Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), “Daddy” (1960)

Sylvia Plath died by suicide at the age of thirty, just as the Women’s Movement of the 1960s was beginning to pick up steam. That confluence of circumstances made Plath one of the writers on whom the Women’s Movement drew for inspiration. Her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963), published shortly before her death, has been important reading, especially for young women, for more than half a century now. Ultimately, though, Plath was probably most important as a poet whose searing poetry captured the feelings of so many young women of her generation, having grown up in an American society still steeped in patriarchy and old-fashioned gender expectations. Plath’s collected poems, published posthumously in 1981, won her a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Plath’s poetry is highly personal and grows very much out of her own experience, both in growing up and as an adult. From 1956 until their separation in 1962, Plath was married to the renowned British poet Ted Hughes, in what might be taken as an indication of the transatlantic nature of modern American and British culture. Plath suffered from depression most of her life, and there has been much speculation about the role of her troubled relationship with Hughes in the emotional difficulties that led to her suicide. Ultimately, though, what is most striking about Plath’s poetry is its ability to connect with the experiences of whole generations of young women, whose lives might have been very different than hers in their details, but who still faced some of the same systemic obstacles that continue to create gender-based inequalities in American society even well into the twenty-first century.

One of Plath’s best-known poems is “Daddy,” written in 1960. Among other things, this poem well illustrates the ability of Plath’s poem to reflect specific experiences in her own life, while at the same time addressing much broader issues and problems. In this poem in particular, Plath airs some of her grievances against her own father, the German-born biology professor Otto Plath (1885–1940), while at the same time addressing some quite general problems in patriarchal societies. In the poem, the speaker (who clearly has much in common with Plath herself) addresses her sense, growing up, of having been dominated by a distant German father, a towering figure with whom she was entirely unable to communicate—and who did not, for his own part, seem to welcome communication. Otto Plath died when Sylvia was only eight years old, and the father in the poem also dies early (when the speaker is ten), yet remains an intimidating presence in the speaker’s life. She characterizes her father through repeated references to Nazi Germany, suggesting that her father made her feel like a Jew consigned during World War II to the concentration camps at Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen. References to the Luftwaffe (the Nazi German air force), the Aryan race (the Nazi German notion of their own status as a “master race”), and Panzers (the word “Panzer” means “armor” in German and is associated with the German tanks that wrought such havoc in World War II) evoke Nazi Germany. References to swastikas and to “Meinkampf” (Mein Kampf is the title of Adolf Hitler’s ranting 1925 autobiography and manifesto) make the connection between the father and fascism even more overt.

On the other hand, the “Meinkampf” reference appears to be to another man, the speaker’s husband, suggesting that she had married a man much like her father in an attempt somehow to come to grips with his legacy. Having recognized that as a mistake, she has now “killed” both the father and the husband, those twin images of patriarchal authority. Ultimately, the speaker suggests that she has had to reject the patriarchal authoritarianism that she associates with her father in order to move forward in her life. At the same time, the conclusion of the poem also indicates the obstacles that all women have to overcome to succeed in a patriarchal society. Marking liberation from the dominating legacy of her father (and husband), the speaker turns in the final stanzas to especially colorful (even slightly humorous) imagery that envisions the demise of the father, a vampire who has now had a stake driven through his heart—but also a sort of Frankenstein figure taken down by angry villagers.

Formally, “Daddy” consists of sixteen five-line stanzas, though the lengths of the lines are irregular. The poem is filled with end words that rhyme with “you” (or the German “du”), indicating the dominance of the addressee (her father) in the speaker’s thoughts, though the final use of this rhyme in “I’m through” suggests the breaking of that dominance (unless, of course, it is taken to suggest the ultimate surrender, which is a possible reading). Note, though, that these rhyme words typically occur in the second and fifth lines of stanzas, but that this is not always the case. In addition, there are several slant rhymes, suggesting a deviation from poetic regularity that might have greatly annoyed her authoritarian father. All in all, the formal structure of the poem suggests a struggle against order and authority that has not been entirely successful.


