18 April 2009

Sylvia Plath's Voice

The following was my introduction to yesterday's Sylvia Plath listening hour at the Woodberry Poetry Room. We had a nice group of people, as well as some lovely Plath archival materials which, I think, enhanced the event.

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, Winthrop, and Wellesley before attending Smith College and University of Cambridge, in England. It was at this other Cambridge where, in 1956, she met Ted Hughes at the launch party of the Saint Botolph’s Review (attendees got to see an actual copy of the Saint Botolph’s Review).

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 London. She recorded these poems for the Woodberry Poetry Room on June 13, 1958, and February 22, 1959. I’ve brought to show you, from the depths of Houghton Library, the reel tape containers that Plath wrote on, listing her poems and doodling.

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 England not long before she died. I have never before learned anything from a poetry reading... But I was taken aback by Sylvia Plath's reading. It was not anything like I could have imagined. … [These poems] were "beautifully" read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased. "I have done it again!" Clearly, perfectly, staring you down.” (“On Sylvia Plath.” The New York Review of Books 17:2. August 12, 1971: 4-6.)

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. New York: Harper & Row. 1965: ix)

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. New York: Harper & Row, 1975: 34.) In a brief essay entitled “Context” published a year before she died, Plath said this about poetry: “Certain poems and lines of poetry seem as solid and miraculous as church altars or the coronation of queens must seem to people who revere quite different images. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are lucky, farther than a lifetime.” (“Context.” London Magazine. February 1962: 45-46.)

Poems listened to:
Nocturne [Hardcastle Crags], (recorded June 13, 1958)
Childs Park Stones, (recorded June 13, 1958)
Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor, (recorded June 13, 1958)
Green Rock, Winthrop Bay, (recorded February 22, 1959)
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)


George Fitzgerald said...

Ah, Peter, how could I have not got it together to be there last night. I'm full of regret. It sounds wonderful. Next time!

panther said...

Are there any photos of Sylvia actually making the recording ?

Laurie said...

Lovely. Plath couldn't ask for a better ambassador.

I can remember, many years into my Plath obsession (can't come up with a better word at the moment)hearing her voice for the first time on a video tape. How surprised I was at the depth of her voice and the unusual accent and just the sheer amazement of finally hearing her speak.

Anonymous said...

"Attendees got to see an actual copy of the Saint Botolph's Review."

That's so unfair! What about the people that don't live nearby or in the US, huh? You're going to be taking this all on tour, right?!!

panther said...

Laurie, I remember that feeling on finally hearing her speak. I too was struck by its depth, also the unusual emphasis on words-the way she says "teenager" in the Peter Orr interview, for example, makes me think she found the word striking, and I daresay it WAS rather modish in 1962 !

I'm sure her accent is unique. I've heard some American commentators describe it as "very British" but I'm British and have lived in several locations and have NEVER heard anyone speak like this ! I daresay an accent specialist would have great fun here, teasing out the Massachusetts strands, the Cambridge-academic strands, experience of London and Devon, also bearing in mind that Plath was married to a Yorkshireman. All this before one examines that Plath was, by any measure, a highly unusual person who was peculiarly sensitive to language and diction.

Peter K Steinberg said...

As far as I know, there are no images of Plath recording.

The poems I selected were done so intentionally to show Plath's progression as a writer, but also because I think her voice changes, too. I found this particularly so with the middle poems, "Parliament Hill Fields", "Candles", and "Leaving Early". And then by the time she gets to "The Rabbit Catcher" you can forget about it!

Each time I listen I hear a different voice, different emphasis, different emotion. Living in Massachusetts, I definitely pick up the accent more than I used to; having lived also in London, there is something that happens to the accent after a while. The word that also strikes me is "annihilate" in "Lady Lazarus". The only way I've ever heard this before Plath is as "uh-neye-uh-late". I don't know where "uh-ne-hill-ate". I'm not so good with phonetics...

I wish this stuff could travel!! But for anyone who is in the Cambridge (Mass) area the Houghton Library and the Woodberry Poetry Room are open to the public... And if you come to the area let me know, if the timing's right I can take you on a tour. But, then I'll have to "toddle on home to tea."


Anonymous said...


Laurie said...

Peter, thanks for explaining your reasoning for the order of the list of poems. I'm not surprised it is something you put a lot of thought into. So, I set out this morning to try and create a Playlist in my iTunes that reflected your list's order.
I found that Mussel Hunter/Full Fathom/Poppies and Nick and Candlestick are not available from what I have in my house.
Two poems I only have on vinyl:
Rabbit Catcher and
Fever 103, which is available in the Harvard version on one record and the British Orr on another.
But a majority of them is now in a new playlist that I'll pay special attention to later today. And I do have a record player so I'll pause the ipod and have a listen on vinyl where itunes is lacking. It will be fun (I hope).
But, it might have been easier to fly to MA to hear it from you last Friday. Haha.

Panther~Yeah, I would not say she sounds British, but certainly seems to have borrowed some ennunciations. It is a strange mix, but I thought when I first heard her that the Massachusetts accent was prevelant. I'm going to pay closer attention from now on.

panther said...

Laurie, I agree about the ennunciations. It IS a very strange mix, isn't it ? Sometimes her voice sounds quite posh (ghastly word !), even mannered. And I think there's then the issue of the self-consciousness one inevitably feels when one is an outsider.

I daresay that her way of speaking at the time of her breakdown, say, in 1953 was quite a bit different to what it became. And how much has THAT got to do with her psychological development ? I'm sure our voices do change somewhat over time, just as our written signature does.

And then there is the whole fascinating issue of the persona she adopts in some poems-to what extent is Lady Lazarus Sylvia Plath, and so on ?

Laurie said...

Well I had a listen, minus the vinyl because the day has gotten away from me. And I discovered that my itunes Lady Lazarus is not read by Plath, so I missed that. But it was really interesting to pay attention to the chronological order of her 'voice.'
In the 1962 recordings, there was no sense of trying to 'sell' the piece. The diction was straighforward and let the words carry the weight, not so much the voice. I thought this was the case on a sliding scale, working backwards to where in 1958 I got the sense she was really giving everything she had to the reading, with a definate MA-esque accent. The 1959 reading lost much of that accent. And later the British influence really shone through. And then there is the issue of content where Peter has explained and shown where the poems are from a different well of inspiration altogether.
I've probably bored anyone reading this, but thanks Peter for inspiring me to take this little journey with Sylvia's voice as a focal point.
And after listening to these poems, the subject of STONE's really came forward.
And Panther, I agree about the persona. It is hard to separate Sylvia from any of her poems, especially the one's she so easily embodies for us spectators.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I'm glad that the posting inspired a listening of these recorded poems. Sometimes I am "surprised", if I may say that, to listen to poems like "Spinster", "Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor", "Parliament Hill Fields", and other earlier poems. It is obviously the later poetry that gets most of the attention, but it does one good to listen to everything. I hope Faber or the Estate is able to release a collected audio of Sylvia Plath one day - and on CD too. It would be a hot ticket. Does anyone else find it hard to listen to the poems whilst crunching on peanuts??

Laurie said...

A cd bringing All the available Plath audio together would be great.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.