Black Phones : Postmodern Poetics in the Holocaust Poetry of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath s Holocaust poetry and the frequently impassioned critical responses to it illustrate why Sue Vice characterises Holocaust fictions as scandalous , in the sen se that they invariably provoke controversy by inspiring repulsion and acclaim in equal measure - the only qualification being that this critical divide was not split pa rticularly evenly when Plath s best-known Holocaust writing was first published in the mid-19 60s.1 In fact, it took the scales of critical opinion several decades to reach any kin d of equilibrium, with the repulsed response tending to prevail for the quarter century following its initial publication, but with the critical temper noticeably softe ning in the 1990s: a shift in critical attitudes that reflects the way that notoriously scan dalous texts (here one might include some of Plath s favourites, such as Ulysses and Lady Chatterley s Lover) often end up normalising once controversial subject matter.2 The early infamy of poems such as Lady Lazarus and Daddy derived for the most part from what a generation of critics and cultural commentators regarded a s their representative transgressions transgressions which were perceived to violate or distort the legitimate memory of the Holocaust and from the received idea that Plath s wor k was somehow confessional in character. Writing to the editor of Commentary in 1974 , Irving Howe asked:

Plath was widely accused of indulgi ng in a form of emotional plagiarism that revealed much about her own pathology. But it is decidedly unlikely that it was duplicated in a middle-class family living in Wellesley. Seamus Heaney. among other things. noted as late as 1986 that a poem like Daddy [ ]. even if it had a very bad daddy indeed. while also devaluing her skill as a writer. however its violence and vindictiveness can be understood or excused in light of the poet s parental and marital relations.to continue the Eliotoan thread of Heaney s thought between the personal miseries of a girl from Massachusetts and the most dreadful event in the history of mankind .that Plath s speakers are representations of herself designed to win her the kind of sympathy one might feel for a Holocaust victim has since been challenged by a more theoretically-driven generation of Plath critici sm which has argued that straightforward biographical readings tend to iron out the compl exity of Plath s representation of. remains.3 Even a fellow poet. As a result.the most dreadful event in the history of mankind. Massachusetts. so entangled in biog raphical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people s sorrow s that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy .4 For these critics. psychology. This basic presupposition .Is it possible that the condition of the Jews in the camps can be duplicated? Yes . nevertheless.or relative magnitude when placed against . but ver y little about the condition of those who actually lived in the camps. there was an absence of any objective correlative . history and femininity. Such critics argue that the narratives of important . To condone such a confusion is to delude ourselves as to the nature of our personal miseries and their relationship to .

I do it so it feels real. Like the hero of Kafka s story A Fasting-artist (on which. for Lady Lazarus. there is nothing particularly real about the speaker of Lady Lazarus : a suicidal strip artist who performs a kind of Holocaust-themed cabaret. Her suicide-show is thus a slightl y tricksy activity. the poem s narrator prides herself on a self-destructive theatrical act which she believes she has elevated to an art form:6 Dying Is an art. like everything else. to borrow a refrain from the poem itself. and hyperbole in Daddy are so blatant that only a very determined misreading could identify the speaker with the biographical Sylvia Plath . I do it so it feels like hell.dramatic monologues such as Daddy and Lady Lazarus are sufficiently eccentric to problematise the assumption that the speakers are thinly disguised representatio ns of Plath herself. As Christina Britzolakis notes.5 Similarly. I guess you could say I ve a call. and when claiming that it feels like hell and that it feels real (my empha sis) . parody . as Judith Kroll observes. dying is an art . I do it exceptionally well. 7 If. then it is at once a cultured form of expre ssion and also a task that requires a particular knack. Lady Lazarus seems to have been loosely based). the elements of caricature.

