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.
Graduate school very well may have been the first time I started to consider poetry seriously, and it started with this poem. I had a professor a couple of years ago who liked to teach this poem (he still does), probably because the form reinforces the content, and probably because he liked to read the poem aloud and said he read it better than Sylvia Plath herself. I don’t know about his reading, but I do know that he was right about how much of the poem is reinforcing itself.
Look at the imagery—Nazis and concentration camps, WWII, vampires, and wars, wars, wars—and its oppressive nature. Even the shoe the speaker writes about is oppressive, stifling. Look at the German words used throughout—Ach, du; ich, ich, ich—and what hard sounds they make. Look at the rhyme, which is irregular but constant, the “oo” sound that repeats throughout—Jew, do, blue, you, shoe, glue, two. Eventually, you should realize that the sing-songy rhyme and repetition (“wars, wars, wars”) serves to reinforce the image of “Daddy,” who is here oppressive as a Nazi. Eventually you should realize that the speaker’s view of “Daddy” is from a little girl’s perspective, that this relationship suffers from its own arrested development (“I was ten when they buried you”). Eventually you should realize that this is a free verse poem that uses most of the poetic conventions of the past. This poem is not free; this speaker is not free. (Then again, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job,” T.S. Eliot famously said.)
I love teaching this poem. I gave “Daddy” to my Intro. to Creative Writing class a couple of weeks ago because they wanted to rhyme every line. I asked them, “Why rhyme?” and they responded, “It doesn’t feel like a poem if it doesn’t rhyme.” I know they’re young and I know they don’t read contemporary poetry (I asked). But their poems rhyme to sing-songy effect even when they are serious and even when this effect does not reinforce their content. Some of it is very bad rhyme, but they are young and they will learn. In the meantime, I wanted them to see what good rhyme could do, how sounds could be both playful and serious. I only hope they took away only a few lessons from poetry, and I hope this was one of them: Rhyme for reason.
I suppose I could’ve taken a different approach to rhyming in my Intro class. I recently heard that a NYU professor bans rhyme in poetry for the first semester. I guess I could’ve been a real hard ass.
Don’t forget to “watch” Sylvia Plath reading “Daddy,”—“watch” here meaning “listen” and “look at the macabre images.”