01 July 2019

Sylvia Plath: The Living Poet

One of the most remarkable aspects that the British Library Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath CD—published in 2010 and lamentably out of print—captures and presents can be found in tracks 8-16, or, those from "The Living Poet" broadcast on the B.B.C.'s Third Programme. "The Living Poet" aired just about monthly and featured other Americans in 1961: Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Stanley Kunitz. Plath was the first female that year and shared the reading of her work with the American actor Marvin Kane. He read five poems and she read four.

The introduction to that broadcast, written and spoken by Plath, is very clearly by the author of the poems of The Colossus. What I mean by this is it is eloquent, yet kind of floral. The poems, as they were recorded, are:

"The Disquieting Muses" (read by SP);
"Sleep in the Mojave Desert" (read by Kane);
"Suicide Off Egg Rock" (read by Kane);
"Spinster" (read by SP);
"Parliament Hill Fields" (read by SP);
"You’re" (read by Kane);
"Magi" (read by Kane);
"Medallion" (read by Kane); and
"The Stones" (read by SP).

Though the poems are not read strictly in chronological order from their dates of composition, there is a progression evident.

Much has been written on the voices of Sylvia Plath, and how there are really distinctive phases in her poetic development. That is one definition of voice; the other is her literal voice which was captured by recording equipment. Al Alvarez has perhaps most famously described the Sylvia Plath he knew between 1960 and 1962/3 as being several women and he would have been exposed to both definitions of Plath's voice. When he first met her she was in the shadow of her husbands fame. He writes, "the poet taking a back seat to the young mother and housewife" (Savage God, 22). Then the tables turned and she was very much her own woman. In June 1962, Alvarez said "Sylvia had changed. No longer quiet and withheld, a housewifely appendage to a powerful husband, she seemed made solid and complete, her own woman again" (Savage God, 28). By Christmas Eve 1962, the last time they met, she was "a priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult" (Where Did It All Go Right?, 232). In many respects you can hear this transformation throughout the broadcast of "The Living Poet".


Plath was in France with Ted Hughes at the Merwin's farm when the program aired on Saturday 8 July 1961. In her 2 July 1961 postcard to her mother she included a postscript about listening to the performance. I would love to know if Mrs. Plath listened to it and what she thought of it.

The British Library holds the full recording of "The Living Poet". Of the poems read by Kane, however, I wish most of all that Plath, not he, had read "Suicide Off Egg Rock," particularly as I would like nothing more than to hear Plath speak:
"Sun struck the water like a damnation.
No pit of shadow to crawl into,
And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am..."
If you are ever able to hear the full recording I strongly suggest that you do. Recordings preserve the archive of the voice. Sometimes they revivify the speaker in ways that truly blur the past with the present. For example, sometimes one can hear both the intake and exhalation of breath. What is more affirming of life than that! Another is that the microphone picks up dexterous sound executed by hands and fingers in the act of shuffling paper or turning the page.

All links accessed 28 June 2019.

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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.

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