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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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I'm no Plath scholar, but reading "Daddy" makes me sympathetic rather than otherwise to Otto Plath. Anyone who writes a book called Bumblebees and Their Ways can't be all bad - but also, Sylvia Plath equating her bad relationship with her father (who was far from being a Nazi) with the experience of a Holocaust victim being taken to the death camp seems pretty grotesque. Is it meant to be? Is that part of the point of the poem, that its voice is overblown, damaged, out of control, narcissistic - childish indeed? Perhaps, but it seems to be taken at face value in many readings, and the possibility that Otto Plath might not deserve his immortalization as the equivalent of Hitler gets little consideration.

As I say, I'm no Plath scholar: it's entirely possible that these points are now orthodox.

Otto was investigated by the FBI for 'pro German sympathies' during WW1 although there seems to be little evidence other than the usual wartime paranoia aimed at the 'other'.

He was a depressive (sound familiar?) and I suspect his daughter never forgave him for dying comparatively young- a great self diagnoser, he missed the fact that he had the advanced diabetes which eventually killed him.

He seems to be, as you say, a fairly blameless academic and one, furthermore, who attained his academic status by sheer hard work- he came from a family of blacksmiths, so pretty working class in origin.

Perhaps 'what everybody knows' does need a certain amount of re-examination?

I may write poetry and have a deeply conflicted relationship with my father, but I don't think I could do this to him!

I don't know, I read that poem, and there's such a depth of anger and hatred--and self-hatred there--that I cannot help but wonder if Plath had experienced some kind of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. I have no evidence and I'm no Plath scholar either, but the tone and the language sounds familiar to me, like other accounts I have read.

Leaving that aside, I have a parent whose mother had a personality disorder. I don't think I will ever understand the depth of the misery my mom suffered and still does. If Otto Plath was anything like that...I can understand the poem.

It's hard to say, isn't it? I think we have to wonder, but in the absence of evidence, or even an accusation, we can't do more. A demanding, emotionally distant father who then absents himself abruptly and permanently by dying might be another explanation for the attitude of anger and betrayal to which the poem bears witness. There are too many unknown unknowns.

Perhaps, but it seems to be taken at face value in many readings, and the possibility that Otto Plath might not deserve his immortalization as the equivalent of Hitler gets little consideration.

Sylvia Plath was almost destroyed for me as a poet by a tenth-grade English teacher who taught her poetry as though it were a direct autobiographical hotline with bonus similes. We were handed "Daddy" and asked to think about Plath's relationship with her father, "Metaphors" and her relationship with Ted Hughes, "Mirror" and her relationship with herself. The most important thing about her was her suicide. Anything she might have written before it was significant only insofar as it was a signpost, a coded primer of depression, interpersonal issues, death. I didn't realize how good a poet she actually was until I picked up The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) in grad school and had the chance to read my own way through her words without a heavy screen of psychological exegesis—without much historical context, is the other part. "Daddy," in isolation, reads like the voice of a survivor of childhood abuse. It was taken for granted in that class that everything Plath depicted in her poems was directly true of her life, so that was the picture I had of her father, and if it was real I don't want to discount it, and if it wasn't I don't want to erase Plath's technique as a poet. There was this weird collapsing effect when we read her, no distance between poet and persona when we were in the same class taught Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" without being asked to identify the especial neighbor Frost had in mind when recounting this obviously biographical encounter with the aphorism-loving stick-in-the-mud on the other side of the hill. It was as if women were never allowed to have masks. As if Plath herself couldn't have been at the same time very badly hurt and an artist. The more I think about that year of English literature, the more I'm annoyed. That's the way biographies were constructed for the Greek lyric poets, so we know that Kleis was Sappho's daughter and Archilochos bailed on a battle in Thrace. Scholarship should have gotten better in fifteen hundred years.

I think the difficulty is that "Daddy" more or less funnels exegesis into the biographical, not least by including details (such as the injured foot) that have no other obvious purpose than to say "It's Otto!". Of course, one could read it as a dramatic monologue in the tradition of "Porphyria's Lover" or "The Farmer's Bride", but that would be to drive too thick a wedge between poet and persona, I think. As it is it sits in an awkward borderland, and perhaps that's the point, but there's also an air of cake-and-eatiness about it.

"Mending Wall" may well be about a real incident - and if so I am the kind of reader who wants to know all about the neighour and his kith and kin, down to seven generations - but because it lacks the same kind of otherwise-extraenous detail as that foot, and because it frames itself as being about a general principle of behaviour rather than a particular personal relationship, it doesn't make biographical enquiry feel obligatory.

Maybe this is about gender, but if so I think it's about the kind of poems that women and men are allowed to write, rather than the different ways they are read - in this particular instance.

(I have problems with "Mending Wall" too, but mostly because I agree with the neighbour.)

it frames itself as being about a general principle of behaviour rather than a particular personal relationship

Although don't you think that separating those two things out as though they are in opposition is also a bit of patriarchal thinking? That said, Plath also frames what she's talking about as a general principle of behavior ("Every woman loves a fascist"). So I think it is also a matter of the different ways in which they are read, as well as what kinds of relationships/behavior we're conditioned to think of as representative.

Although don't you think that separating those two things out as though they are in opposition is also a bit of patriarchal thinking?

I do. I was referring to the rhetorical framing of Frost's poem, not necessarily accepting it.

All the same, on reflection I think I was wrong to make the sharp distinction I did in the following sentence between the kinds of poem men and women are allowed to write (i.e. the generic and rhetorical schemata that are deemed appropriate to them) and the ways they are read - as if readers weren't also working within those same generic/rhetorical schemata. Your point about "Every woman loves a fascist" brings that out well. Do we read that sentence as a proposition that can be taken out of its immediate context and considered in terms of its general applicability, or as a symptom of the speaker's individual state of mind? Are we more likely to do the latter given that the speaker is a woman? (I suspect the answer is yes.)

There was this Plath-obsessed woman that I met at Cambridge, who was living (by demand) in the poet's old room at Newnham. I was going down to London once with my friend H.--a vast, timid, scholarly fellow--when she laid hold of us, and ranted all the way to Kings Cross. She was terrifying. This was like 1975, and she wore a Westchester mink, and spike heels, and bloodred lipstick--utterly witch queen and bizarre amid the floral milkmaid smocks in fashion then. She seized us with her red red talons, and bent her glaring soul on us, engorged, tumescent, purple with her rage, and told us of her fell designs on Ted Hughes--flaying and castration to begin with. And poor H., a gentle soul, about the tonnage and intelligence of Samuel Johnson, and twice as eccentric, shrank further and further into his corner, clutching a 1737 full-calf volume of the Gentleman's Magazine to his blameless and misbuttoned chest.



Plath certainly excites impassioned advocacy. I've already been told off-list that this post makes me an apologist for child abuse.

Goodness. He used to teach German in the Seattle school building (now a community center) where my son's choir now practices.

Small world!

If I meet a cleft-chinned ghost stalking the halls, I shall let you know.