Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy

By Gale Swiontkowski | Go to book overview

Preface:
Some Cautions and Many Thanks

I FEEL I NEED TO POST A WARNING AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS BOOK, SIMIlar to the disclaimer found at the beginning of many works of fiction these days: “Any resemblance between characters and situations in this book and real people and events is entirely accidental and unintentional.” The reasons such a disclaimer seem necessary to this work of literary criticism are two: the fundamentally fictional nature of poetry (even of the “confessional” poetry that will be studied here), and the socially controversial nature of the main topic of this book, father-daughter incest. Anyone who has read Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, on the conflicts between Sylvia Plath's biographers and those who have managed Plath's estate since her death, will be aware of grave concerns for the reputations of deceased writers by members of their families, as well as similar concerns for the surviving family members themselves. I respect those concerns and wish to state clearly here that I intend to explore symbolic motifs in poetry, not the actual experiences of the poets themselves, and that I have no intent to apply poetic themes to biographies. Let me state my case even more directly: father-daughter incest is not part of my own personal history, nor do I assume it to be the actual experience of the four poets I study here. In fact, it will become clear in my discussions of the poetry that the incestuous Daddy figure, established by Sexton and Plath and revised by Rich and Olds, is not identical to the biological fathers of these four women. This Daddy is a shared archetype, a symbolic embodiment of one form of communal experience. Certainly, the poets' experiences with their real fathers influenced their later creation and revision of the poetic Daddy, but that poetic figure is symbolic also of social experiences that extend well beyond the poets' first-loved males. The Daddy figure is representative in that larger sense because, paradoxically, he emerges from the emotionally subjective and symbolic realm of the psyche and not from an objective account of history.

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