therapy or who was in therapy or thinks that they should be in therapy. Having to seek professional help to come to terms with the psychological damage that has been inflicted on us by our natal families is assumed to be a hazard of modern life.
But in the days before therapy was considered to be almost a requisite for living a well-examined life, people had to find other ways to work through their problems – including art. The four poets that we are studying have each tried to assess the essential relationships in their own childhood through exploration of the meaning of their interactions with their fathers. In each of these poems there is a sense of loss or disappointment (at the least) and a sense of anger even to the point of murderousness (at the most extreme) as each poet considers the ways in which his or her father betrayed the child that they once were.
These poems are fascinating not only for what they tell us about the particular dynamics that existed between these fathers and these children but also more generally about fathers and children – a road certainly less often taken than an exploration between mothers and their children.
That is in fact one of the implicit but pervasive themes in these poems: The relative distance between these children and their father compared with what we assume (although perhaps we should ask ourselves why this should be so?) to be the more intimate relationship between the children and the mothers who actually exist only on the periphery of these poems.
Some of these poems in fact seem to have been written so that the poets could come to terms with their own sense of incompleteness. One of the great betrayals of childhood is that the adults who should love and protect us all too often fail to do so.
They often realize their own lack of commitment, of “presence” in their children’s lives when those children are older, when they have become adults themselves and are sufficiently interesting to those adults that they are worth spending time with.
But it is not as adults that people need love and protection from their parents, and the wounds engendered by the lack of that love and protection when children are young can never be redressed by any action on the part of their parents when they are older.
Too many parents, and we see this especially in Lucille Clifton’s “Forgiving My Father” try to compensate later in life for what they did not do when their children were younger – but this remains something that is almost impossible for the children to forgive. It is as if firefighters came to the scene of a disaster years after the family home had burnt to the ground – pleading that they were busy doing more important things in the meantime – and then wondered why it was that people were not grateful to see them still.
The speaker in Clifton’s poem says that she intends to forgive her father, but we must wonder at the sincerity of this claim, or at least its efficacy. She most certainly cannot forget the enduring ways that her father has harmed her, and although she implies that forgiveness is possible without obliviousness, we each look to our own experiences and wonder if this is in fact the case. We see in her a very different stance from that taken up by Carver, who remains disappointed but has learned to forgive both his father and himself.
One of the complicated dynamics of the relationship between parents and children, especially from the perspective of the parents, is that even when parents betray (or at least disappoint) their children, the children still need and love them. Children are often simultaneously alienated from and still magnetically attracted to their parents. The former because they have been too often disappointed in their parents to trust them with any certainty but too otherwise alone in the world not to try still to cling to them.
Sylvia Plath, in her typically dramatic way, addresses this passionate attraction and repulsion from her father. She misses him so greatly that she is willing to follow him into death even though she has barely left her own childhood behind, and yet she also hates him, perhaps because of his absence, perhaps because of what he did to her when he was still present.
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.
She first tries with all the desperation of a child pulled screaming from the arms of a departing parent to reunite herself with him. But having been rejected even in death – and what greater rejection can there be then to find that one has offered up one’s own life and found that even this sacrifice is too little? – she rejects everything her father stood for in life:
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 is both a universal demonization of her father – he is a Hitlerian figure, he is a vampire, an unholy creature, an anti-Christ, or perhaps a Christian calling for the blood of the Jews.
Plath, of all of these poets is the least able to forgive her father. Even Clifton, whose anger still sparkles from every page, is more inclined to forgive, although it is clear that she will never forget her father’s treatment and will always be shaped by it.
And there is also in this poem the suggestion of the particular wrongs that he has inflicted on her – the clear suggested that he has raped her, to which she can only consent with a mockery of the wedding vows.
One cannot help but wonder, given what we know of Plath’s own life, if part of her unhappiness with her husband, Ted Hughes, did not reflect her continuing unhappiness with men as they each manifested themselves as a reflection of her father. Or perhaps it was rather that Hughes himself was in fact actually like her father, possessing and inflicting on her a similar definition of masculinity.
Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Father’s Waltz” may also be interpreted along similar lines: It seems to be both a depiction of a child’s desire to stay with his father at all costs and the suggestion at least of violence underneath. While Plath is clearly casting her father as a demoniacal figure – the whole village, after all, knew that it was him who was the source of evil – the imagery here is much more ambiguous.
Is the scene given to us in this poem one of a father who comes home late after some physically punishing job and still makes time to play with his child? Or is it a metaphorical description of a father who comes home late after some physically punishing job and beats his child with that belt buckle?
Or is it some combination of the two? The psychological powerfulness of this poem lies in the fact that it reminds us of the ambiguity of so much that happens in childhood. With our limited experiences of the world and our utter lack of power, it is hard for us when we are children to understand how the world works. We hear our parents’ voices raised at night and we think that they must be fighting, that they hate each other and hate us and that everything will be lost. And then we find out the next morning that they were just calling a beloved aunt in the old country to wish her happy birthday and were shouting down a bad telephone connection.
We do not always know as children whether gestures are meant to comfort or harm us; this reflects our own still-developing social awareness as well as the fact that in many cases the gestures themselves are replete with ambivalence. The imagery in the first stanza is certainly far from reassuring. The heavy scent of whiskey speaks of the potential (at least) of violence. And why is it (and this we never learn in the course of the poem) should the boy have to be clinging like death? Is it the boy’s fear that makes the mother look on so disapprovingly.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
The child is perhaps being beaten – perhaps that is why the father’s hand is scraped. Perhaps he is in fact being played with. But in either case, the child is continually aware of the fact that the father is so much larger than…