Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast. All book poems. Terrific stuff, as though domesticity had choked me.
—Sylvia Plath, letter to her mother, October 12, 1962
They were “dawn poems in blood,” those lines stormed onto paper while the children slept; several of them were written through fevers, and the heat seared onto the pages, those old memorandum sheets marked Smith College, or the back of a manuscript marked The Calm. That had been a radio play, drafted by Ted Hughes in their flat in London early the previous year; now Sylvia Plath was in the Devon farmhouse they’d bought soon afterward, and Hughes was back in London, banished, their marriage over. It was late 1962, and in the space of eight weeks, it brought Plath forty of what would become her Ariel poems. They were, she wrote to the poet Ruth Fainlight, “free stuff I had locked in me for years,” and now they were out. And they were astonishing. Only pain could have released them, only fury and outrage and jealousy and panic of the sort into which Plath’s daily universe had plunged. “I kept telling myself I was the sort that could only write when peaceful at heart,” she told Fainright, “but that is not so, the muse has come to live here, now Ted is gone.”
All of these poems would be in the black binder found in Plath’s London flat following her suicide just three months later, on February 11. They were poems so extreme they would be turned down by several magazines (only to become suddenly suitable for publication after the sensation of her death). Look how they came, one after the other, during that ferocious fall. September 26: “For a Fatherless Son.” September 30: “A Birthday Present.” October 1: “The Detective.” October 2: “The Courage of Shutting Up.” From October 3 to 10, Plath wrote her five bee poems, including “Stings” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” On October 10, “A Secret.” October 11 brought “The Applicant” (“It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”). And fifty years ago today, on October 12, Plath sat down at the writing desk Hughes and her brother had made for her from a plank of elm, and she wrote her most famous poem. She wrote her father, and she wrote her festered grief, and she wrote her maddened Electra, and she wrote the unforgiving child who still ran riot in her veins; she finally got it down, so much of what had been propelling her from the moment she wrote her very first poem. “You do not do, you do not do”—what a line. What a spiel. What a fit of incantation. Whatever you think of “Daddy”—wherever you stand on the question of whether its tirades are transgressions, whether its swoop into Holocaust imagery is a mere looting and parading of angers not the poet’s own—there is no denying its extraordinary power. It stops the breath; it bothers the heart. What must it have been like, that morning, beneath the quaint thatch of that Devon farmhouse, for Plath to find herself writing this fireball of a poem?