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.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.   

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,   

Ghastly statue with one gray toe   

Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic   

Where it pours bean green over blue   

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.   

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town   

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.   

My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.   

So I never could tell where you   

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.   

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.   

And the language obscene

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.   

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna   

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck   

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.   

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.   

Every woman adores a Fascist,   

The boot in the face, the brute   

Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,   

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot   

But no less a devil for that, no not   

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.   

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,   

And they stuck me together with glue.   

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.   

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,   

The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you   

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.   

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Frank O’Hara (1926–1966), “Poem” [aka “Lana Turner Has Collapsed”] (1962)

A curator at New York’s American Museum of Modern Art, Frank O’Hara was a prominent figure in the New York art world. He was also an important member of the so-called New York School, an informal movement that began as a group of the city’s abstract expressionist painters but ultimately expanded to include a variety of poets, artists, and musicians who drew inspiration from jazz, surrealism, and contemporary avant-garde art movements in their work. O’Hara’s personal, informal, poems often read like jottings in a diary; they are often extremely funny and almost always highly entertaining, eschewing the difficulty and obscurity often associated with modern poetry.

Killed at the age of forty when he was struck by a jeep, O’Hara nevertheless produced a body of work that makes him one of the most important American poets of his generation. O’Hara often drew on popular culture in his poetry, and popular culture has, surprisingly, returned the favor. In the television series Mad Men (2007–2015) protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) runs across a man reading O’Hara’s 1957 poetry collection Meditations in an Emergency in a bar—and then later actually reads the book himself (Episode 2.1, “For Those Who Think Young,” July 27, 2008) before sending it on to someone else to read. Meanwhile, Mad Men as a whole is sprinkled with references to O’Hara’s poetry: the final episode of the third season even uses “Meditations in an Emergency” as its episode title.

One of O’Hara’s best-known and most amusing poems was supposedly written while O’Hara was on the way to a poetry reading on February 9, 1962, reading a newspaper featuring a story reporting the collapse of glamourous film star Lana Turner. O’Hara then read the freshly written poem (actually entitled “Poem,” but often referred to as “Lana Turner Has Collapsed”) at the poetry reading. The poem was subsequently published in the 1964 volume Lunch Poems.

“Poem” refigures the discovery of Turner’s collapse as having occurred when the speaker (O’Hara’s speakers generally seem roughly synonymous with O’Hara himself) was trotting along a New York street in the midst of a winter storm to meet someone (perhaps a lover), when he encountered the headline announcing the collapse. (Turner did, in fact, faint at a party the night before in honor of her forty-second birthday, though her condition was not serious and she would live for more than three decades after the incident.) Apparently a fan of Turner, the speaker is stunned by the headline, finding this intimation of the mortality of such a big star to be something of a shock. After all, she lives in sunny Southern California, where they have none of the dreadful weather he is experiencing in New York. Live should be easy there. And, while she might have a lifestyle that lends itself to excess, the speaker suggests that he parties pretty hard himself, yet has never collapsed in such a fashion. He then ends by comically calling on Turner to get up, which can be taken as a wish for her recovery.

Ultimately, of course, this poem, which seems so slight and so amusing, makes some important points about American celebrity culture and about our tendency to see celebrities as larger-than-life, even superhuman, figures, while at the same time feeling that we have a right to know intimate details about their personal lives and to think of them almost as acquaintances. Turner, incidentally, was an interesting choice, given that she had once been one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, an icon of on-screen sexuality in films such as the noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Peyton Place (1957), the latter of which won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. But she had also, back in 1958, dated mobster Johnny Stompanato, leading to an incident in which the tough-guy Stompanato had rushed onto the set of a movie Turner was filming with Sean Connery in London, only to have Connery beat up the gangster and take away his gun. Later, back in California, Stompanato came to Turner’s home, again in a rage, only to be stabbed and killed by Turner’s teenage daughter. So Turner had been one of Hollywood’s most visible figures in terms of both her professional work and her private life.

