A Poem a Day: Precocious Talent, Precocious Death

I once heard someone joke about Sylvia Plath’s popularity: “Well, if you put your head in an oven, people ARE going to notice you and your work.”

U1889231It’s a thought-provoking and mean idea that came up in my drama class. We were discussing Sarah Kane’s great play Blasted, and how Kane’s suicide similarly drew attention to her impressive (if small) body of work. What is it about these young, brilliant women’s tragic descent through depression to suicide that we find gripping? Whatever that is, is it too powerful and distorting a lens through which to objectively evaluate their work?

I read Plath’s The Bell Jar to try and answer this question, and completely failed to emotionally connect with protagonist Esther Greenwood, or rather, failed to enjoy not emotionally connecting with her. For now, I will stick to Plath’s poetry. Though bleak, her verse is powerful and dignified in its honesty. I admire anyone who can express unapologetically their suffering, a suffering that hints at the surprising rationality of renouncing life. Robert Lowell, in the foreword to Ariel, (the collection of her poems from which I drew today’s selection), puts it well:

“Sylvia Plath’s poems are not a celebration of some savage and debauched existence, that of the ‘damned’ poet, glad to burn out his body for a few years of continuous intensity. This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it.”


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.

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