WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

In her own voice: Sylvia Plath

Posted in In her voice by Adair Jones on January 13, 2012

Although I’ve read Plath’s poems many times, there is something powerful about hearing them read in the author’s own voice.  There are many recordings up on YouTube–some, unfortunately, that take more than a few liberties with her words and style.  When the recording of Plath reading her poems is set to images, I think Mishima does it best.  The first two recordings I include are theirs; the final one is from Drew Arriola, who has simply and elegantly juxtaposed Plath’s voice with a couple of well-chosen portraits.

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‘Daddy’ was written on 12 October 1962, only months before her death the following February.  It was published posthumously in Ariel in 1965.  ‘Daddy’ can be read autobiographically in that it captures the complexity of her relationship with her father, who died when she was eight and who shadowed her life and romantic relationships.  But it can also be read more widely as a rejection of the kind of authority that gives the world a Hitler.

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‘Lady Lazarus’, also published in Ariel in 1965, is similar in tone and content to ‘Daddy’.  There are allusions to World War II, both the struggle against Nazi Germany and the war against Japan.  But I always read this poem as a personal one.  It catalogues her previous suicide attempts and anticipates the one in February 1963 that would claim her life.  It is chilling to listen to her refer to the phoenix, a mythological bird that rises from the ashes, particularly since her friend, the critic A. Alvarez, believed that she never intended to kill herself that cold February morning.  She had set up a situation in which she would be discovered just at the final moment.  Unfortunately, the gas leaked into the apartment below, making the tenant sleep heavily.  He did not hear the bell when the nanny arrived for her scheduled  ‘interview’ with Plath.  The nanny waited patiently outside, thinking Plath must be out on an errand; in the meantime, Plath lay dying.  When the alarm was finally raised, it was too late.

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‘The Stones’, written in 1959 was part of a long meditative work, ‘Poem for a Birthday’, which celebrated Roethke as it was deeply influenced by him.   In fact, when the poem was submitted to Poetry, it was rejected for being derivative.  When it was submitted as part of The Colossus to Knopf, it was a condition of it’s acceptance that ‘Poem for a Birthday’ be cut.  Plath agreed, but transformed two of its sections for inclusion as individual poems: ‘Flute Notes from a Reedy Pond’ and ‘The Stones’.

‘The Stones’ is one of Plath’s many poems that relies on the idea of the double, the false self and the true self gripped in battle.  Plath lived this at every stage: the agreeable daughter, the good girl, the brilliant student battling the dark and damaged rebel; the sunny, pony-tailed American in postwar England at odds with the sexually independent woman coming of age; the cheerfully energetic housewife alternating with the fiercely feeling depressive, full of angst and violence.  ‘The Stones’ was written before the Ariel poems, but it encapsulates their themes and rhythms.

Calling it “unlike anything that had gone before in her work”, her husband Ted Hughes said:

In its double focus, ‘The Stones’, is both a ‘birth’ and a ‘rebirth’. It is the birth of her real poetic voice, but it is the rebirth of herself. That poem encapsulates, with literal details, her ‘death’, her treatment, and her slow, buried recovery. And this is where we can see the pecularity of her imagination at work, where we can see how the substance of her poetry and the very substance of her survival are the same.

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