and a war ning against.she is implicitly conceding that in reality it is neither of these things. Lady Lazarus seems to b e saying something similar about itself and its dramatic monologue form. and to the way that it not only represents. My right foot . she conveys a clear sense of the distinction bet ween art and reality.but also in term s of what Robert Eaglestone calls its central and consistent commitment to ethics and its rigorous. poetry after Auschwitz. In a self reflexive gesture typical of Plath s best Holocaust writing. as is also the case when the narrator of Daddy states that she may well be a Jew (CP. Lady Lazarus is brazen in her exploitation of the tropes and ico nography associated with the Holocaust. but in creating this speaker. drawing a ttention to its constructedness. but also per forms its subject matter. in particular by highlighting the threat posed to memory by the incipient Holocaust industry of the early 1960s. rational side . p. with postmodernism here understood not only in terms of its tende ncy towards pastiche and irony both of which abound in Plath s work . the poet does not e xhibit her own weird extroversion. and with it the sort of self-awareness and accompanying concern wit h artistic exploitation and representative ethics that were to become defining features of postmodernism.8 The poem operates knowingly as an example of. Rather. 223). Lady Lazarus s particular performance involves her draping herself in the material remnants of the murdered European Jews: [ ] my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade.

pp. Susan Gubar and others have noted the ironic echo of Coleridge s Kubla Khan : Beware! Beware!/ His flashing eyes. Lady Lazarus concludes with an allusive stanza in which the speaker s acquisitiveness extends not only to other peoples sorrows . whilst also detecting allusions to The Waste Land (SPTM. but also to the way that she expresses them: Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air. suggesting that she and h er audience ( the peanut-crunching crowd ) each profit from a performance that is figur ed as a tawdry kind of entertainment that borders on prostitution. p.and presumably also the sexual charge generated by it .is mentioned four times. the charge for her show . indicating that her performance is both an art form for which she has a call and a commercial enterprise.A paperweight. 154-55). fine Jew linen. her theatrical// C omeback in broad day suggests both her return from the dead and also the revival of her c areer. Alfred Prufrock (SPTM. unifying the language of art and that of show business.9 Given that Britzolakis se es Lady Lazarus as a parody of The Love Song of J. My face a featureless. Indeed. Later. his floating hair! . 152). it is unsu rprising .

in Lady Lazarus .that these final lines reference another of Plath s favourite works by Eliot: Four Quartets. in which the golden hair of Margarete . The stanza also seems to allude to Paul Celan s Todesfuge . as in Eliot s. who is named after the princess in The Song of Songs who traditionally symbolises the tribe of Israel. .concludes with a tercet which might also have left its imprint on Plath s final stanza: O you chimneys.namesake of Goethe s apotheosised representative of the eternal feminine in Faust . the death of air comes about when the dialectical framewo rk of a Christian moral universe collapses.contrasts with the ashen hair of Shulamith./ This is the death of air. this is sketched in thre e short breathless lines. O you fingers And Israel s body as smoke through the air!12 These references add a specifically Holocaust-related dimension to Britzolakis s perception that Lady Lazarus is an allegorical figure constructed from past and p resent images of femininity [ ] She is a pastiche of the numerous deathly or demonic wome n of poetic tradition (SPTM. p. This time the allusion is to the first stanza of the second part of Little Giddin g .11 Nelly Sachs s O the Chimneys a poem which considers the impact of the death camps on traditional forms of religious belief . 10 In Plath s poem. 154). which ends with the couplet: The death of hope and despair.

of distortion. of perverse. and could be . repetition. the poem challenges Bloom s positive assessment of the development of poetic tradition through misreading (especially when applied to testimony) by way of its speaker s cynical belief that art is simply a form of prostitution .14 Lady Lazarus makes a perverse. the aggressive feminist position that Lady Lazarus assumes in th e final stanzas is not a total distortion of the concerns of Holocaust verse.a way of making money . is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature.and by the fatuousness of her apparent turn in attention away from the Jewish victims o f the Holocaust (the subject of the poems she misinterprets ) and towards the many men wh o have wronged her. In some senses. The history of fruitful poetic influence. wilful revisioni sm without which modern poetry as such could not exist. graphically displaying what is left of them on her own body.While Celan wrote that No one/ witnesses for the/ witness . Harold Bloom has described how every poet is a being caught up in a diale ctical relationship (transference. communication) with other poets . wilful revisionism its working mode. an act of creative correction that is actually a nd necessarily a misinterpretation. as if this weren t already sufficiently egregious. error. w ith the strong. Lady Lazarus s hubris is precisely that she leaves the grave cave once a decade to transplant his torical victims. authentic poets creating an imaginative space for themselves through a misreading of the prior poet.13 In addit ion. which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance. she literally takes the words from ou t of their mouths. however.

