The “voice” of the poet has a double-meaning. On the one hand it is speaker of the poem – the poems’ persona – which knows no boundaries: it can be a woman, a man, a shirt, a stone, a tree branch: anything. The other meaning is of course more literal: the spoken voice of the poet. And we are fortunate enough to work in or work with an archive of recorded poetry: the poet’s voice captured, here at the Woodberry Poetry Room.
We are gathered here today to hear Sylvia Plath. Born and raised just miles from here, Plath’s first published poem appeared in the Boston Herald when she was 8. She lived in Jamaica Plain,
The first eight poems that we will listen to Plath wrote between 1957 and 1959. Most of these appeared in her first poetry collection, The Colossus, published in October 1960 by Heinemann in
These are hard poems and I say hard intentionally. They are full of rocks, stones, s’s, t’s, and k’s. Even the titles betray their stoniness: “Childs Park Stones”, “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor”, “Green Rock, Winthrop Bay”, and “The Stones” to name a few. This reliance on rocks isn’t surprising for Sylvia Plath was a poet who looked to nature and to landscapes (physical and mental), and particularly to the end of land: the sea, for her inspiration. The stones she writes about entrap her and I believe these recordings illustrate that, poetically speaking, she was sealed inside a bell jar not made of glass, but of stone.
But as it goes with poets, once a collection is published that’s it: it’s over. The poet must move on: and that is exactly what Plath did. One of Plath’s greatest supporters, A. Alvarez, said this about the poems in The Colossus, “It is this sense of threat, as though she were continually menaced by something she could see only out of the corners of her eyes, that gives her work its distinction.” (“The Poet and the Poetess.” The Observer. 18 December 1960: 12) Plath’s progression is evident in “Parliament Hill Fields”, “Candles”, and “Leaving Early”. Her voice is different, the poems more direct.
For the poems Plath would write in October 1962, that threat, that nagging menace came directly into view and she confronted it head-on. If she was entrapped, she managed to break-through. In an interview with Peter Orr of the British Council in 1962, she discussed the differences between those poems published in The Colossus and those that she recently composed. She said, “May I say this, that the ones I’ve read are very recent and I have found myself having to read them aloud to myself, saying them to myself. Now this is something I didn’t do. For example, my first book, The Colossus, I can’t read any of the poems aloud now. I didn’t write them to be read aloud. They, in fact, quite privately, bore me.”
In listening to these later poems, collected and published in 1965 as Ariel, poems such as “Daddy”, “Lady Lazarus”, “Nick and the Candlestick”, “Ariel”, Fever 103°”, “Cut”, etc. it is quite apparent that they have sprung from a completely different form of composition. They are easy and flowing, the language like “an engine” and “obscene”, to quote from “Daddy”.
The voice of Sylvia Plath is powerful: both in regards to the speakers of the poems and her actual voice. Her voice booms now even though these recordings are forty-five to fifty years old; in these recordings, she is immortal. Listening to Plath read her own work helps us as readers; Plath’s voice acts as a guide to her poetry, assisting us in understanding how to read and interpret them. For example, Plath laughs while reading “Daddy”, a clue not to be overlooked.
In her review of The Bell Jar and Crossing the Water, Elizabeth Hardwick said the following about Plath’s voice,
“Long after I had been reading her work I came across the recording of some of her poems she made in
Plath achieved fame posthumously, which presents us with a challenge. Some have said that Plath’s Ariel poems represent a long suicide note. But, this is a crude sentiment and a disservice as Plath survived her Ariel poetry. And that, is the challenge: to understand and acknowledge the life in the poetry and to see the poetry as the “triumphant fulfillment”, to quote Robert Lowell, and not the death. (“Foreword.” Ariel.
It is her poetry and her voice that we are here to celebrate today. At sixteen, Plath wrote a poem entitled “You ask me why I spend my life writing”. This poem ends, “I write only because / There is a voice within me / That will not be still.” (Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963.
Poems listened to:
Nocturne [Hardcastle Crags], (recorded June 13, 1958)
Childs Park Stones, (recorded June 13, 1958)
Mussel Hunter at
Full Fathom Five, (recorded February 22, 1959)
Point Shirley, (recorded February 22, 1959)
The Disquieting Muses, (recorded 5 June 1961)
Parliament Hill Fields, (recorded 5 June 1961)
The Stones, (recorded 5 June 1961)
Candles, (recorded October/November 1960)
Leaving Early, (recorded October/November 1960)
The Rabbit Catcher (recorded October 30, 1962)
Poppies in October (recorded October 30, 1962)
Daddy (recorded October 30, 1962)
Nick and the Candlestick (recorded October 30, 1962)
Lady Lazarus (recorded October 30, 1962)
Fever 103° (recorded October 30, 1962)
Ariel (recorded October 30, 1962)