Fathers and Father Figures in Women’s Confessional Poetry
In his preface to Lyrical Ballads,William Wordsworth describes good poetry as being “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (6). The style of confessional poetry seems especially fitting to this description; to think that confessional poets merely transcribe powerful emotions onto paper is, however, a misconception. This paper attempts to examine the field and themes of confessional poetry, focusing on the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds. A common theme in the works of these women appears to be the subject of (incestuous) fathers and father figures; by analyzing their works relevant to this study and placing them in the context of previous research this paper seeks to explore and explain this motif from an angle of social oppression.
Confessional poetry, a writing style that emerged in the United States in the late 1950´s, can be described as “the poetry of the personal or ‘I’”; it deals with highly personal subject matter that would ordinarily be kept out of the public domain. Themes like depression, suicide, mental trauma and abuse, which weren’t traditionally openly featured in poetry before, are discussed from an angle of private experience and emotion. As well as dealing with taboo or shocking subject matter, confessional poetry reduces the literary distance between the author and the narrator of the poem; as the term confessional suggests, the poems seem to be a direct translation of the author’s feelings and experiences on to paper. However, it should not be assumed that confessional poems are simply the poet’s confession of his personal problems and complications; according to Zane, the poems should be seen “as a means of defamiliarizing the reader and the reader’s conventional assumptions about the domestic” (261). It is questionable whether confessional poetry can be called (partly) autobiographical; Uroff claims the narrator of Robert Lowell’s confessional poetry is not a literal but a “literary self” (105), which nonetheless mimics Lowell’s own person to a significant degree. Zane adds: “Much of Plath’s work is autobiographical, but that does not necessarily mean that she is the speaker of each poem, and that the feelings and events are true to her own life” (260). Khalifel argues for a broader view of the influence of the life story of the poet on the works; he claims experiences not only influence the narrative, but create “an aesthetic identity in the poems, which are rooted in real life” (iii). The confessional poets were not merely transcribing their emotions; craft, form and construction are highly important. “Poetic form serves as a vehicle for previously tabooed content rather than . . . an organic extension of content” (Parini 52).
Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are two major names associated with confessional poetry. Both were students of Robert Lowell, for whom the term confessional poetry has been coined (Uroff 104), and admitted their writing was influenced by his works (Poets.org). Controversial, private topics are addressed in their works; Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” and Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death” openly discuss suicide, Plath’s “Daddy” and Sexton’s “Daddy Warbucks” both use Nazi imagery whilst dealing with father figures. Sharon Olds is a contemporary poet and has denied the confessional label in several interviews. She disagrees with the definition of the term, explaining: “I believe that a confession is a telling, publicly or privately, of a wrong that one has done, which one regrets. And the confession is a way of trying to get to the other side and change one’s nature . . . I would use the phrase apparently personal poetry for the kind of poetry that I think people are referring to as “confessional.” Apparently personal because how do we really know? We don’t” (Blossom 31). Apart from challenging the name, then, Olds does not deny the concept that underlies it; her apparently personal poetry deals with taboo subjects—her poem “The Victims”, for example, discusses divorce and scorn for a father—and reduces the literary distance between narrator and author, suggesting that, whether she agrees with the choice of words of not, Olds can be read as a confessional poet.
Since the poetry of all three of these women is—at least partially—confessional, their poetry is bound to deal with similar topics in the broad sense. Remarkable is the fact that Plath, Sexton and Olds all wrote poems about fathers or father figures, as well as ascribing incestuous tendencies to these characters. Swiontkowski argues the “incestuous Daddy figure” in the poetry of these women “is not identical to the biological fathers of these four women. This Daddy is a shared archetype, a symbolic embodiment of one form of communal experience” (iii). This poetic figure symbolises far greater (social) experiences precisely because he does not represent an objective historical account but is created out of a subjective, emotional subconscience.
In one of Plath’s most famous poems, “Daddy”, she uses Nazi imagery and terms to describe her experiences and relationship with her deceased father, as well as her husband, who takes on the role of a father figure. She paints a harsh picture by comparing her ‘Daddy’ with a “black shoe/In which I have lived like a foot”, suggesting he has constrained her, “Barely daring to breathe or Achoo”. Several critics have implied the foot should be seen as a phallic symbol which suggests her incestuous desire. The fear of her father extends beyond his character: “I thought every German was you./And the language obscene/An engine, an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew”. This extending of characteristics becomes more significant in the tenth and thirteenth stanza, where the focus shifts from ‘Daddy’ to a new abusive father figure: “Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you/. . . 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”. Marrying a man she compares to her father has a strong connection to Freud’s Oedipus complex, again implying an incestuous tone. The tone of this poem is increasingly dark and full of anger; interestingly, before composing “Daddy”, Plath wrote another poem seemingly addressed to her father, which describes her loss in a different tone. “The Colossus” projects the father as an enormous statue, which has fallen to ruin; the poem opens with the line “I shall never get you put together entirely”, conveying her hopelessness at reconstructing (the memory of) him. The statue cannot speak comprehensively: “Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles/Proceed from your great lips.”. Even thirty years have not been enough “To dredge the silt from your throat.” By projecting the image of her father on such a humongous structure, she seems to acknowledge his power and the place he still holds in her mind; however, she struggles to piece together the memory of him and stresses his incapability to add anything to her life by muting him. The shift in tone between these two poems is explained by Khalifeh by claiming that “Plath‘s literary relationship with her father changed after her husband‘s betrayal. Following this crucial event, Plath started to attack the father instead of being submissive to him” (276).
