Daddy

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Daddy"

"Daddy" is Plath's most theatrical example of this operation. The "you" of otherness strikes the keynote of the poem and raises the rhyming to a pitch of compulsive repetition that effectively drowns out the "I." Even the "do" of action or choice is only an echo of du, the father's ich. The poem's regressive form is less a "manic defence" against a painful subject than a confirmation of the defeat of the poet's language, its total surrender to the "you" of otherness:

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.

 

"Ich, ich, ich, ich" is the poem's skeleton, the pure reductive form that supports its four-stress rhythm. Thus "ich" is also the "barb wire" of a language that checks the poet's tongue and cuts off her speech by being not hers but Daddy's "I"—already there, already encoded. This "ich" is a foreign language to the self; its consonants set "a barricade of barb and check" (CP, 50) against the open vowel "I," which yearns to be free. Yet "ich" rhymes with "speak" and thus makes a mockery of the "I" 's very drive for self- expression.

If this encoded, anterior, foreign "ich" is Daddy's sign, the daughter's repetition of it can only inflict pain on her and magnify her separation, and the drama of the father's language silencing the daughter easily translates into a variety of internal or civil wars. The Nazi-Jew struggle becomes a recurrent emblem of destructive, preempting, silencing language. "Cut" provides other models: the poet branches out from her personal pain to Pilgrims, Indians, "Redcoats," "Homunculus," "Saboteur," "Kamikaze," "Ku Klux Klan," and "Babushka," for all the "foreign" languages say the same thing—a Babel of tongues amplifying her inner war with her own "foreign" language. In the end, she can only circle back to "Dirty girl, / Thumb stump" (CP, 235-36), with its suggestion of amputation or even castration. And "the thin / Papery feeling" of the cut suggests that the violent excision of the signifier's force amounts to a reduction of life to writing. Thus Plath's "foot fetishism" is a perfectly ironic symptom of her "sickness."

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Paul Breslin: On "Daddy"

"Daddy" is one of Plath's most detailed autobiographical poems, and perhaps for that reason, it occasionally takes the shared resonance of private references too much for granted. When Plath describes her father as a "Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal," the reader may shrug and mutter, "Oh, well, a harmless touch of surrealism." If one reads Butscher's biography and learns that Otto Plath's fatal illness began when "he developed a sore on his toe in the middle of 1940 and neglected it completely until he required hospitalization," the literal significance of this otherwise arbitrary detail becomes clear. But one can read not only "Daddy," but all of the other poems as well, without finding the literal fact required to remove the lines about the "gray toe" from the opacity of private symbolism. One might also ask the motive for the portentousness surrounding the ages ten, twenty, and thirty (which requires Otto Plath to die when his daughter is ten rather than eight). finally, the association of the father with Nazis becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we realize that Otto Plath died in 1940. The Plaths, as German Americans, were appalled by Hitler and followed the news from Europe closely. One can see how, to a child, the death of her father, roughly coinciding with a terrible threat emanating from the father's country of origin, might suggest fantasies of Hitler as her father's ghost, striking back from the grave. But all of this is guesswork based on information withheld from the poem—and withheld, it seems likely, from Plath's conscious recognition also. To interpret the poem thus is not merely to use biography as a way of understanding context, but to use it as a counter-text, correcting that of the poem. Such interpretations may be useful in reconstructing biographical truth, but they will not do for reading poems.

"Daddy" always makes a powerful and simple effect when read aloud. One hears the gradual release of suppressed anger, building to the triumphant dismissal: "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through." The simplicity immediately evaporates when one begins to ask what attitude the poem encourages us to take toward its speaker. To what extent does this voice have the poet's endorsement? One finds, once the initial impact has worn off, many of the ironic disclaimers associated with dramatic monologue. By calling the poem "Daddy" rather than, say, "Father," Plath lets us know that she recognizes the outburst to follow as childish, truer to the child's fantasy of domination and abandonment than to the adult's reconstruction of the facts. The diction of the poem keeps reminding us of that childishness: "Achoo" as a verb, "gobbledy-goo," "pretty red heart." The obsessive repetition, not only of certain words but of the rhyme-sound oo, evokes the doggerel of playground chants or, more to the point, the stubborn reiterations of a temper tantrum. The poet shows her awareness that her rage is partly a tantrum by allowing the savagery to be touched with humor:

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.

