, for example, uses an unusual five-line stanza that, in running over traditional four-line ballad form, subliminally strains and unsettles the reader. The poem itself seems to be having a nervous breakdown”.

…”‘Daddy’ is a sensational exercise in rhetoric, using a disarming rocking-horse cadence for its implacable bill of indictment. ‘You’ is scathingly flung out twenty-one times by Plath toward her long-dead father. Thirty other words rhyme with ‘you’, so that the whole poem seems to hoot and whoop, catching us up in its frenzy. There’s a bratty nyah-nyah-nyah air of school yard taunting: the poet is sticking her tongue out and giving her father and all sexists the finger. The childish persona and singsong rhythm have surely come from Dickinson, who turns her naive, exploited maidens into unmaskers of male authority. But the overall effect of ‘Daddy’ is closer to the poisonous cynicism of German Expressionism …Although it’s a long poem (eighty lines), ‘Daddy’ seems to dart and skip along with barely a pause, partly because twelve of its sixteen stanzas are syntactically linked. The poet sweeps us into her stream of memories and associations, smoothly shifting from the United States to Europe and back. The airless family bubble is cracked open by flashing glimpses of the vastness of history and geography”.

Paglia then gets into the details of the poem with all those references to Sylvia Plath’s German background and language (‘Ach, du’) and – not unproblematic, Paglia notes – associations of her German father with nazism and the references to the Holocaust (I agree with Paglia, these references are not without problems). “Otto Plath has Hitler’s ‘neat moustache’ and ‘Aryan eye, bright blue,’ coldly rational and disdainful of lesser minds.” And what about this: “Every woman adores a Fascist? Is Plath saying that nature, for pro-creative reasons, implants in women a hormonal attraction to dominating men?”, Paglia asks. “Is the sex drive inherently demeaning? Or does Plath believe that women are socially conditioned for subservience? She seems to conflate emotional manipulation with physical violence (‘the boot in the face’).” …

”Plath crawled under her mother’s porch and took an overdose of pills; she was found comatose two days later…They stuck me together with glue: she had gone to pieces, like a broken marionette. Their attention and care―the ‘glue’―are represented as a weak mass of sugary sentiment. Her doctors foolishly reconstructed her as a whole person, she complains, despite her lack of a coherent self…Her unwanted rehabilitation”, Paglia goes on saying, “inspired her next strategy of evasion and sabotage: ‘I made a model of you’ . The sorceress crafts a voodoo doll, a husband molded (as in Freudian family romance) in her father’s image. The miniaturized toy husband is her creation― which is why partisan feminist readings of this poem can go so astray. In a conformist era of the corporate man in the gray flannel suit, Plath chooses ‘a man in black with a ‘Meinkampf look’ It’s not just his dress but his spirit that’s black, with a pagan lust for mastery. Plath found a soul mate who similarly understood life and sex as a bruising battle. Like an agent of the Spanish Inquisition, Plath’s glowering mate has ‘a love of the rack and the screw’ (torture equipment). But this excites her: ‘I said I do, I do,’ her girlish squeals of pleasure-pain trilling through the wedding ceremony.

If she had hoped to exorcise her father’s ghost by marrying, the effort has failed. For all his vaunted power, she cuttingly implies, her husband isn’t man enough to supplant her father’s towering image. ‘So daddy, I’m finally through’: she’s fed up with relationships, ambition, and even person. The poem says she will make no more poems”…

…”The climax is a barbaric orgy with the poet as avenging Maenad. She boasts of killing not one man but two―that is, her father and her husband, ‘the vampire who said he was you’ and drank her blood for seven years. She is accusing Hughes of draining her creative energy―when in fact her work flourished during their partnership.” …

”The reign of terror is over. Her father can no longer live through her by usurping her consciousness: ‘There’s a stake in your fat black heart,’ encrusted with vice and mold yet still throbbing with her stolen blood. What is the phallic stake (the legendary way to kill vampires)? Plath has driven it home: it’s the poem itself, with its pointed tone and long, linear format. ‘Daddy’ is devastating, nailing her father forever and getting her husband too―since Hughes would have to defend himself for the rest of his life against his dead wife’s charges… Like Dickinson, Plath rejects all alliances and chooses exile. ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through’: in this searing and blasphemous last line, Plath perversely defeats her readers’ hopes for her deliverance. We expect her to say ‘I’m free,’ not ‘I’m through.’ It must be remembered that swearwords like ‘bastard’ were not yet used publicly by respectable middle-class women. It’s shock theater, defiling the poem and even coarsely questioning her father’s legitimacy. Plath ends up like Ibsen’s headstrong, father-fixated Hedda Gabler, who plays wild piano music before shooting herself. Plath’s ‘I’m through’ means the poem and performance are over. It also makes her life coterminous with the poem. She leaps into white space after the last words as if she were Sappho, the first great woman poet, who was (mistakenly) said to have jumped off a cliff into the sea for unrequited love. Everything in the last line―from the diminutives and contraction to the cursing and slang―conveys the collapse of poetic discourse and tradition. The mundane has triumphed―as it did when Plath killed herself in a kitchen”… … “Some Plath disciples seem to think that a litany of grievances, accompanied by sullen mutterings about patriarchy, is enough to make a poem… They fail to recognize Plath’s enormous respect for great male writers as well as her studious approach to writing: her beloved thesaurus was her equivalent to Dickinson’s bible, Webster’s dictionary. Because Plath had so profoundly absorbed major literature, it came flowing out of her in crisis, reforming itself into dazzling metaphors mercurial allusions, and macabre witticisms.

Read aloud―as Plath stipulated her late poems should be―‘Daddy’ is hilariously funny” (actually there is a reading by Plath herself on Youtube, my comment!) …”If Plath has had no major literary successors, she certainly has her peers―but they are in popular music. I nominate Sylvia Plath as the first female rocker. ‘Daddy’ was written just before rock ‘n’ roll morphed from teenagers’ good-time tunes to content-heavy social protest. This poem has the sneering sardonicism and piercing propul-siveness of Bob Dylan’s 1965 blockbuster single, ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ It looks forward to rock classics by women performers of the mid-seventies to early eighties: the Delphic posturing of Patti Smith’s haunted Horses, the foulmouthed brashness of Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders and Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, and the strutting sexual confrontationalism of Pat Benatar’s hit songs ‘Heartbreaker,’ ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot,’ and ‘Love Is a Battlefield.’ The nihilistic wipeout of the last line of ‘Daddy’ is also in the fractious rock spirit: it parallels the smashing or burning of guitars by the Yardbirds, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix, the peak of expressiveness being a destruction of the instrument―in this case the poet herself. Ironically, the last line of ‘Daddy,’ where the poet is at her boldest, is swamped by her father. In her dispute for mental territory with him, ‘I’ appears thirty times in the poem (in English and German). But her exit line proclaiming victory grants him even more space: he appears there three times to her one. He has survived, even with a stake in his heart. She has built his funeral monument: her best poem belongs to him. Father and daughter are locked together in psychic struggle for eternity.”



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