Anne Sexton’s “’Daddy’ Warbucks” seems to address a father figure, in the fashion of a rich sugar daddy who has fought in the war. Annie, the narrator of the poem, is orphaned, filling the empty space of the father with a ‘Daddy’, of which she “knew your money/would save me”. Sexton uses words with sexual connotations to talk about his money: “because you’ve got the bucks, the bucks, the bucks./You let me touch them, fondle the green faces/lick at their numbers and it lets you be/my ‘Daddy! ‘ ‘Daddy! ‘”. The seemingly incestuous tone continues more explicitly in the second stanza, where Sexton writes “And all the men out there were never to come./Never, like a deluge, to swim over my breasts/and lay their lamps in my insides./No. No./Just me and my ‘Daddy’/and his tempestuous bucks”. Like Plath, Sexton uses a Nazi reference: “I died,/swallowing the Nazi-Jap animal”. The narrator does not judge her ‘Daddy’, but seems entirely compliant with their relationship. In “How We Danced”, Sexton suggests incest in her description of dancing with her father. The dance starts innocently, “and we danced, Father, we orbited./We moved like angels washing themselves.”, but near the end of the poem this image is corrupted: “You danced with me never saying a word./Instead the serpent spoke as you held me close./The serpent, that mocker, woke up and pressed against me”. The serpent here is a clear phallic symbol; her father’s erection turns the dance from an expression of an endearing moment between father and daughter to a shocking snapshot of incestuous tendencies.
Sharon Olds’ tone towards her father seems relatively uncorrupted at the start of “Looking at My Father”. His character is judged, but apparently all this does not matter for the narrator, who enjoys looking at her father: “I do not think I am deceived about him,/I know about the drinking, I know he’s a tease,/obsessive, rigid, selfish, sentimental,/but I could look at my father all day/and not get enough”. The poem goes on to describe in detail the features of her father’s face. At the end of the poem, however, the incest motif surfaces: “I know he is not perfect but my/body thinks his body is perfect”, followed by “What I know I know, what my/body knows it knows, it likes to/slip the leash of my mind and go and/look at him, like an animal/looking at water, then going to it and/drinking until it has had its fill and can/lie down and sleep.”. The narrator does not condemn her father, but rather seems to consent willingly. In “Late Poem to My Father”, Sexton mediates between the alcoholic father to whom she says “even at 30 and 40 you set the/oily medicine to your lips/every night, the poison to help you/drop down unconscious” and his former self, a boy of seven: “helpless, smart, there were things the man/did near you, and he was your father,/the mould by which you were made”, suggesting a sense of understanding if not forgiveness for what he’s become. Whenever she thinks of what her father as an adult did to her and her family, she remembers “that/child being formed in front of the fire”, whom Sexton suggests has been hurt: the bones of his soul broken, “the small/tendons that hold the heart in place/snapped”. The poem ends with the lines “When I love you now,/I like to think I am giving my love/Directly to that boy in the fiery room,/As if it could reach him in time.”. The title of this poem suggests the forgiveness has come too late.
As the passages above illustrate, the ways in which Plath, Sexton and Olds write about fathers and father figures share certain characteristics, such as the use of the incest motif and in some cases an aggressive, dark tone. Poems such as Olds’ “Looking at My Father” and Sexton’s “‘Daddy’ Warbucks” show a submissive or compliant narrator, whereas Plath’s “Daddy” and Olds’ “How We Danced” seem to condemn the father and his actions. A forgiving tone can be read in Olds’ “Late Poem to My Father”. According to Swiontowsky, all three women relate incest to “social responsibility[,] . . . social power and often to affluence”(14). In “‘Daddy’ Warbucks”, the father figure ensures Annie’s compliance through his wealth, in “Daddy” the father is compared to a Nazi and his daughter is depicted as a Jew. “In both cases, male authorities benefit socially and psychologically from conflict and from victimizing others, and women benefit secondarily only to the extent that they comply with the male authorities, their social Daddies” (Swiontowsky 14). This sense of (forced) submission to a Daddy can be interpreted as an umbrella metaphor for women’s lives in a patriarchal society; incest becomes a symbol for the daily, lifelong repression by male authoritative figures. In this sense, Plath’s “Daddy” can be seen as a break from oppression, especially when considering her mentioning killing this father figure, and the content of the last line: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”. In all poems thus far mentioned, the Daddy exerts control over the speaker of the poem in one way or another; physically and/or mentally, the narrators are at Daddy’s mercy. The use of an incestuous father figure to demonstrate, discuss and even oppose social oppression of women is a device used by Plath, Sexton and Olds in these confessional poems; this controversial, arguably shocking way of addressing and emphasizing personal experiences and issues seems typical for confessional poetry, and these three women demonstrate that the style goes far beyond recording personal experiences and emotions.
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