to eat men like air is an ambiguous simile. Just as her earlier assault on God and Lucifer ( Herr God. it is important to retain a dis tinction . in Todesfuge .justified by the insight that the Holocaust was an event which was. we are actually left with a fa r less palatable taste of what her opportunistic imagination really feeds off (Chapters . However. as Gubar points out. Herr Lucifer/ Beware/ Beware ) parodies identifiably Nazi aspirations. that turnin g the Holocaust into a spectacle produces a forgetting that is part of the exterminatio n .Plath offers a critique of her speaker that recalls Jean Baudrillard s claim. in her overreaching Lady Lazarus is positioned as the victimiser. For. made with reference to the American TV mini-series Holocaust (1978). 118). dug their graves in the air . p. not the victimised. 200). which could mean that Lady Lazarus eats men as easily as if they were air (perhaps the German Her ren or masters from Germany who ordered the deaths of Jewish women such as Shulamith) or that she eats men who are themselves already like air: namely the murdered men w ho. Here wordplay an d allusion unmask the speaker: as the prostitute-poet rises from the ashes in the guise of what Kroll calls a triumphant resurrecting goddess . p.both at the level of its performance and its language . for the most part. that poems such as Lady Lazarus reflect critically on the way that art can distort or commodify public memory. Here the poem perhaps develops a refrain from Todesfuge . Through the suggestion that he r strip show is an act of historical cannibalism . through the double entendre of th e last line. and whose deaths Sachs laments when describing Israel s body as smoke through the air (Poetry. then. where death is a master from Germany . a pointed critique of the narrator s hypothesised identity as historical victim (and a self-conscious underm ining of her rhetoric) occurs in the concluding stanza. conceived and perpetrated by men.15 In arguing.

a devilschoolteacher and a voodoo model. This relativistic focus on representation as something that both intersects with and constructs our conception of reality is figured in Daddy through the trope of a te lephone . in that there is little sense that the father is (or is being compared with) anythi ng that pertains to the historically real. to endorse the more standard postwar (but pre-Eichmann) interpretation of the Holocaust as an event perpetrated by a nation of psychopaths. on the whole. wh ere the narrator describes her father s voice as Gothic and barbarous. Plath s first person speakers tend. Throughout Daddy the father is represented by symbols such as an ocean-straddling statue. the epitome of German volk ( y our Aryan eye. in Daddy the speaker describes how the German tongue stuck in my jaw// It stuck in a barb wire snare .between Plath s postmodern conception of historical representation and her more modernistic (even pre-modernistic) understanding of events. Similarl y. to Hannah Arendt s account of it in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In contrast. linguistic and psychological forms. This is succinctly put in Little Fugue . which are not literal or even directly metapho rical. a Luftwaffe member and a Panzer-man . bright blue ). Plath was writing at the cusp of an era that would increasingly come to focus on Hitler s regime as a social and bureaucratic phenomenon. but the stereotyping in Daddy suggests that the contempt for the Germans and their language expressed in Plath s verse is at least tempered by her interest in repres entation in its historical. in particular. a sky-filling swastik a. Germany clearly holds a particularly maligned place in the personal mythologies of Plath s speaker s. pure German . and her father is a fantasised amalgam of every available Nazi stereotype: at once a Hitler (with a neat moustache ). This philosophical turn is often dated to the Eichmann trial in 1961 and.

Little Fugue . describing the unavailability of routes to the past through the m etrical foot of verse. for example. and with other of Plath s late poems. The image of a black telephone opens up poetic connections with earlier images in Daddy itself. I m finally through. foreshadows Daddy in both its imagery and its Freudian psychodrama:16 . Simultaneously suggesting connection (she is through ) and disconnection (being through also suggests that one is finished with something). your root. In the fifth stanza the speaker admits: I never could tell where you Put your foot.conversation . the metaphorical black telephone represents the fundamental dividedness of both the narrator s relationshi p with her father and poetry s relationship with the past.a popular motif in Plath s work as a whole. The black telephone s off at the root. The voices just can t worm through. This idea is revisited at the climax of the monologue: So daddy. Here the elusiveness of the father s root offers a critique of the representational logic of the poem itself. I never could talk to you. and in her Holocaust wr iting in particular.

