Plath's voice comes through in a number of cunning ways here. It seems as though she is addressing her father, and therefore speaks in the first person singular for example: "I used to pray to recover you." (14) As a result, the poem seems all the more intense and personal - perhaps because we are listening in on a one-sided conversation which we feel we should not be listening to. The effect is akin to reading someone's personal letter, when feelings of guilt compete with an innate curiosity about other people's intimate details. In this way, her anguish is eloquently expressed in the first stanza:
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. 5 (1-5)
But we could also make a case that the "Daddy" in the poem is not only her father (and perhaps a part of herself), but her husband, Ted Hughes, as well. For example, towards the end of the poem, various subtle references to marriage are made: "And I said I do, I do." (67) The idea of two men (the two men in Plath's life) is brought up again when we are told that "If I've killed one man, I've killed two..." (71), and a direct reference to the poet's marriage is made at line 72: "The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for a year,/Seven years if you want to know" (72-74). It is almost as though Plath is being suffocated by the omniscient and omnipotent men who surround her - both alive and dead. We can only understand this because Plath has instilled her poem with her own 'voice' - had the poem been written in an impersonal, detached way, completely devoid of any discernible 'voice', the intensely personal sense we get of Plath being smothered would be lost.
But the strong and clear voice that comes through also raises issues about Plath's identity: who she feels she is and is not. She says at one point that she thinks she "may well be a Jew" (35), when in fact she is not. This is echoed by her despondent, resonant cry in a foreign language: "Ich, ich, ich, ich." (27) It is clear that the poem has a strong personality, and this personality is only made possible with the presence of Plath's voice.
A link can be made here to another of Plath's poems, "The Bee Meeting", which also raises the question of identity. Unlike "Daddy", this poem is not addressed or aimed at anyone in particular, but this does not mean that it is any less personal, and it still retains Plath's 'voice' as she is again speaking in the first person. The poem reinforces the poet's sense of abject loneliness in a world populated by well-to-do figures of society who (it seems) neither really care for, nor understand her. In "The Bee Meeting", Plath joins various members of the parish to collect honey from the "white hive"(34). When the other figures don their veils and heavy outer garments for protection, however, their identities are lost, and this frightens Plath, who does not want to be lost in turn:
Is it some operation that is taking place? 30
It is the surgeon my neighbours are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know? 35
Plath's voice comes across most strongly, however, when she tells us of her fear and her nakedness while all others are clothed. We are told that she is "nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?" (6) and "Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice./They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear." (9-10) Clearly, a tortured, lonely, forlorn voice is at work here, appealing vainly for understanding in the hopelessly detached way that abject melancholia brings. Her tired, sad, frail voice is heard at the end: "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold." (55) The lack of a question mark at the end implies that an answer is not expected, perhaps because Plath knows that she will never receive one. The subtlety in the image of the coffin-like "long white box" hints at hidden depths to Plath's feelings - depths which are both limitless and moving. We could go so far as to say that Plath associates and identifies herself with the hive and its angry bees: confused, chaotic, and directionless. By putting the bees to sleep, the hive, "as snug as a virgin" (34), is violated. In the same way perhaps, Plath sees herself as violated or raped by the world around her. Once again, it is only through her powerful voice that we understand these emotions.
Problems of identity are strongly linked in both poems (the "Ich, ich, ich," of "Daddy" and images of lost identity in "The Bee Hive Meeting"), and this question surfaces again in the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson. In a poem like "Mekkin Histri", Johnson's voice is immediately clear and challenging: "now tell mi something/mistah govahment man/tell mi something." (1-3) Johnson's voice searches, accuses, demands:
how lang yu really feel
yu coulda keep wi andah heel 5
wen di trute done reveal
bout how yu grab an steal
bout how yu mek yu crooked deal
mek yu crooked deal?
It is clear that the voice coming through here is a purely political one, and the colloquial language that Johnson employs reinforces his poems' sense of 'otherness' and originality. The language is both alien and familiar, both intimidating and soothing. But it is also a collective voice - a voice of the people, but not all the people. It is a voice demanding complete and radical change, an alien voice that has become disillusioned with the society that surrounds it. The title of the poem, "Mekkin Histri" implies a time of great change, and this is exactly what Johnson was doing at a time when the British establishment was threatening to revert back to an entirely conservative, jingoistic and exclusive mindset. It is not surprising that Linton Kwesi Johnson has earned himself the nickname of 'The Prophet', who, with his eclectic mix of dub beats and chanting poetry, captured the political heart and soul of Britain's black youth in the 1980s, and, many say, continues to do so today.
It is perhaps due to the African tradition for collective storytelling and music that Johnson's voice is so much more powerful and raw compared to other poets/songwriters talking about the same thing, for example Gil Scott-Heron. Perhaps it also has something to do with the way the poems are written and their apparent inaccessibility to the 'Western' reader. What it succeeds in doing is creating, once read aloud, a true sense of Johnson's voice - its rhythm and patterns, recreated in our own, individual voices. These are poems that cannot be read silently: they make no sense just as words on a page. For them to be truly understood, these words, seemingly unfamiliar at first, become familiar once we voice them ourselves. In a way, Johnson is raising the whole concept of 'voice' in poetry to another level - 'voice' is no longer something we get a sense of when reading words on a page; it is something we must enunciate for ourselves. When it becomes collective poetry (Johnson's words through everybody else's voice), it speaks for everyone, regardless of his or her colour. We cannot help but identify with the poet and his words because, essentially, they become our own.
