What Can We Steal From Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Daddy,” poem
Author: Sylvia Plath
Date of Work: 1962
Where the Work Can Be Found: As an American classic, “Daddy” is anthologized all over the place, including complete collections of Plath’s poetry.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Authorial Perspective

“Daddy” is a difficult poem for many folks.  Some readers are made uncomfortable by some of the subject matter.  I get it; you’re going to alienate a few people when you write lines like, “Daddy, I have had to kill you” and “A man in black with a Meinkampf look// And a love of the rack and the screw.”  Others find it hard to consider the poem in any context other than the autobiographical.  This isn’t inherently unfair; Plath seems to be explicitly using her life in the poem.  If you’re one of the many readers who have trouble understanding the poem, follow the same advice you got when learning how to drive: take as long as you like, go over it again and memorize the arm signals because they WILL ask you about them.

“Daddy” is indeed a poem from daughter to father.  The first-person narrator clearly loves the man, but the family trauma she believed he caused has forced her to cut emotional ties.   The daughter feels the man was so oppressive and evil that he deserves comparison to the Nazis, a party known for the pride they took in causing pain.  The opposite of love is not hate, as they say, it is indifference.  The poem seems to end with a declaration of the narrator’s emotional freedom and indifference to the man: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Poetry doesn’t HAVE to be about depression or sadness.  It just so happens this is a pretty sad and depressing poem.  Plath brings the emotion to the surface by making the poem an open letter to Daddy.   It’s a little bit like reading someone else’s love letter, isn’t it?  You get to see someone else express their feelings without a filter.  More importantly, these are complicated feelings.  Even after the narrator calls her father a Nazi, labels herself a “Jew,” blames her psychological dissolution on the guy and declares that she has murdered him…she still seems to have some love in her heart.  (I think it’s the repetition of the word “Daddy” that makes me think so.)  The emotion is extreme, but it is not unfocused.  Even in this extreme state, the narrator is able to put together coherent thoughts and sentences.

To whatever extent Plath was writing about her own father, she created a whole world for the poem and rendered it completely.  All too often, autobiographical fiction is only 1% distant from the truth.  When I was a teenager, I would simply use a person’s middle name when writing about them or use some other silly technique that didn’t fictionalize much of anything at all.  Plath gives Daddy a complete backstory, gives her narrator a full psychology and makes sure that her priority is to create a good poem.  (In adolescent writing, you’ll find that the priority is to squeeze out emotion and not really to serve the artistic ideal.  That was my experience, at least, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Serve your Muse as well as your heart.  Even though it may be a difficult mission in your first few drafts, try to figure out what kind of piece you’re really trying to write and construct the piece in the service of that goal.  Think about it this way: which will likely produce a better result for an artist?  Painting with an airbrush or with a fire hose?
  • Maintain some kind of distance between yourself and your characters, even if you’re writing an autobiographical piece.   I understand; if you’re writing memoir, then you’re going to have “the truth” on your mind.  The point is to be able to have a little bit of distance.  You need enough distance to allow yourself to write from some level of objectivity.

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