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Sylvia Plath Speaks: a review of The Spoken Word

The following is a review of the British Library's recent publication The Spoken Word and is written by Dr. Gail Crowther.

Sylvia Plath Speaks: a review of The Spoken Word

First, there is the packaging.

Slick hues of black and grey with dashes of red and yellow. The disc case sits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Turn it over to see the track listings, all the surviving BBC broadcasts from the years 1960-1963.

Remove the booklet; a flash of yellow on the back page with the distinctive British Library logo. Open the first page and fall straight into Peter K Steinberg’s introduction. Sharp, authoritative and full of energy, he guides us through the contents of the CD, telling us what to listen out for, bringing alive the sound of Plath’s breath, the shuffling of her papers, the background sniggering of her interviewer as she makes another Esther Greenwood-like wisecrack. This introduction also prepares us for the sheer output and involvement that Plath had with the BBC in that three year time span. It was not just her own poems she read over the air but other people’s poems or interviews she gave and, in the final recording, a review of an American anthology by Donald Hall. Steinberg neatly lays out for us the chronology of it all, the developments, not only in Plath’s reading voice, but the way in which her writing style changed to accommodate the oral performance of her poems. ‘I’ve got to say them, I speak them to myself...I say them aloud’ (Orr 1966: 170). Steinberg describes how her 1961 reading of ‘Mushrooms’ ‘pours without blemish into the ear.’ He also offers evidence of Plath’s increasing confidence with the spoken word cataloguing how three different recordings of ‘The Disquieting Muses’ gradually become longer and slower, the final recording lasting almost half a minute longer than the first one made. Steinberg highlights that ‘these lengthening durations suggest not only increasing comfort with the poems, but also a greater patience in the way she sought them to be rendered’.

There is little that can prepare you for the blast of Plath’s voice from the disc, and that, along with Steinberg’s intelligent introduction, is the great delight of The Spoken Word. The past’s ability to suddenly rear into the present as if it had never been away, is one of the most thrilling aspects of listening to these recordings. Although mainly an aural experience, Plath’s presence is also somehow palpable – you hear movement, breathing, sighs and papers. Her chuckle is very immediate. In the staggering live recording of ‘Tulips’ from the Mermaid Theatre in 1961, you hear a slight nervousness in Plath’s voice before she quickly regains composure and enters her stride. The sounds around the theatre are clear, people walking, moving and coughing. Again, there is an immediacy, as though it were live, here and now, as you listen.

‘What Made You Stay’ is another highlight in which Plath describes her experiences of being an American woman in England. This recording is of slightly poorer quality, perhaps as a result of being recorded on a piece of mobile equipment in her living room in Devon. Nevertheless, Plath’s wit and candour leap out. At times if you listen carefully – and Steinberg notes this in his introduction – you can hear the interviewer, Marvin Kane, choking on his laughter. Hardly surprising given her accounts of the British weather, seaside holidays in the rain, butcher’s shops and the bizarre choice of needlepoint in the first home she stayed in. Her bewilderment at certain English customs is the focus of the humour here, a sort of gentle trans-Atlantic culture clash.

There are too many wonderful moments on this disc to list here, but apart from the above, some other highlights for me were the melancholic reading of ‘Berck-Plage’ and the very different sounding Plath of the ‘New Comment’ recording. This was, as Steinberg points out, a different direction for Plath as a critic and reviewer, and one in which she excelled.

This disc is essential for many reasons; for those of us who love Plath’s work, for those who study her texts and, perhaps even, to open a whole new area of scholarship about the audio Plath, started by Kate Moses in Anita Helle’s book The Unraveling Archive.

But most importantly this disc is for those of us who want to listen to Plath and what she had to say. It is the spoken word and Sylvia Plath speaks; clearly and boldly, straight to us.

Gail Crowther 15/04/10

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