Two poems penned by two powerful female voices who have made immense contributions in the literary world make very interesting and insightful study. Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” are two remarkable poems that have striking similarities and differences. In terms of type of poetry, “Daddy” is a lyrical poem that expresses without inhibition the sentiments of a daughter – Sylvia Plath – for a father whom she depicts in a tyrannical, almost violent and brutal sort of way. Plath expresses in the 10th stanza, for instance, “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” (Perkins and Perkins 1666). Plath clearly expresses her angsts here about one of the pivotal men in her life, a detached father with an “imperious and remote personality (and) gave his children personal attention for only thirty minutes each day” (Axelrod, par. 3). The poet also refers to another person, her husband Ted Hughes, who became part of her personal world and became a father figure, but who robbed her of her spirit, and she compared him to a vampire in the 15th stanza of her poem: “The vampire who said he was you / and drank my blood for a year” (Perkins & Perkins 1667). Here, Sylvia Plath clearly referred to her husband, with whom she had a falling out. Sylvia Plath likewise expresses a sense of relief in upon reaching the actualization of her desire to be free from the stifling conditions in her life, as represented in a major way by her father, through the last line in her poem: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Perkins and Perkins 1667), and ends up expressing her rejection of institutions like the family and society.
On the other hand, “Diving Into the Wreck” is more of a narrative poem that relates, in spatial order, an underwater journey leading to “the wreck,” which is a metaphor for the plight of women in age-old patriarchal society. As Adrienne Rich phrases it in rich figurative language:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail (Perkins & Perkins 1654)
While “Diving Into the Wreck” does show the structure of a narrative poem, it is also lyrical in that it expresses the author’s innermost sentiments. Adrienne Rich laments, for example, as she plumbs the depth of the sea to find her way to the wreck, “there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin” (Perkins & Perkins 1653), reflecting in a subtle manner a feminist dilemma. Adrienne Rich bears some similarity to Sylvia Plath’s acknowledgment of both her weakness and fortitude in the face of adversity or external forces weighing down on her, and mirrors how a woman can uphold her individuality and strength in the fourth stanza of her poem:
I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
It can be gleaned from the stanza above that Adrienne Rich was exploring the dominant theme of “women’s role in society” ( “Groundbreaking Book,” par. 2) or her struggle to asset herself, which finds common ground in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Sylvia Plath likewise asserts her individuality and seems to be expressing either of two things – regaining her freedom or giving up, when she repeats through words intended for her father that she is through. Through her poetry, Plath mirrored her suppressed state with the use of imagery and literary devices. Right from the start and throughout her poem, she delivers a powerful statement using several figures of speech, as follows:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Plath employs a simile and compares her cloistered, subdued self to a foot in a shoe, and uses the color black to depict a gloomy condition. The poet also utilizes the emphatic repetition of words to drive home her message of a female struggling to free herself of oppressive forces and to regain her individuality and freedom. In the seventh stanza, for example, Plath repeats the phrase “like a Jew” (Perkins & Perkins 1666). In the 10th stanza, repeats the word brute to emphasize how she feels about her father: “The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” (Perkins & Perkins 1666). Plath likewise uses personification in referring to nature and inanimate objects and voices.
As both “Diving Into the Wreck” and “Daddy” progress, the reader will also sense some anger, bitterness and disappointment emanating from the female speakers at the situation foisted on them by an imperfect male-subjugated society. Besides assonance, also enriching both poems are metaphors, allusions, vivid imagery and other literary devices. The figures of speech help underscore some common themes — notably women’s plight and sense of desperation in striving to rise above the vicissitudes of life per se and the societal challenges heaped on them. Both poems likewise make continuous references to a villain by way of metaphors and similes. The “villain” in “Diving Into the Wreck” is “a patriarchal culture that inherently devalues anything female or feminine” (Pettit, par. 11). On the other hand, “Daddy” makes constant figurative references to the perceived “villain” – Plath’s father. The authoritarian father is likened by his daughter, who “may well be a Jew” (Perkins & Perkins 1666) to a tyrannical ruler. Allusion as well as the metaphor of the Holocaust to depict an oppressive state are continually utilized to lend impact to the key messages. “In such poems, readers are meant to feel uncomfortable with the suprapersonal, mythical depiction of Jewish suffering, feeling somehow implicated (because of their traditional identification with the lyric persona) in the voyeurism such an assimilation of the Holocaust implies” (Strangeways, concluding parag.).
