Emotional Power of Poetry

Q: Poetry is often written as a result of reflecting on an intense emotional experience or a significant event. Examine the techniques used by one poet to convey the significance of an experience or event which gave rise to a poem or a sequence of poems.

“Daddy”is a very emotional poem by Sylvia Plath. She wrote it just before she committed suicide in the early 1960’s. It is a very angry poem which is centred around Plath’s relationship with her father, who died when she was much younger. Much of her anger and emotion arises from this event. Despite the fact that he has been dead for some time, it is still certain that she feels affected by it.

The first verse of the poem creates the tone followed throughout, and helps to set the rest of the poem in context:

“You do not do not do, you do not do

Anymore, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.”

Here, the poet is stating that they have “…lived like a foot for thirty years…”, a simile that is giving the sense that she has felt oppressed for her whole life, as living “like a foot” is a claustrophobic image, showing how she cannot break free of the “black shoe” which it is made apparent is representing her “daddy” figure. The opening line, “You do not do…” is similar to how a parent would tell a child off, but the poet is reversing the role here, and so her anger at her father is shown straight away. The whole of the first verse is an extended metaphor, to convey the poet’s anger at feeling trapped all of her life by the death of her father. The line “Barely daring to breathe of Achoo.” shows how this has given her a sense of claustrophobia, not being able to escape from a “black shoe” “black” appearing throughout the poem, giving connotations of evil, the poet exaggerates in order to express her feelings on her father, and her anger at his death. In verse two, she refers to him as “marble heavy, a bag full of God”, which represents how he has been weighing her down. The use of the word “God” is to give the sense that her father has been the all-powerful force in her life until now.

“Daddy, I have had to kill you.” reveals the intent behind her writing the poem, to enable her to “purge” her father out of her life at last. For the poet, “Daddy” is a cathartic experience, and this is communicated to the reader because her anger is apparent in the accusing tone used, she’s addressing the problems in her life and pointing the finger at him. She describes him here in the second verse as a “Ghastly statue” saying that there is something sinister about him, “statue” refers to how he has been immovable, ever-present in her life even after his death. The image of him described in verses two and three focuses on the scale of him. “One gray toe, big as a Frisco seal/And a head in the freakish Atlantic…” – he is continental. It’s almost as if he is too much, and the poet cannot handle the amount that she has built him up in her mind, so much that it almost takes over. But, not all of her feelings towards her father are negative:

“I used to pray to recover you,

Ach, du.”

The note of longing present here prevents the poem from simply becoming an angry rant, it’s clear that she poet is conflicted on how to feel. The fact that she uses the German language also helps to emphasise how much he has impacted her life, as he was German-American.

The tone of the poem is enhanced by the harsh, building rhythm, and the fricative language used. The rhythm builds into a sort of crescendo, and the language used contains a lot of words with an “oo” sound, similar to the word “you”, the accusation coming through, her anger at him showing. The repetition of certain words like “…wars,wars,wars…”, “…ich,ich,ich,ich…” and “…back, back, back…” add to the marching rhythm which drives the poem. By the time we get to the heart of this long rant of a poem the imagery relating to her father deliberately becomes confused with that of Nazi atrocities. Furthermore, sometimes Plath’s attitude towards her father seems to be more suited to that of a lover; how for instance she sees him as the “…black man who/Bit my pretty red heart in two.” The experience of her father’s death had led her to identify with victims of Nazism, which could be seen as particularly self-indulgent on her part, as the comparison seems to be out of balance.

“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.”

And similarly, her comparisons of her father to a Nazi:

“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–“

This dynamic she paints of her, the victim, and her father, the oppressor is clearly an exaggeration. Her father’s death, however, has made her so angry at him that she sees it fit to draw such comparisons. Her experience of her father’s death has forced her to identify with Jews, oppressed by Nazis, the way she has felt oppressed by her father for her whole life. But, this aspect of the poem is juxtaposed with the poet addressing her father in an intimate way, she describes him here as a “Panzer-man”, representing the glamour of the Second World War, a sort of figure of longing. She refers to father as “daddy” – “You stand at the blackboard, daddy/In the picture I have of you.” This emphasises how she has been unable to move on, he has never become a “father” to her, he is frozen in time as her “daddy”, although he is still a figure of authority to her.

It is because of this inability to move on from the death of her father that she states she has “made a model” of him, in her husband, “A man in black with a Meinkampf look.” It’s almost as if her husband has been a substitute for her father being absent in her life, and in the end, he does her no good either, she says he “drank my blood for a year.” referring to how he drained life from her, and in marrying a man that reminds her of her father, it did not offer a solution at all.

The poem acts as a way of exorcising her father from her life, but she also refers to her husband in this aspect – “If I’ve killed one man I’ve killed two.”, the poem has been a stake through the heart of both her “daddy” figure and her husband, referenced to in the last verse (“There’s a stake in your fat black heart” – the poem is the stake, it has killed him). By the end of the poem when she claims “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”, it can be interpreted in more than one way. The first, that she is through with her “daddy” that she has exorcised him from her life at last. But secondly, that it has been too much, that the burden has killed her – Sylvia Plath committed suicide soon after the poem was written.

“Daddy” is full of emotion. It allows the poet to exorcise her father from her life, and so it is conflicted and features anger, love and the accusing tone highlights the poet’s feelings towards her father, how she hates him for his death early in her life, but there are hints of longing throughout. The Nazi imagery used in the poem could be said to be self-indulgent of the poet, but it is perhaps justified in that she has carried the burden of mourning for her father for the majority of her life. The poet shows her father as an evil figure, so it is easy for the reader to sympathise with her, although it is important to remember that the image she paints of him is exaggerated and so the only “bad” thing he did was to die too early in Plath’s life. And so, the poem could be interpreted as a rant at her dead father, but to the poet, he’s been present in her mind throughout her life, and “Daddy” was how she was able to rid herself of him.

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