Paul Breslin

Paul Breslin: On "Dream Song 4"

With Berryman, the adoption of "Henry" as a persona mitigates the bluntness of self-disclosure. So does his self-deprecatory wit. Lowell and Plath are seldom funny, and even when they are, theirs is a muted, saturnine humor. Already by the fourth Dream Song, Berryman has struck a comic note never sounded in their poetry:

and only the fact of her husband & four other people kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying 'You are the hottest one for years of night Henry's dazed eyes have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon (despairing) my spumoni.

Much as I like Berryman at his best, I have omitted detailed discussion of his work, because he seems less "confessional," in the sense defined by Rosenthal and Alvarez, than Lowell and Plath. Although Berryman occasionally claimed representative implications for his private suffering (as in the Massachusetts Review interview quoted earlier), the poems seldom draw the sorts of parallels between personal and social history that one finds in those of Lowell and Plath, who, between them, define a polarity within the confessional mode.

from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the U of Chicago P.

Paul Breslin: On "Lady Lazarus"

"Lady Lazarus," another anthology-piece, reveals that this vacillation has, in addition to its misplaced mimetic function, a rhetorical function as well. This poem, much more overtly than "Daddy," anticipates and manipulates the responses of the reader. The speaker alternately solicits our sympathy and rebukes us for meddling. "Do I terrify?" she asks; she certainly hopes so. By comparing her recovery from a suicide attempt to the resurrection of Lazarus, she imagines herself as the center of a spectacle—we envision Christ performing a miracle before the astonished populace of Bethany. But unlike the beneficiary of the biblical miracle, Plath's "lady Lazarus" accomplishes her own resurrection and acknowledges no power greater than herself. "Herr God; Herr Lucifer, I Beware I Beware," she warns. Her self-aggrandizing gestures invite attention, and yet we are to be ashamed of ourselves if we accept the invitation:

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see

 

Them unwrap me hand and foot—

The big strip-tease.

The crowd is aggressive ("shoves"), its interest lascivious; it seeks an illicit titillation, if not from the speaker's naked body, then from her naked psyche.

Again, one might argue that the divided tone of "Lady Lazarus" is a legitimately mimetic representation of the psychology of suicide. A suicide attempt is partly motivated by the wish to get attention and exact revenge on those who have withheld attention in the past by making them feel responsible for one's death. Those who attempt suicide in a manner unlikely to succeed—and Plath 's attempts, including the successful one, seem to have been intended to fail—are torn between the desire "to last it out and not come back at all" and the hope that someone will care enough to intervene. Moreover, a suicide attempt is itself a confession, a public admission of inward desperation: Recovering from such an attempt, one would have to contend with the curiosity aroused in other people. One might indeed feel stripped naked, sorry to have called so much attention to oneself, and yet suddenly powerful in commanding so much attention.

Plath's analogy of the strip-tease or the sideshow conveys, with force and precision, the ambivalence of suicidal despair. Had she extended that metaphor through the entire poem, holding its complexities in balance, "Lady Lazarus" might have achieved the stability of tone and judgment lacking in "Daddy." But unfortunately, Plath succumbed to the urge to whip up further lurid excitement with the analogy of the concentration camp, introduced in stanzas two and three but dormant thereafter until it returns at the end of stanza twenty-one. It reenters stealthily:

There is a charge

 

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart.

It really goes.

 

And there is a charge, a very large charge,

For a word or a touch

Or a bit of blood

 

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

The first five lines of this passage, which continue the metaphor of strip-tease or freak show, are witty and self-possessed in their bitterness. "Large charge" is of course, slang for "big thrill" and so glances at the titillation the audience receives as well as the price of admission. But with "a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes," we suddenly recall the "Nazi lampshade" of stanza two. The speaker's "enemy"' whether it be Herr God, Herr Lucifer, or the peanut-crunching crowd, would kill her and dismember the body for commodities (or, in the context of biblical miracle, relics; in either case she is martyred). Interestingly, as the irony becomes less controlled, more phantasmagorical and unhinged, the rhythm begins to fall into anapests, and the rhyme on "goes" and "clothes" is one of the most insistent in the poem. The sound of the poetry, reminiscent of light verse, combines strangely with its macabre sense, rather like certain passages in "The Raven" where one feels that Poe has been demonically possessed by W. S. Gilbert ("For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being / Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door").

