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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 191-215

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Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries

Susan Gubar

Exploitation, larceny, masochism, sensationalism: the terms of opprobrium hurled against Sylvia Plath's use of Holocaust material generally accord with George Steiner's distress at any writer boasting "the right to put on this death-rig." 1 In 1962, the same year Plath wrote "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," Adorno qualified his famous injunction against the barbarism of composing poetry after Auschwitz. 2 Nevertheless, her appropriation of the voices of Holocaust victims still seems outrageous to those who reject any reasonable affinity or parallelism between Plath's individual suffering and mass murder. These readers wonder: how dare she presume to imagine herself as one of the victims, to arrogate the Otherness of the deceased through a projection that might be said to profane the memory of people exterminated by the Nazis? To honor the dead, Elie Wiesel has cautioned, the living must comprehend that "no one has the right to speak on their behalf." 3 To some, Plath's non-Jewishness, and her lack of a personal stake in the disaster, makes her speaking on behalf of the victims appear like a desecration. However, Plath's adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead--her deployment of the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia--is hardly anomalous. The same rhetorical device surfaces in some of the most powerful poems about the Shoah, poems composed by literary women and men with quite divergent relationships to the calamity. The impersonation of an absent speaker or a personification--prosopopoei--allows those poets searching to find a language for the staggering horror of what had happened to speak as, for, with, and about the casualties in verse. This enabling device has been either ignored or disparaged for too long.

In "Posthumous Rehabilitation," Tadeusz Rozewicz supposes that the dead, who "see our snouts," "read our books," and "scrutinize our lectures" cannot, or will not, exonerate the guilt of the living--"the dead will not rehabilitate us," he insists. 4 As if to counter this lack of rehabilitation, post-war poets who have confronted Western civilization's guilt over the catastrophic genocide of the Final Solution sometimes attempt an admittedly nugatory, but nevertheless shocking, rehabilitation of the dead. Because the victims of the Holocaust did not have [End Page 191] a cemetery, such writers ground their art in exactly the conviction that Elie Wiesel deduces from this fact, namely that the living must be their cemeteries. In the hard want of the bodies and of graves to mark their demise, the poet writes from the perspective of "corpses [deprived of] coffins," either directly before or directly after they were murdered, speaking words eerily evocative of the epitaphs carved on ancient gravestones. 5 Such a shocking reanimation of the dead cannot be equated with the traditional elegiac attempt to bring a particularly cherished person back into living memory, to assert the dead person's immortality, or to envision some union with the dead in a place elsewhere. 6 Nor does it form the only (or even the major) poetic response to the Shoah. Numerous writers have produced autobiographical meditations, historical analyses, ecphrastic portraits, liturgical reinventions of the Kaddish, and documentary verse. 7 But prosopopoeia allows the authors who manipulate it to summon the posthumous voice, to conceive of subjectivity enduring beyond the concentration camp, and thereby to suggest that the anguish of the Shoah does not, and will not, dissipate. Perhaps the inexorable vacancy, the vacuity, of the anonymous and numerous victims made this project urgent, licensed it, despite its unnerving presumption; or perhaps historical proximity to irreparable and stunning slaughter plunged some writers into an awareness of the impotence of the normative languages at their disposal.

So many of "the testimonies which bore the traces of here's and now's" were destroyed, Jean-Francois Lyotard once explained, that "the monopoly over history granted to the cognitive regimen of phrases" has been broken by the Shoah. The poet may therefore feel...


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