Sylvia Plath’s Daddy

Of all the poems to rewrite, or respond to, “Daddy” remains the most difficult (for me at least). It is its own ecosystem; it captures the range of traumas available to a young woman circa 1963 and onward, both inside and outside the house, the body, history. It enacts the repetitions of gendered trauma and violence. Frustratingly, the poem suggests that the speaker is over the wave, that she “is through” that she will indeed rise and “eat men like air.” The speaker of the poem may succeed, but the poet does not. She does not rise. It is another case of the aborted awakening. Coming to consciousness, but finding one is buried alive.

Is this the “negative” in the sense that Agnes Martin might describe it? That the poem, like art, needs to be rid of all negativity? That looking at its surface we must find joy? According to Elizabeth Hardwick:

With Sylvia Plath the submission to, the pursuit of pain are active, violent, serious, not at all in a Swinburnian mood of spankings and teasing degradation. Always, behind every mood, there is rage—for what reason we do not know, not even in the novel where the scene is open and explicit. In some poems the rage is directed blankly at her father; in others more obliquely, but with intensity, at her husband.

Happiness? Well, sure. But not uncomplicated shutting down and out happiness. I need a happiness that can also handle all this pain. The reality of difficult marriages. Of sexist publishing worlds. These issues seem quaint when I lift my head up from today’s news cycles… It seems to me that embracing difficulty, pain, is a necessary poetic stance. The huge, ship of sorrow that is always about to dock.

This poem entered my body so deeply that for months I slept in a dirge state, I dreamed it, sung it, woke with it, walked to its rhythms, cradled my children to it, yes, rocked my children to sleep with it. It was a constant hum in my body that evolved into new rhythms: Not do, not do, not do any more black shoe anymore, not do anymore, not do, not do, not do anymore, black shoe, anymore, not do anymore. Not do, not do, not do anymore, not do anymore, not do anymore, not do, not do, not do anymore. Not do. It repeated in me as all around me stories of sexual misconduct, police brutality, and fascism bloomed, Not do corporations. Not do governments. Not do police departments. Not do climate deniers. Not do became a vessel that contained all the rage, or barely contained actually because it spilled over into my running routine, and my writing (clearly), and my thinking. But I could not actually grasp the poem as a place in my response to Ariel itself. As many drafts as I did, they did not hold up.

For a long time I thought of leaving the “Daddy” page blank to be filled in as the reader would, because we poets, particularly we women, we all know this poem. We live and die by this poem. It is a wave that moves in us. That keeps us circling our little islands of shame until we set sail, and are up and over that wave.

Into a future that once seemed impossible. And now is within reach. I see you there, and you, and you, and you, and it truly is a beautiful thing. Something has to give. We can’t continue being swamped

Here’s the original, and Plath reading it at the end. I will post some other versions of it later. Some of the failed attempts.

DADDY

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.

Sylvia Plath, “Daddy” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Editorial matter copyright © 1981 by Ted Hughes. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992) (thanks to the poetry foundation for housing this online version.