In terms of the use of words in each poem, both “Daddy” and “Diving Into the Wreck use informal or conversational language. There are many allusions, though, in both poems, lending a more formal tone. Using the first person point of view, the author of “Diving Into the Wreck” refers to and compares herself to French underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. After describing in vivid details her underwater journey, Adrienne Rich reaches main object of her exploration, and depicts a wrecked womanhood and/or culture itself, in the controversial stanza:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty (Perkins & Perkins 1654).
Adrienne Rich makes use of informal words in the most imaginative sense to articulate her key message. It will be noted that the Adrienne Rich’s poetic career and transformation plays a significant role in her later poems, of which “Diving Into the Wreck” belonged. This poem put much emphasis on socio-cultural realities from a feminist perspective. “In it she expresses her anger regarding women’s position in Western culture more directly and alludes to problematic dualities or images of Otherness” (Pettit, par. 10). As a poet, Adrienne Rich underscores the importance of words and utilizes them to the hilt to clearly convey that she is searching for something and, having found it, laments at how society’s limited view or concern has actually contributed to the wrecked culture or humanity. She describes the wreck as well as the people witnessing it, for example, as “half-wedged and left to rot / we are the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course / the water-eaten log / the fouled compass… We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera / a book of myths in which our names do not appear” (Perkins & Perkins 1655). Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” likewise uses the first person point of view but reverts to the second person point of view in addressing the object of her angsts – her father. She expresses a mocking adulation as well as disdain for her father by likening him to many personages or things – God, a despotic ruler, a and even the devil. Plath masterfully uses words and symbolisms to depict – in a manner which educated readers can easily understand – her brooding thoughts, negative feelings, and dissatisfaction with numerous circumstances and key people in her life. Readers obtain a vision of Sylvia Plath’s father, and the fear or trepidation he evoked in her, when she says in the ninth stanza: “I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygook. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue” (Perkins & Perkins 1666). Overall, the words are very crucial in conveying the underlying meanings in both poems.
In terms of poetic rhythm and structure, “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath follows a nursery rhyme-like structure and singsong rhythmic pattern, making it seem like a piece being recited by an angry and disappointed child. From a more meticulous standpoint:
The strong, simple rhythm, the full rhymes and subtle half-rhymes, the repetitive, incantatory vowel-sounds sweep the poem along in a jaunty approximation to a ballad… When Sylvia Plath described this poem as `a piece of light verse’ she was focusing attention on the flippant, choppy, conversational swing of the poem… (“On Daddy”).
Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” reads like a diary or journal and the rhythm, which builds up to a climax, relates well to the dominant theme of the poem. On the other hand, “Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich is more of a free verse; it doe not have regular rhythm. It deviates from traditional from traditional poetic form and adopts pure narrative style. There is structure, though. “Diving Into the Wreck” opens using iambic pentameter, which is commonly utilized in classic poetry or drama, and English verse. The entire poem, which consists of 10 stanzas, have nearly the same length, reaching eight or up to 12 lines. The shift or transition from one idea or perspective to another is indicated by the beginning of a new stanza. The rhythm plays an important role in poetry because it “helps to convey a poem’s mood and, in combination with other poetic elements, conveys the poet’s emphasis and communicates the poem’s meaning” (Kirszner and Mandell 743). This is very well achieved in the two oeuvres “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath and “Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich.
On the whole, the two literary pieces by the celebrated poets provide a sublime experience for generations of readers who are able to identify with the issues and meanings so powerfully conveyed through language, style and other literary techniques.
Axelrod, Steven. “Sylvia Plath”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 17 September 2003. 21 April
Groundbreaking Book: Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich (1973). 20 April 2009. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/pprmMID/5975>.
Kirszner, Laurie, and Stephen Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 2nd ed. Florida: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1994.
On Daddy.(n.d.). 24 April 2009. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/plath/daddy.htm>.
Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. The American Tradition in Literature. 10th ed..
New York: McGraw Hill, 2002.
Pettit, Rhonda. “Biography of Adrienne Rich.” Online Posting. 2001. 21 April 2009. <http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/adrienne_rich>.
Strangeways, Al. ‘The Boot in the Face’: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath. 1999. 21 April 2009. <http://www.sylviaplath.de/plath/strangeways.html>.