This sense of a collective poetry, of Johnson speaking for everyone, comes across strongly in all of his poems, and "BG" (his tribute to Bernie Grant, the first black Member of Parliament) is no exception to this rule:
yu woz wi cheef
yu woz wi choice
yu woz wi champian
yu woz wi face
yu woz wi voice 20
yu woz wi main man
But if Linton Kwesi Johnson is using 'voice' in his poetry to achieve a political end, then Tom Leonard is using his voice to represent a social one. Like Johnson, Leonard writes in the strong dialect he speaks, hailing from Glasgow. Like Johnson and Plath, his poems are infused with his own voice, and, by writing in his colloquial way, forces the reader to read the words aloud, or imagine how they would sound spoken. Thus, what seems to be an incomprehensible passage can be understood when read aloud in a broad Scottish accent:
wurkt oot 35
yir ears; 40
- geez peace,
(From "Unrelated Incidents" 33-42)
Not only does Leonard's voice come through very strongly here, the form of this particular poem ("Unrelated Incidents") adds to the overall effect Leonard is trying to achieve - namely by breaking up the flow of the writing, the reader is forced to ponder over and analyse individual words and phrases at a time. It seems also that Leonard is concerned with the subjectivity of language, and the way different words and different intonations mean different things to different people. It has been said that language is a slippery medium, and this is all too true in the cultural divide between England and Scotland. Although on paper both countries speak the same language, in reality, the different ways in which English is used by both the Scots and English themselves, suggests that this is not the case. Leonard points out the root of these differences in "Unrelated Incidents", in an excerpt called "The 6 O'clock News":
way ti spell
ana right way 90
to tok it. This
is me tokn yir
right way a
is ma trooth. 95
("The 6 O'clock News" 88-95)
Leonard seems to be highlighting here the discrepancy between 'tokking' (or talking) and spelling. There may be a 'right' way of spelling, says Leonard, but there is no 'right' way of talking (not in these days when 'received pronunciation' is an institution which is frowned upon and laughed at, anyway). Your right way of talking is not my right way of talking. Similarly, Leonard says, your right way of spelling is no longer my right way of spelling. "this/is ma trooth" (94-95). We see this most clearly in his poem "In the Beginning was the Word", in which spelling and language is slowly corrupted and deconstructed, leaving in its place something new and startlingly clear:
. in the beginning was the word .
in thi beginning was thi wurd
in thi beginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin wuz thi wurd 5
n thi biginnin wuz thi wurd
nthi biginnin wuzthi wurd
. in the beginning was the sound . 10
We can see, then, that these poets are all linked in the way they use their 'voice': Sylvia Plath uses hers to instil her poems with a sense of her own personality and intimacy; Linton Kwesi Johnson uses his to use our voice, in effect, in order to put a political point across; and Tom Leonard uses his to illustrate the subjective nature of language, and how we use it to achieve our own ends. In this way, we can see how these poets have all used their 'voice' in different ways - all to create the effect that it is their poetry and no-one else's. These poets are distinct in their original and compelling use of their own individual 'voices'.
Earlier in this essay, I mentioned Roland Barthes' piece, "The Death of the Author", and it seems appropriate here, now that I have highlighted the ways in which these poets operate concerning 'voice', to analyse his essay in this context. Barthes holds that an author or poet cannot be individual or original because he or she is merely a product of the society that surrounds them. This throws the whole concept of the 'author function' into question: is an author really an author? Have they really written what they have written?
I believe that the use of 'voice' in poetry proves that a poet or an author can be individual and original. It is true that a poet like Tom Leonard or Linton Kwesi Johnson writes in the dialect of his society, and is therefore (to an extent) a product of that society, but this does not address the fact that these poets are entities in themselves, bringing something original to their work, and they are not simply blank sheets which society has filled in. In short, these poets do not regurgitate their society: they regurgitate themselves. Every poet brings something new and original to the world of poetry and literature, and if this were not the case, then poetry and literature would never have advanced at all.
Wordsworth said that a poet is someone who is "pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them," ("Preface to Lyrical Ballads", 1798) and to this I would only add that today, a great poet should have a strong voice. The voice of a poet is his true identity - that which he is judged against, and that which compares him to all others. Ultimately, a poet's voice is his defining feature: an existential monument to who he is - something entirely unique, and something that should be cherished.
* Barthes, R., 1984. Image, music, text. London: Flamingo.
* Bennett, A. & Royle, N., 1999. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 2nd ed., London: Prentice Hall Europe, pp. 44-54 & 71-80.
* Hulse, M., Kennedy, D. & Morley, M. ed. 2000, The New Poetry, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, pp. 70-73 & 183-189.
* Lancashire, I., "Preface to Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth", http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/criticism/lyrb1_il.html, 1996, World Wide We Publication, accessed January 2002.
* Plath, S, ed., 1985. Sylvia Plath Poems selected by Ted Hughes, London: Faber and Faber, pp. 46-50.
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 grey 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.
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 gypsy 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.
The Bee Meeting
Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.
I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
Thev will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.
Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voices are changing. I am led through
Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.
Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me
one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.
Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?
I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.
Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,
Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins
Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?
I am exhausted, I am exhausted -
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician's girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they
accomplished, why am I cold.