 

But of course they couldn’t know "it was you," since "daddy" is a vampire only in the privacy of the speaker's fantasy. The joke turns—although one may laugh at it without quite realizing this—on the brazen ratification of private nightmare as communal good sense.

There is some warrant, then, for claiming that the speaker of "Daddy" does not have the full endorsement of the poet, who knew very well how excessive the speaker's outburst is and wrote that knowledge into the poem. On these grounds too, one might defend the poem against Irving Howe's charge that "there is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one's father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews." If we argue that the poet encloses the speaker's point of view within a more mature authorial judgment, we can claim that the disproportion is deliberate and ironic. The grotesque inflation of private suffering to the scale of the holocaust would then illustrate the workings of the unconscious, in which such distortions occur as a matter of course, and would not represent the poet's rational assessment of her condition. It was not Plath or any other confessional poet, but W. H. Auden who wrote:

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offense

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god. . . .

 

If, as Auden's lines would have it, the "psychopathic god" whom the Nazis worshipped as their Fuhrer was an externalization of typical German fantasies about typical German fathers, why should we fault Plath for looking through the other end of the telescope, finding in her own fantasies about "daddy" the stuff of which psychopathic gods are made?

Having made this defense, however, I find that the poem as a whole will not sustain it. Sometimes, as in the simpering cuteness of "bit my pretty red heart in two" or the impotently furious tautology of "the brute, brute heart / Of a brute like you," Plath seems intent on making her speaker sound foolish. But there is no mistaking the dead-serious rage that generates the poem's hypnotic reiterations. The ironic self-deflation fades in and out without warning:

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

But 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.

 

One can get dizzy trying to follow the tonal shifts of this passage. The first lines are casual: the speaker can use the pejorative "Polack," since the friend knows it's a joke. "There are a dozen or two"—the precise number is of no great concern. "The name of the town is common," after all. One would never guess, from these three lines alone, the breathless intensity that prevails elsewhere in the poem. From their perspective, the story of Otto Plath is but one of many like it—many immigrants came to America from towns like his. But with the next lines, we are back inside the speaker's haunted psyche: the location of the town becomes a dark secret withheld, another proof that "I never could talk to you." With the return of the oo rhyme, the obsessive, angry voice that began the poem returns also. The speaker's comparison of herself to a Jew hauled off "to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" is chilling, but the last two lines of the passage are again ironic, even incongruously funny.

Not only does the tone of "Daddy" veer precipitously between the luridly sinister and the self-deprecatingly clever, there are places where Plath's technical competence simply deserts her. Poems that ironically bracket the consciousness of the speaker within that of the poet must give assurances that the poet sees through the language of the speaker, and recognizes, as the speaker does not, its evasions and failures. Many lines, even whole stanzas, resist enclosure in an ironic discourse:

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—

 

"Scared of you"—this is the speech of childhood, but in earnest. "Gobbledygoo" is also the language of childhood, but it is applied to the father, not the daughter, and seems to be chosen for reasons of sound, not sense. Why is "gobbledygoo" parallel to "Luftwaffe," as if it were an equally dreaded alternative? The rhythm of the last line, moreover, is extremely awkward. The sing-songy lilt of iambs and anapests suddenly reverses accent in a line of two dactyls followed by an iamb. (I assume demoted stress on the last syllable of "panzer-man," because otherwise there is total metrical chaos.) The exclamation "O you," since it cannot raise the already feverish emotional temperature any further, appears, like "gobbledygoo," to result from carelessness. My point is not just that the stanza is badly written, although it is, but that it sounds full of conviction, rather than ironically aware of its own badness. One cannot feel that the poet sees through the speaker's obsession and presents it to the reader for judgment. My reservations about "Daddy" are similar to those expressed earlier about "Skunk Hour." Both poems memorably evoke intense and painful inward states but vacillate in their implicit interpretation of the experience they present. In both, the language fluctuates between lyrical endorsement and ironic critique of the speaker's despair. Such vacillation, of course, occurs in the experience of those who struggle against despair or madness, but if form is not to be mere imitative form, poetry about this kind of experience must clarify the motives of that vacillation rather than simply reproducing it.

