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'the Boot In The Face': The Problem Of The Holocaust In The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath.

5805 words - 23 pages

'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 a more general problem she recognizes, a conflict about the very uses of poetry itself. The problem of Plath's utilization of the Holocaust can be broadly divided into two parts: the motives behind her use of such material, and the actual appearance of it in her poetry. I will show that her motives were responsible, and that the often unsettling appearance of the Holocaust in her later poems stems from a complex of reasons concerning her divided view about the uses of poetry and the related conflict she explores between history and myth--a conflict which finds its ultimate focus in her consciousness of the importance of remembering such an event, but also of the voyeurism implicit in attempts at remembrance.Although critics such as Jacqueline Rose and Margaret Dickie Uroff have gone some way toward arguing that Plath was genuinely and consistently interested in political issues, little attention has been given to the link between such political concerns and the Holocaust. In Plath's academic life (the influence of which is neglected at cost by many critics and biographers), the Holocaust was a topic in both high school...

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