Revisiting the Holocaust Metaphors of Sylvia Plath
Mar 07, 2019
By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Leila Einhorn
Like many female-identifying poets, I grew up with what can only be called a kind of worship for Sylvia Plath. Discovering Plath’s poetry among the overwhelmingly male voices of the American literary canon was like finding my way home. I was a teenage girl, aware of my growing frustration with the world that I’d inherited, yet with no vocabulary to articulate these feelings. That would come later, with college and gender studies classes and years of activism. For now, I had Plath, a writer who spoke with candor about issues like the patriarchy and mental illness, issues that I had long been too ashamed to think about or had been told weren’t “real.”
Today, Plath continues to fascinate the literary imagination not only for her creative work but also the tortured life that inspired it. Most recently, a new volume of the writer’s correspondence has revealed the extent of the physical and emotional abuse she suffered under the hands of her husband, the venerated poet Ted Hughes. While it’s clear that Plath’s influence within modern American literature is not going anywhere soon, a recent conversation with a friend has me questioning not just the tenor of that legacy but also my own relationship to this literary icon.
A fellow MFA candidate teaching a class on modern female writers described to me the indignation with which many of her undergraduate students approached Plath’s work. Most of the complaints were aimed toward Plath’s use of Holocaust metaphors, most notably in her famed poems “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus.” Who was this non-Jewish writer, they asked, comparing her private suffering to the near-annihilation of an entire race of people? Who was she to describe her cold, unfeeling father as a Nazi? To make matters worse, this was the 1950s, when details of the Final Solution were only just being brought to light.
I’m Jewish and I studied English and creative writing at a predominantly Jewish, albeit secular, college. Keep in mind that this was a decade ago and that, needless to say, I cannot speak to the experience of all Jews. There were more than a few times that Plath came up in class, but it was never in relation to her questionable Holocaust metaphors. If I had to characterize the attitude towards Plath among my peers, it was that, sure, The Bell Jar had its fair share of racism, like most fiction written by white people in the 1950s, and, sure, metaphors like skin as “bright as a Nazi lampshade” were uncomfortable, to say the least, but we were there to study literature, not the morality of the person behind it.
I’m not going to suggest an approach that we as readers/writers/ethical human beings “should” or “shouldn’t” take when it comes to adoring a writer’s work despite their problematic politics. The truth is that there is no one way to approach these things, and emotional responses to art are often just as valid as so-called logical ones. Instead, I want to consider what this generational shift in attention might indicate. It’s great that students want to align themselves with marginalized groups, but to say that Holocaust metaphors are automatically off-limits is, in my opinion, counterproductive. It suggests that the Holocaust is inherently incomparable to other systems of extreme cruelty. As a proponent of intersectionality, I see power in letting the Holocaust stand for supremacist thinking beyond a particular time or place. And as I’ve learned from other Jewish poets, such as Adrienne Rich and survivor Irena Klepfisz, there is strength in solidarity.
That being said, I do think it takes a gross amount of hubris to think that your personal agony is somehow commensurate with the genocide of millions of people. Yet, as someone who’s suffered from severe depression myself, I have no doubt that there were days of Plath’s life that were absolute hell. The question, then, isn’t whether or not Plath suffered or whether her suffering was “worse” than a Holocaust victim’s suffering, but whether it’s okay to analogize other people’s experiences at all. The problem is that as poets we’re always setting ourselves up with an impossible task: to capture with language that for which there are no words. So we turn to the tools we know because, to quote Marjorie Garber in J. M. Coetzee’s book The Lives of Animals, “What has poetry to offer, what has language to offer, by way of solace, except analogy, except the art of language?”
That doesn’t meant that, as a reader for Colorado Review, I want to see persona poems about Auschwitz. Once, the literary establishment may have condoned this kind of appropriation, but today it’s time to give a platform to voices relegated to metaphor for too long. I believe that the best fodder for poetry is always one’s own experience. Luckily, if I’ve learned anything in my MFA program so far it’s that each of us, indeed, contains multitudes.