From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the University of Chicago Press.

Guinevara A. Nance and Judith P. Jones: On "Daddy"

The process of doing away with daddy in the poem represents the persona’s attempts at psychic purgation of the image, "the model" of a father she has constructed. Her methods, however, are more akin to magic than murder, since it is through a combination of exorcism and sympathetic magic that she works to dispossess herself of her own fantasies.

The first twelve stanzas of the poem reveal the extent of the speaker's possession by what, in psychoanalytic terms, is the imago of the father—a childhood version of the father which persists into adulthood. This imago is an amalgamation of real experience and archetypal memories wherein the speaker’s own psychic oppression is represented in the more general symbol of the Nazi oppression of the Jews. For example, the man at the blackboard in the picture of the actual father is transformed symbolically into the "man in black with a Meinkampf look." The connecting link, of course, between each of these associations is the word "black," which also relates to the shoe in which the speaker has lived and the swastika "So black no sky could squeak through." Thus the specific and personal recollections ignite powerful associations with culturally significant symbols. The fact that the girl is herself "a bit of a Jew" and a bit of a German intensifies her emotional paralysis before the imago of an Aryan father with whom she is both connected and at enmity. Commenting on the persona in a BBC interview, Plath herself suggests that the two strains of Nazi and Jew unite in the daughter "and paralyze each other" so the girl is doubly incapacitated to deal with her sense of her father, both by virtue of her mixed ethnicity and her childish perspective. As the persona recalls the father of her early years, she emphasizes and blends the two perspectives of impotence: that of the child before its father and of the Jew before the Nazi. The child's intimidation is clear, for example, in "I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my Jaw"; but the sense of the childhood terror melds into a suggestion of the Jewish persecution and terror with the next line: "It stuck in a barb wire snare."

What Plath accomplishes by the more or less chronological sequencing of these recollections of childhood, and on through the twenty year old's attempted suicide to the point at thirty when the woman tries to extricate herself from her image of daddy, is a dramatization of the process of psychic purgation in the speaker. The persona's systematic recollection of all the mental projections of her father amounts to an attempt at dispossession through direct confrontation with a demon produced in her imagination. Both psychoanalysis and the religious rite of exorcism have regarded this process of confrontation with the "trauma" or the "demon" as potentially curative; and from whichever perspective Plath viewed the process, she has her persona confront—in a way almost relive—her childhood terror of a father whose actual existence is as indistinct as the towns with which the girl tries to associate him. Plath also accentuates linguistically the speaker's reliving of her childhood. Using the heavy cadences of nursery rhyme and baby words such as "Chuffing," "Achoo," and "gobbledygoo," she employs a technical device similar to Joyce's in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the child's simple perspective is reflected through language. Like Joyce, Plath wants to recreate with immediacy the child's view. But whereas Joyce evolves his Stephen Dedalus from the "baby tuckoo" and the "moocow" stage into maturity, she has her speaker psychically regress to her childhood fantasies, where every German is potentially her father and the German language seems to be an engine "chuffing" her off to Dachau. Because the persona's past is pathologically connected to her present, this regression requires minimal distance for the adult woman who has been unable to relinquish the childish perspective.

[....]

As the language of the poem begins to exclude baby talk and to develop more exclusively the vocabulary of venom, it signals a change in the persona's method of dealing with this image of the father. She moves from confrontation with her childhood projections to an abjuration of the total psychic picture of the father in an attempt at exorcism. Sounding more like Clytemnestra than a little girl playing Electra, she renounces the deity turned demon with a vengeance in the declaration, "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." The virulence of this and the statements immediately preceding it indicates a ritualistic attempt to transform the little girl's love into the adult's hatred and thereby kill the image which has preyed upon her.

