This Sunday is Father’s Day, and the first thing that I thought of to commemorate the holiday was Sylvia Plath’s famous poem “Daddy,” which was written in 1962, a few months before she took her own life at 30 years old. It’s a shame that Plath suffered from such depression, because she was a gifted writer. It’s no wonder that she was the first person to win a Pulitzer posthumously, as can be seen in this poem.
“Daddy” (Oct. 12 1962)
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.
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.
This beautifully raw poem tells of Plath’s relationship with her father Otto. “The cleft in your chin instead of your foot” refers his foot being amputated after a case of untreated diabetes. Believing his illness to be lung cancer, he died shortly after.
His death affected Plath tremendously. “Daddy” uses the Nazi as a metaphor to describe how oppressed Plath felt by her father. However, even though she characterizes him as a black-hearted, brutish fascist, she still grieved him enough to attempt suicide by sleeping pills when she was 20.
The poem tells of her solution to her pain after her recovery: to marry an imitation of her father. Plath married poet Ted Hughes, known for dressing all in black, in 1956. They had two children together. Plath calls him a “vampire” who sucked her blood for seven years, because she discovered that he was having an affair with a woman named Assia Wevill.
Plath committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas oven. Hughes was rumored to have been abusive, given that Wevill killed herself and her four-year-daughter from Hughes in the same manner six years after Plath’s death. In 2009, Plath and Hughes’ son Nicholas hanged himself after suffering from depression as well.
I love this poem for its melodic rhythm and powerful emotion. It reminds us how love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Our relationships with our fathers, especially for women, often mold our perspectives and decisions in life. The Plath family lived and died tragically, but every family goes through struggles.
I can only hope that you all love and support your dads enough to wish them a wonderful Father’s Day. Since I’m leaving for Japan on Friday, we’ll be celebrating early!
Feel free to share your thoughts on this poem and others related to fatherhood!