Poem [aka “Lana Turner Has Collapsed”]

Lana Turner has collapsed!

I was trotting along and suddenly

it started raining and snowing

and you said it was hailing

but hailing hits you on the head

hard so it was really snowing and

raining and I was in such a hurry

to meet you but the traffic

was acting exactly like the sky

and suddenly I see a headline

lana turner has collapsed!

there is no snow in Hollywood

there is no rain in California

I have been to lots of parties

and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed

oh Lana Turner we love you get up

Gil Scott Heron (1949–2011), “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)

Gil Scott-Heron was an African American musician and soul and jazz poet whose spoken word performances from the 1970s and 1980s were an important early influence on American hip hop culture. His poetry was often very political, growing out of the counter-cultural political movements of the 1960s, as well as the Black Arts Movement. A posthumous recipient of a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement and inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Scott-Heron seamlessly bridged the gap between music and poetry, so that much of his work can be considered as either or both.

One of Scott-Heron’s earliest recorded song/poems, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was also one of his most influential works, especially in the realm of hip hop music. In this poem, Scott-Heron takes the militant stance that real revolution is coming, not just a spectacle for television. In so doing, he both emphasizes the need for radical change (especially for African Americans) and suggests that television as a social force works to make such change difficult by entertaining and pacifying the general population. As such, Scott-Heron’s song/poem suggests that television seeks to stupefy its audience and to interfere with their ability to think critically about the problems of their society, while at the same time converting any genuine attempts at political action into entertainment spectacles. Thus, Scott-Heron’s work looks back to such crucial works as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1947), as well as then-recent manifesto Society of the Spectacle (1967), by the French Marxist thinker Guy Debord. The song/poem also looks forward to a great deal of later work on television and popular culture, such as Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). “

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” refers to numerous people and phenomena from the political and cultural world of the late 1960s, such as John Mitchell (1913–1988), the Attorney General of the United States, who would ultimately lose his job (in 1974) and become a convicted felon as a result of his participation in the Watergate Scandal. Other political figures who might be less well-remembered are also mentioned, such as civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins (1901–1981), leader of the NAACP, and Whitney Young (1921–1971), known for radicalizing the National Urban League. Scott-Heron could not have known, of course, about Mitchell’s upcoming imprisonment or Young’s impending death (by drowning), though those events add poignancy to the poem. Similarly, the mention of General Creighton Abrams, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, could not have been made with a realization that Abrams would ultimately come to be recognized as one of the principal architects of America’s greatest military defeat. Finally, the poem also mentions actors Natalie Wood (1938–1981) and Steve McQueen (1930–1980), top Hollywood stars who would also meet with untimely deaths, so that Scott-Heron’s choice of iconic figures tends inadvertently to add an extra layer of meaning that suggests the fleeting nature of American fame.

At the same time, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a work of art, not just a political tract, and Scott-Heron’s performance of the poem adds a great deal to the effectiveness of its message, suggesting that poetry can deliver social and political critique in ways that academic essays cannot. His performance of this song/poem can be found here:

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you
By Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle
And leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams, and Spiro Agnew
To eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary
The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre
And will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because
The revolution will not be televised, brother

There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mae
Pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
Or trying to slide that color TV into a stolen ambulance
NBC will not be able predict the winner
At 8:32 on report from twenty-nine districts
The revolution will not be televised

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young
Being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still lifes of Roy Wilkins
Strolling through Watts in a red, black, and green liberation jumpsuit
That he has been saving for just the proper occasion

“Green Acres”, “Beverly Hillbillies”, and “Hooterville Junction”
Will no longer be so damn relevant
And women will not care if Dick finally got down with Jane
On “Search for Tomorrow”
Because black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day
The revolution will not be televised

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news
And no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists
And Jackie Onassis blowing her nose
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Keys
Nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash
Engelbert Humperdinck, or The Rare Earth
The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be right back
After a message about a white tornado
White lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom
The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live