Written by Alyssa Jingling
“I’m surprised you’re not analyzing Daddy,” my poetry professor, Dr. D’Arcy Randall, said as we discussed my Sylvia Plath research project. “So much of your poetry is based around your family struggles.”
It was more than halfway through the semester, yet this moment was the first time I realized that she was right-—I use my poetry as a way to examine my relationship with my family and the rest of the world. Through poetry, I am able to examine my identity as I understand it, and how others view it: How does my family see me? My friends? How do I see myself in society?
Before researching Plath, I did not notice familial themes in my own writing. However, upon reading some of Plath’s work and about her life, I began making connections between her relationships, her poetry, and her mental health. Sylvia Plath is touted as a great feminist writer who examined womanhood in society—and she is—but her poetry holds so much more than just that. Plath wrote raw and honest poetry about how she was viewed because of her mental illness and the people in her life, like her father and her husband. Poetry helps me process my current emotional state, but that never truly helped me grow mentally until I learned that Plath did the same. With the guidance of my incredible professor, I began to see those similar connections in my own work.
It’s so much easier to understand someone else before understanding yourself. Isn’t it funny how we know more about the moon than our own oceans?
I know my poetry is nowhere near Plath’s level of beauty and sophistication; it really isn’t even similar in style. Plath had an incredible grasp of meter that helps pace her poetry and give it a lyrical quality when read aloud. My poetry is less refined and subtle in its emotionally-evocative language, and more primitive in its use of poetic devices. However, despite differences in quality and even style, I think I understand Plath and her relationship with her father better because of my own poetry. Better yet, I have a decent grasp on my own relationship issues because of my poetry. It’s so much easier to understand someone else before understanding yourself. Isn’t it funny how we know more about the moon than our own oceans?
Poets writing confessional poetry focus on the “I” in their work, allowing the poet to be the speaker in the poem. This focus allows poets to directly acknowledge the emotions they were feeling that were so powerful it compelled them to write poetry about it, to be the one enduring the troubled life detailed in the poem. I believe confessional self poetry may have given Plath a sense of control over her life, a desire I completely understand. When life feels out of control, the sufferer grasps for anything over which they can have power—unfortunately for Plath, she wanted to control her own death. In “Lady Lazarus” from her posthumous collection Ariel, the speaker struggles to control her own death, while “Herr Doktor” keeps reviving her. This German character can easily be connected to the (unfortunately antisemitic) description of her father in “Daddy.” I, too, write about my father in my poetry, though I utilize childhood flashbacks to describe him—a stark difference in content, a similar method of framework.
A handful of the poems I wrote in my poetry class mention my father. In fact, the first poem I wrote was about a place my family used to visit frequently: Lake Okeechobee. Although I did not mention my father explicitly and did not connect the content with him at the time, the memories I invoked when writing—and now reading—that piece all feature him as the main character. He began to be mentioned more explicitly as the semester progressed. Today, my poetry still maps out my memories that feature my father. Even when I don’t mention him, he’s there between the lines, blowing bubbles through his snorkel hose, or squinting at the sky, trying to identify the plane about the land on the runway before us. Not a day goes by where I don’t miss the relationship I used to have with my father. Even writing this now, I can feel the familiar weight of that particular strain of depression sink into my rib cage, dripping into my stomach like oil. The poetry helps to staunch it.
I’ve come to learn and to trust that when I choose a seemingly random topic to write about, it usually contains a subconscious meaning. This understanding helps me to acknowledge the connection between the topics I write about and my mental health. Unlike a journaling brain-dump, poetry provides structure, and it forces me to think about the words I’m putting onto the page. Of course, I still have to reread the piece in order to find out exactly how I felt when writing it, but there’s far less digging than I would have to do through a stream-of-consciousness-type chunk of text. And, if the poet wants, other readers can benefit by reading the work and vicariously feel the emotion evoked through the poet’s words. Poetry is a way to take ugly, heart-wrenching, or even harshly mundane feelings and turn them into something beautifully cathartic. It has helped me process my self and my relationships in a way that helped me grow, and this I owe to Plath.
Photo by Judie Snow Denison, 1954