The Munich Mannequins . p 262). I am guilty of nothing. A yew tree also features in another late period poem about modern German history. Dead men cry from it. and she conceives of a muffled connection to his and Germany s past through a deafness that is.) The speaker s father is again a Nazi. as in my childhood. in which the yew trees blow like hydras (CP. and it wa s in Munich that Adolf Hitler began his political career. Neville . my father! I see your voice. and its location is particularly significant: Munich was the birthplace of the Nazi party. in which the German tongue is an engine that transports the speaker like a Jew/ [ ] to Dachau. distorts and destroys. Belsen . Auschwitz. It was also in this city that the British Prime Minist er. making anti-Semitic speeche s in taverns and beer-cellars. p. (CP. Such a dark funnel. A yew hedge of orders. Gothic and barbarous. this time as part of a morbid reference to childle ss German women and their sterile wombs. pure German. in a distortion or parody of an instrumental understanding of memory. 188. with the yew hedge of orders being linked to dead men and prefiguring Daddy .Deafness is something else. Black and leafy. on the other hand. Language. a dark funnel . The poem derides the high society of postwar Germany.

Chamberlain. The poem thus intimates its own.an aestheti c that Celan himself would later reject. even the poem s cooler. Plath becomes dependent on a strategic man ipulation of the poem s internal aesthetic . and which. replacing it with a more contained hermetic form of writing . and graves in the sky . recalling those victims who were literally naked and bald . signed the Munich Agreement. and Germany s. absent history through images such as the snow dropping its pieces of darkness a phrase which recalls the ash created by the burning of human bodies in extermination camps. but placing them.above all its black and white colour symbolism . The poem s subject is not. smoke .17 However. rather than reproducing the musical ironies of Celan s poem . Plath describes t he childless.The Munich Mannequins operates through a logic of suggestion and indirec t intimation. in fashionable furs . mannequin-like nulliparas of the city who are naked and bald in their furs . han ding over the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. Through this allusive technique.to make it clear that the city is implicated in a moral catastrophe far more seriou s than a low birth-rate. but rather the postwar (non)memory of them in an officially denazified Germany. the latter with its images of black milk . simply the crimes of Nazism. along with other European leaders. brings to mind Celan s Schwarze Flocken ( Black Flakes ) and Todesfuge ( Death Fugue ). The poem never makes explicit reference to the d ead Jews: in avoiding direct representation of the memory that the German glitterati depicted in the poem itself fails to confront. in turn. grotesquely. however. more observat ional moments become doubly sinister: . The poem describes pos twar Munich as the morgue between Paris and Rome .

As Stan Smith observes: Plath s language is always radically overdetermined. In the hotels Hands will be opening doors and setting Down shoes for a polish of carbon Into which broad toes will go tomorrow. . polish (Polish). and a line that contains the words shoes . And the black phones on hooks Glittering Glittering and digesting Voicelessness. conflicting emotional resonances.Nobody s about. and carbon . so that the same image can be charged with quite contradictory associations. The snow has no voice. 18 The poem concludes with another dig at the Germans and a repetition of a favourite image: The thick Germans slumbering in their bottomless Stolz. The poem s vocabulary is made to work hard. but readers conversant with poems such as Daddy will be startled into a disturbing series of inferences by phrases such as Nobody s about (no bodies about).

therefore describes an ethical impe rative . Celan-like imagery and the irony final sentence: The snow has no darkness that recalled the ashes of death camps. and as a metacommentary on these poems. making them (and thus poetry) a kind of repository for voices which are. through the doubly-negative consumption of something which is not even there. although at the same time. is a useless instrument. which renders voicelessness eminently visible. the logical outcome of this action is positive. which m akes the phrase glittering and digesting syntactically ambiguous.The black phones again represent a mode of communication with the past that can on ly transmit incommunicability. paradoxically.and in doing so. like all double-ne gatives. the yet the oxymoronic.voicelessness. As an image within the German poems. The tension the particular image in The Munich Mannequins creates between connection and disconnection is dramatised by the sing leline break that occurs between the penultimate stanza and the last line. not there. as the black phones digest . of using a lexicon of purity to symbolise the victims of the Holocaust remind us that it was the Nazis who wishe d to erase both the ethnically impure and also the memory of that crime. The fact that the black phone . The snow was earlier dropping pieces of Holocaust victims burnt in the crematoria of the snow now has no voice might suggest that the poem. The stark line ation. the black phones again register poetry s inability to put the living in touch with the dead. The mise-en-page indicate s that glittering and digesting can be read independently of the word voicelessness describing the way the black phones eat and digest some unnamed and unknown obje ct yet the enjambment means the verb digesting can take voicelessness as its object. they contain . Th e latter suggests an extreme annihilation. The significance of this act is amplified in the voice .