In the last twenty lines of "Lady Lazarus," irony vanishes, its last glimmer coming ten lines from the end in "Do not think I underestimate your great concern." By this point, the speaker has turned from the crowd to address a single threatening figure:

So, so, Herr Doktor

So, Herr Enemy.

 

I am your opus,

I am your valuable

The pure gold baby. . . .

The enemy, hitherto unspecified, turns out to be a German male authority figure, perhaps a scholar like Otto Plath ("Herr Doktor"), who thinks of the speaker as his "pure gold baby." An inward confrontation with this father imago replaces the confrontation with the intrusive crowd. The poem enters a realm of pure fantasy as the "Herr Doktor" rapidly assumes the cosmic proportions of "Herr God, Herr Lucifer." There is also a shift in the figurative language, corresponding to the shift in tone and implied audience. The clammy imagery of "the grave cave" and "worms . . . like sticky pearls" gives way to an imagery of death by fire. The resurrection of Lazarus becomes the birth of the Phoenix, and the extended metaphor of a public spectacle abruptly disappears. The threat of the final line, "And I eat men like air" (SP, 247), has little connection with anything in the first twenty-one stanzas.

As with "Daddy," one may try to save consistency by declaring the speaker a "persona." The poem, by this reckoning, reveals a woman gradually caught up in her anger and carried by it toward a recognition of its true object: not the crowd of insensitive onlookers, but the father and husband who have driven her to attempt suicide. The end of the poem, thus understood, breaks free of defensive irony to release cathartic rage. But it is hard to see why this rage is cathartic, since it no sooner locates its "real" object than it begins to convert reality back into fantasy again, in a grandiose and finally evasive fashion. Was it that Plath unconsciously doubted her right to be angry and therefore had to convict her father and her husband of Hitlerian monstrosities in order to justify the anger she nonetheless felt? Or did she fear that the experiential grounds of her emotions were too personal for art unless mounted on the stilts of myth or psycho-historical analogy? On such questions one can only speculate, and the answers, even if they were obtainable, could illuminate the poems only as biographical evidence, not as poems.

From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the University of Chicago Press.

Paul Breslin: On "Daddy"

"Daddy" is one of Plath's most detailed autobiographical poems, and perhaps for that reason, it occasionally takes the shared resonance of private references too much for granted. When Plath describes her father as a "Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal," the reader may shrug and mutter, "Oh, well, a harmless touch of surrealism." If one reads Butscher's biography and learns that Otto Plath's fatal illness began when "he developed a sore on his toe in the middle of 1940 and neglected it completely until he required hospitalization," the literal significance of this otherwise arbitrary detail becomes clear. But one can read not only "Daddy," but all of the other poems as well, without finding the literal fact required to remove the lines about the "gray toe" from the opacity of private symbolism. One might also ask the motive for the portentousness surrounding the ages ten, twenty, and thirty (which requires Otto Plath to die when his daughter is ten rather than eight). finally, the association of the father with Nazis becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we realize that Otto Plath died in 1940. The Plaths, as German Americans, were appalled by Hitler and followed the news from Europe closely. One can see how, to a child, the death of her father, roughly coinciding with a terrible threat emanating from the father's country of origin, might suggest fantasies of Hitler as her father's ghost, striking back from the grave. But all of this is guesswork based on information withheld from the poem—and withheld, it seems likely, from Plath's conscious recognition also. To interpret the poem thus is not merely to use biography as a way of understanding context, but to use it as a counter-text, correcting that of the poem. Such interpretations may be useful in reconstructing biographical truth, but they will not do for reading poems.

"Daddy" always makes a powerful and simple effect when read aloud. One hears the gradual release of suppressed anger, building to the triumphant dismissal: "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through." The simplicity immediately evaporates when one begins to ask what attitude the poem encourages us to take toward its speaker. To what extent does this voice have the poet's endorsement? One finds, once the initial impact has worn off, many of the ironic disclaimers associated with dramatic monologue. By calling the poem "Daddy" rather than, say, "Father," Plath lets us know that she recognizes the outburst to follow as childish, truer to the child's fantasy of domination and abandonment than to the adult's reconstruction of the facts. The diction of the poem keeps reminding us of that childishness: "Achoo" as a verb, "gobbledy-goo," "pretty red heart." The obsessive repetition, not only of certain words but of the rhyme-sound oo, evokes the doggerel of playground chants or, more to the point, the stubborn reiterations of a temper tantrum. The poet shows her awareness that her rage is partly a tantrum by allowing the savagery to be touched with humor:

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.

