The Holocaust has long been considered sacred territory. Politicians, entertainers, and others who have cavalierly offered images from the Holocaust for metaphorical or comparative purposes have received no shortage of criticism from those offended by such allegedly insensitive displays. While such criticisms are often valid, examples of criticism of the use or misuse of Holocaust imagery that omit context are deserving of criticism themselves.
It is hardly unknown that Sylvia Plath was a tortured soul. Her suicide certainly served to place an exclamation mark on a life lived on the edge of mental stability that occasionally tilted across the line separating emotional stability from instability. That Plath employed Holocaust imagery in her poems Daddy and Lady Lazarus is obvious. Whether the late poet's use of such imagery was appropriate within the context of her life, however, is the key to concluding whether that usage could be considered offensive. There is no image more offensive and more certain to elicit near-univeral condemnation than those depicting the treatment of Europe's Jewish population by Nazi Germany and its allies as a metaphor for any other violation of human dignity. Plath, however, did employ such imagery, not once, but twice, and, in the case of Daddy, the rationale for so doing is a little questionable. Plath was neither the first nor the last to have experienced a strained and even violent relationship with her father. And that relationship might have been truly horrific; only Plath knew for sure, and she killed herself not long after penning this poem. Whether she was justified in writing of that relationship as she did in the following stanza from Daddy is a question for the ages:
"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."
Plath, here, is comparing her father to a Nazi and herself to the Germans' Jewish victim -- pretty strong stuff. Defensible on the basis of her troubled life? Quite possibly. Facile Holocaust metaphors are certainly contemptible, and one could easily argue that Plath's situation did not rise to the level of persecution on the scale of that endured by six million Jews. In her mind, however, and that mind was famously disturbed, the use of Nazi metaphors seemed entirely appropriate.
In the case of Lady Lazarus, the physical and emotional pain endured by millions of women at the hands of millions of men similarly warranted the use of the most explosive imagery imageable. Again, however, whether the following passage from Lady Lazarus went too far in its use of Holocaust imagery is debatable:
"A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Unlike Daddy, where it is hardly rare for someone to draw a loose parallel between someone he or she knows and intensely dislikes and a figure from history like Hitler or Stalin, the application of such language in a poem the scale of Lady Lazarus has a different feel. Both poems are rooted in Plath's relationship to her late-father. Whereas Daddy could still be considered somewhat defensible, maybe, Lady Lazarus seems to take a questionable concept even farther, into terrain that makes Plath's use of this imagery seem excessive and even childish.
It is hard to justify the use of Holocaust imagery even in the context of Plath's life and poetry. The Holocaust represented the nadir of humanity's existence. The scale of horror is virtually unimaginable but for the plethora of photographic and documentary evidence of its existence. It is unfortunate that Plath felt it necessary to use the Holocaust for poetic purposes, but her mental state was such that one can, and should excuse her her use of poetic license because of the very obvious emotional pain with which she lived -- pain that ended only with her death.
With regard to what poets gain by using such inflammatory imagery, the answer ranges from legitimate forms of expression to an infantile need to draw attention to oneself.