'The Boot in the Face': The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath
In the following essay, I examine Plath's references to the Holocaust in light of her preoccupation with personal history and myth, female victimization, and the specter of nuclear war. I will conclude that Plath does not simply reduce the atrocity of the Holocaust to metaphor, but draws attention to the ambiguous and potentially dangerous interrelationship between "myth, history, and poetry in the post-Holocaust world."
Sylvia Plath's poetry is generally judged on the contents of the posthumously published Ariel (1965), and often on a minority of poems within that volume, such as "Daddy" (1962) and "Lady Lazarus" (1962), which are most striking because of their inclusion of references to the Holocaust. Plath's whole oeuvre is frequently and superficially viewed as somehow "tainted" by the perceived egoism of her deployment of the Holocaust in these poems.
Such straightforward condemnation, however, disguises the difficulties surrounding any judgment of Plath's treatment of this material--difficulties which are clearly exhibited by the respected critic George Steiner, who in 1965 applauded "Daddy" as "The 'Guernica' of modern poetry," yet later, in 1969, declared that the extreme nature of Plath's late poems left him "uneasy": "Does any writer, does any human being other than an actual survivor, have the right to put on this death-rig?" It is important to study both why and how the Holocaust appears in Plath's poetry, because our reaction to it as readers and the strategies Plath uses to approach it are tied to a wider problem relating to the place of the Holocaust in our culture. If we understand this, it is possible to place the disturbing appearance of the Holocaust in Plath's poems in its proper context, and to see this effect as symptomatic of...