Jennifer Jean: The First Poem I Ever Loved – “DADDY” by Sylvia Plath
This is the fourth in a series of stories of the first poem a poet fell in love with.
It was a false love. The kind that prettily, wittily, affirms the shadow-self—without exposing it. But here is truth—I loved “Daddy” first.
When I was a freshman at CSUN (Cal State University Northridge) I audited a senior-level poetry course—and asked a classmate: “How does everyone know what Deconstructionism means?” He shrugged, “We just do.” One day we flipped a page in our thick Norton and there was Sylvia: “You do not do, you do not do.” I don’t remember the ensuing discussion—just this shiver of recognition. Just that first tang of her manic hilarity that meant, “I’ll show you control!” I had no idea her lines were iambs. Or that she was foreshadowing a marriage “I do” to a man who was a “model” of her dead father. Or that I was a cliché: an angst-y teen-girl obsessing over my own absentee-father, and knee-jerk responding to the first openly enraged and intelligent daughter I’d ever encountered.
I don’t know what kind of poetry I read before this. None? I wrote poetry. But only because I’d read about Jim Morrison’s verse in his biography (and Morrison, of The Doors fame, is part of my absentee-father’s myth—it’s possible my dad almost became the drummer for that band). I wrote cool, mad, smart (shit) stuff. And, neither my rage nor my intelligence was appreciated. (Though, whose is to satisfaction?) This is all so embarrassing now. I know now that rage and intelligence are not who I was. Nor who I am. But, those are the parts of Sylvia’s “Daddy” that resonated most.
In that poetry class, in that civilized square, everyone appreciated dead Sylvia so I was jealous. Soon, I went out and bought Sylvia’s Ariel, devoured the book, wiped away the blood and saliva from my chin with the back of my hand, then set my own Sylvia-ish poetry on the world. I thought I was burrowing into the whole of Ariel to understand my mother’s never explained experience in an asylum, but mostly I was just relieved to discover that poetry was a place I could safely store un-vetted emotions.
I didn’t think about how hard Sylvia worked to get the Mother-Goose music of that poem just so. Or about her endless revisions (see: Ariel—The Restored Edition), and all her inner dredging. I didn’t know great poems must be earned. I just wanted that same electricity to magically emit from me. (As if I were a Sith-Lord? Flaring lightning from my fingers? Egads. Maybe.)
In an interview recorded for the BBC, Sylvia says “Daddy” is about “a girl with an Electra complex [whose] father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it.” With “Daddy” I realized that poetry could contain outsized conflations (“Chuffing me off like a Jew./ A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.”) and claims to fiction (“I may be a bit of a Jew”). That poems could be, all at once, both false and Truth.
In that BBC recording she barely contains laughter and glee throughout the poem’s recitation (it’s the same in her reading of “Lady Lazurus”). That glee denotes power—plucking at emotions and fashioning them for consumption is power. (I was into “Daddy”’s power. And, in “Daddy”’s power.) But with the act of writing, Sylvia was not “free” of the “awful little allegory” represented—she never resolved her feelings about the men symbolized in that poem, instead she murdered herself in 1963.
When I teach at SDOP (Student Day of Poetry) events for Mass Poetry, I remember Sylvia. I try to show students work like Sylvia’s. It’s cathartic for young readers (I should know!) and it’s often an entry into more poetry. But, I make sure to temper these selections with work that challenges students to exit this frenzied “screeeeeeeee” space. With work of hope and grief and wonder and sacrifice and joy. I show them work that is dark, yes, but that questions the darkness—maybe, asks it to grow-up.
Links to Plath books and readings:
Jennifer Jean’s debut poetry collection is The Fool (2013); her chapbooks include The Archivist (2011) and In the War (2010). Her poetry and prose have been published, or are forthcoming, in: Rattle, Waxwing, Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin Review, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Solstice, and Green Mountains Review. Jennifer is Poetry Editor for The Mom Egg Review, Administrative Editor for Talking Writing Magazine, Co-director of Morning Garden Artist Retreats, and she teaches Free2Write poetry workshops to sex-trafficking survivors. For more about Jennifer visit: www.fishwifetales.com