and this is arti culated almost diagrammatically in the Munich Mannequins : a postmodern poem which does not overwrite historical silence. 4 Seamus Heaney. Stories 1904-19 24. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber. Holocaust Poetry: Awkward Poetics in the Work of Sylvia Plath. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York: H arper and Row. p. 245).S. 214. 242). 5 Christina Britzolakis.(one which is totally at odds with the perception that Plath s poetry threatens th e integrity of the public memory of the Holocaust through outlandish metaphors and illegitim ate imagistic appropriations). Holocaust Fiction (London: Routledge. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. 1988). p. but rather writes round it. 1983). For Plath on Joyce and Lawrence see. see Antony Rowland. 1 Sue Vice. pp. 1989). or that which results from the wil led deafness of bystanders. The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. 2000). p. A Fasting-artist . 2 For a detailed discussion of this change in the tenor of Plath criticism in th e 1990s. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 6 Judith Kroll.1. Underwood (London and Sydney: Futura. 1999). In relation to all of these. 123. Plath s Holocaust poetry offers many diagnoses of t his silence: it is variously that which cannot be said. Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2000). 2005). p. 337. 168 and p. p. 3 Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi. G eoffrey Hill. for example. . lending structure to the unsaid through its form. ed. p. Lady Lazarus . 3 4. whereby it is the obligation of the non-victims to te stify to the silence of the true witnesses. Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber. Karen V. 244-47 (p. 7 Plath. Eliot Memorial Lect ures and Other Critical Writings (London: Faber and Faber. 1976). the motif of the black phone constit utes an ensuing argument about the condition of poetry after Auschwitz. 154-55. 165. A Fasting-artist begins: Interest in fasting as an art has declined very considerably in recent decades (Franz Kafka. trans. p. J. A. pp. 1980). Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning (Oxford: Clare ndon Press. that created by artistic perfo rmances which can never equate to historical reality.

however. it doe s not attempt to align Plath with the more extreme linguistic and formal experimentation that characterised the American poetic avant-garde of this period (which is not to say. that s uch links do not exist).8 Robert Eaglestone. linking her work with concerns shared by some of postmodernism s leading theorists. . 3. The contention that Plath is a kind of postmodern poet relates to h er poetics. p. The Holocaust and the Postmodern (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004).

O the Chimneys . General Introduction: Theory and the Holocaust . Celan. 2003). 201. 13. 91 and p. 79. eds. pp. 38. trans. pp. p. 15 Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg. trans. 1996). 62-65. Selected Poems. Eliot. 18 Stan Smith. in Felstiner. Little Gidding . 30. 1982). in The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings. 2003). 219). S. 47-49. Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry (Dublin: G ill and Macmillan Humanities Press. 1974). . Poetry after Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.9 Susan Gubar. see Rowland. p. 10 T. p. 214-23 (p. 216). Holocaust. p. 16 Jacqueline Rose also describes and critiques Little Fugue as a forerunner of Dadd y (Jacqueline Rose. p. Aschenglorie 3. 1973). Paul Celan: Poet. Jew (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Survivor. Michael Roloff (Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. trans . John Felstiner. 11 John Felstiner. Abba Kovner and Nelly Sachs: Selected Poems. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford Un iversity Press. pp. 13 Celan. 1971). Todesfuge ( Death Fugue ). To 12 Nelly Sachs. Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg (Edinbu rgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1991). Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber . 2001). Michael Hamburger (Harmondsworth: Penguin. On possible allusions to Celan (and especially desfuge ) in this poem. 217. p. p. 22 14 Harold Bloom. 17 Paul Celan. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago. ( Ashglory ).

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