The turning point in the poem and in the speaker's efforts to purge herself of the psychological significance of the father image occurs in the following stanza:

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.

 

The statement, "I made a model of you," suggests several levels of meaning. On the most obvious level, the speaker implies that she made of her father a prototype of all men; and this is borne out in the merging of the father with the man to whom she says "I do, I do." Her image of the "man in black with a Meinkampf look" is superimposed upon the husband so that instead of having one unreality to destroy, she has two—the prototypic father and the husband who is fashioned in his likeness. The poem "Stings" establishes a similar relationship between the dead-imaginary father and the living but spectral husband:

A third person is watching.

  He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or me. 

Now he is gone

 

in eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.

A more complicated implication of the speaker's action in making a model of the father, but one which is also consonant with the allusions to folklore in the later references to vampirism, concerns the persona's use of magic to rid herself of the mental impressions associated with her father. The making of a model, image, or effigy suggests symbolically a reaction not so much to the real father but to the imago, or projection of his image in the mind of the persona. She employs what Fraser in The Golden Boughrefers to as "sympathetic magic"—a generic term for various forms of magic which are based on the premise that a correspondence exists between animate and inanimate objects. One form, homeopathic magic, is predicated on the belief that any representation may affect what it depicts. For example, a picture of a person, a voodoo doll, or any other sort of portrayal can, when acted upon, influence its prototype. In "Daddy," it is the model of the father that the persona destroys; and the solution suggested in the making of the model seems to occur as a consequence of its association with the speaker's own reconstruction after her attempted suicide, when she is "stuck . . . together with glue. " Her remodeling, described in a way that recalls the assembling of a collage, seems to be the associative stimulus for the idea of constructing the model through which to effect her dispossession. It is this model, a fabricated representation of a distorted vision of the father—a patchwork mental impression of him—that she seeks to destroy.

[....]

The tension between rebirth and annihilation pervades the Ariel poems and seems to be a consequence of unreconciled relationships. Plath recognizes her Nazis and vampires to be mental images of her own creation, but she persists in relating to them as if they were real. Here, as in the other poems, when she lets go of the image, there is nothing left and she is finished, "through."

Paradoxically, the problem with the exorcism in "Daddy" is not that it fails to work, but that it does work.

[....]

She roots out the old fixations, but without them she is psychically empty, effaced—as many of the late poems suggest.

Robert Phillips: On "Daddy"

Finally the one way the poet was to achieve relief, to become an independent Self, was to kill her father’s memory, which, in "Daddy," she does by a metaphorical murder. Making him a Nazi and herself a Jew, she dramatizes the war in her soul. It is a terrible poem, full of blackness, and one of the most nakedly confessional poems ever written. From its opening image onward, that of the father as an "old shoe" in which the daughter has lived for thirty years—an explicitly phallic image, according to the writings of Freud—the sexual pull and tug is manifest, as is the degree of Plath’s mental suffering, supported by references to Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen. (Her references elsewhere to hanged men are also emblems of suffering; in Jungian psychology, the swinging motion would be symbolic of her ambivalent state and her unfulfilled longing as well.) Plath confesses that, after failing to escape her predicament through attempted suicide, she married a surrogate father, "a man in black with a Meinkampf look" who obligingly was just as much a vampire of her spirit—one who "drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know." (Sylvia Plath was married to the poet Ted Hughes for seven years.) When she drives the stake through her father’s heart, she not only is exorcising the demon of her father’s memory, but metaphorically is killing her husband and all men.

"Daddy" is a poem of total rejection. When she writes that "the black telephone’s off at the root," she is turning her back on the modern world as well. Such rejection of family and society leads to that final rejection, that of the Self. Her suicide is everywhere predicted, in poems of symbolic annihilation such as "Totem" and in statements of human fascination with death. In "Edge," to be dead is to be perfected! Her earlier terror at death, thus, becomes a romance with it, and her poems themselves are what M. L. Rosenthal calls "yearnings toward that condition." Freud believed the aim of all life is death, and for Plath life was poetry. So by extension, poetry for her now becomes death, both conditions inseparable. She as much as says so: "The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it."

From "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972).

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