 

But of course they couldn’t know "it was you," since "daddy" is a vampire only in the privacy of the speaker's fantasy. The joke turns—although one may laugh at it without quite realizing this—on the brazen ratification of private nightmare as communal good sense.

There is some warrant, then, for claiming that the speaker of "Daddy" does not have the full endorsement of the poet, who knew very well how excessive the speaker's outburst is and wrote that knowledge into the poem. On these grounds too, one might defend the poem against Irving Howe's charge that "there is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one's father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews." If we argue that the poet encloses the speaker's point of view within a more mature authorial judgment, we can claim that the disproportion is deliberate and ironic. The grotesque inflation of private suffering to the scale of the holocaust would then illustrate the workings of the unconscious, in which such distortions occur as a matter of course, and would not represent the poet's rational assessment of her condition. It was not Plath or any other confessional poet, but W. H. Auden who wrote:

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offense

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god. . . .

 

If, as Auden's lines would have it, the "psychopathic god" whom the Nazis worshipped as their Fuhrer was an externalization of typical German fantasies about typical German fathers, why should we fault Plath for looking through the other end of the telescope, finding in her own fantasies about "daddy" the stuff of which psychopathic gods are made?

Having made this defense, however, I find that the poem as a whole will not sustain it. Sometimes, as in the simpering cuteness of "bit my pretty red heart in two" or the impotently furious tautology of "the brute, brute heart / Of a brute like you," Plath seems intent on making her speaker sound foolish. But there is no mistaking the dead-serious rage that generates the poem's hypnotic reiterations. The ironic self-deflation fades in and out without warning:

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

But 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.

 

One can get dizzy trying to follow the tonal shifts of this passage. The first lines are casual: the speaker can use the pejorative "Polack," since the friend knows it's a joke. "There are a dozen or two"—the precise number is of no great concern. "The name of the town is common," after all. One would never guess, from these three lines alone, the breathless intensity that prevails elsewhere in the poem. From their perspective, the story of Otto Plath is but one of many like it—many immigrants came to America from towns like his. But with the next lines, we are back inside the speaker's haunted psyche: the location of the town becomes a dark secret withheld, another proof that "I never could talk to you." With the return of the oo rhyme, the obsessive, angry voice that began the poem returns also. The speaker's comparison of herself to a Jew hauled off "to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" is chilling, but the last two lines of the passage are again ironic, even incongruously funny.

Not only does the tone of "Daddy" veer precipitously between the luridly sinister and the self-deprecatingly clever, there are places where Plath's technical competence simply deserts her. Poems that ironically bracket the consciousness of the speaker within that of the poet must give assurances that the poet sees through the language of the speaker, and recognizes, as the speaker does not, its evasions and failures. Many lines, even whole stanzas, resist enclosure in an ironic discourse:

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—

 

"Scared of you"—this is the speech of childhood, but in earnest. "Gobbledygoo" is also the language of childhood, but it is applied to the father, not the daughter, and seems to be chosen for reasons of sound, not sense. Why is "gobbledygoo" parallel to "Luftwaffe," as if it were an equally dreaded alternative? The rhythm of the last line, moreover, is extremely awkward. The sing-songy lilt of iambs and anapests suddenly reverses accent in a line of two dactyls followed by an iamb. (I assume demoted stress on the last syllable of "panzer-man," because otherwise there is total metrical chaos.) The exclamation "O you," since it cannot raise the already feverish emotional temperature any further, appears, like "gobbledygoo," to result from carelessness. My point is not just that the stanza is badly written, although it is, but that it sounds full of conviction, rather than ironically aware of its own badness. One cannot feel that the poet sees through the speaker's obsession and presents it to the reader for judgment. My reservations about "Daddy" are similar to those expressed earlier about "Skunk Hour." Both poems memorably evoke intense and painful inward states but vacillate in their implicit interpretation of the experience they present. In both, the language fluctuates between lyrical endorsement and ironic critique of the speaker's despair. Such vacillation, of course, occurs in the experience of those who struggle against despair or madness, but if form is not to be mere imitative form, poetry about this kind of experience must clarify the motives of that vacillation rather than simply reproducing it.

From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the University of Chicago Press.