Comparing Feminist Poetry by Plath and Sexton
Poetry "should be a shock to the senses. It should also hurt" Anne Sexton believed (Baym 2703), and evidence of this maxim's implications echoes loudly through the writing of Sexton as well as through the work of her friend and contemporary Sylvia Plath.
Plath and Sexton's lifetimes spanned a period of remarkable change in the social role of women in America, and both are obviously feminist poets caught somewhere between the submissive pasts of their mothers and the liberated futures awaiting their daughters. With few established female poets to emulate, Plath and Sexton broke new ground with their intensely personal, confessional poetry. Their anger and frustration with female subjugation, as well as their agonizing personal struggles and triumphs appear undisguised in their works, but the fact that both Sexton and Plath committed suicide inevitably colors what the reader gleans from their poems. However, although their poems, such as Plath's "Daddy" and Sexton's "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman," deal with the authors' private experiences, they retain elements of universality; their language cuts through a layer of individual perspective to reach a current of raw emotion common to all human, but especially female, understanding.
In Plath's "Daddy," written just before her death and published posthumously, the most readily accessible emotion is anger, and much of the poem is couched in autobiographical allusions. Plath's own father died of a gangrenous infection, caused by diabetes he refused to treat, when Plath was eight years old, and his death was "the crucial event of her childhood" (Baym 2743). Plath makes personal references to her father as a "Ghastly statue with one grey toe"( 2748) (a mention of his illness), to her own suicide attempts with, "At twenty I tried to die and get back, back, back to you" (2749) and to her husband, with whom she separated in 1962, saying, "I made a model of you, a man in black with a Meinkampf look and a love of the rack and the screw" (2749). However, Plath uses her father's German ancestry, as well as ideas about women's relationships with their fathers and husbands, to broaden the poem's significance beyond the scope of her own experience. Plath herself said that the poem related to the Electra complex, defined by The World Book Medical Encyclopedia as a Freudian theory about a young girl's possessive but repressed love for her father ("Electra Complex" - online).
The child narrating "Daddy," in a youthful, Kipling-like rhythm, is haunted by her father's monumental presence in her world, calling him "marble-heavy, a bag full of God" (Plath 2748). Both the poem's childlike cadence and the innocent description of a father still the center of a young girl's universe make it easy to re-experience a youthful yearning for parental approval. When the father in the poem dies, the young girl spends much of her life...