An Evening with Sylvia Plath (Sort Of)

Image: mike krzeszak.
Image: Mike Krzeszak.

This event strived to showcase one of the most culturally dissected poets ‘in her own words’ – quite a substantial claim. And nowhere is this more difficult than in the academically debated yet illusive life and works of Sylvia Plath. The arts charity Poet in the City discussed some of these concerns, with testimonials from academic professionals and artists alike, along with readings by the actor Juliet Stevenson.

Beginning with the dulcet yet dry tones of Sylvia herself, the auditorium was filled with her strangely anglicised American voice, crystal clear with a hint of sharp intonation. There was a sort of awkward inexpressibility to it that comes with hearing the author read their own work, their words already a shadow of the thoughts and feelings that created them.

Consequently actor Julia Stevenson’s readings were an entirely different experience, her enunciation on point, knowing exactly where to stress and where to not, professional interpretation, not catharsis. The readings ranged from Plath’s juvenilia, Wuthering Heights providing an insight into the developing artistic mind, gently introducing the Plath tropes of wilderness, nature and sexuality, onto darker poems such as Daddy, Stevenson putting in an electrifying performance, her pace escalating from the forlorn to the furious: ‘Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’

A personal highlight was her reading of Lady Lazarus, a defiant yet disturbed poem, her tone perfectly reflecting the violent bitterness, encapsulated in the powerful final rhyme: ‘I rise with my red hair and eat men like air.’ An unsettling atmosphere resulted from Stevenson’s delivery, falling down upon the audience like the tangible, stubborn remains of ash in the poem.

Alongside these readings were short presentations from professionals and admirers of Plath’s work. Andrew Wilson, biographer of Plath in ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ discussed Plath’s anger at the woman’s role in the sexually censored 1950’s, a frustration that found its way into her work. Discussing Plath’s necessity when bringing a boy home to dim the lights so as not to show the rips and stains in the wallpaper only exemplifies the taboo nature of her difficult family life and the barriers put upon her own sexuality.

Dr Jo Gill followed on from this, offering a new interpretation and close reading of Plath’s work which determinedly veered away from the biographical limits. Historical contexts such as the Cold War were offered in interpretation of her work, a far cry from the personal neuroticism typically associated with it.

From both academics came an awareness of the extensive archives of Plath’s life, an attempt to keep something of her alive in documents and photographs. Wilson talked of photographs of Plath looking vibrant and beautiful, considered against jarring testimonies of her unpredictable mental health. What became clear was that both speakers were extensively knowledgeable of Plath’s life, and their consciousness of time constraints came across as something of a shame, giving away only a tantalising sampler of their understanding.

A particularly poignant moment was artist Liza Garza’s touching memorial to Plath, placing her in an inspirational group of women whose creative licence had enhanced the female voice. Garza emphasised Plath’s role as a ‘sister’ not just the voice behind the page, but a human and truthful depiction. It acted as an addition to the analysis of Plath’s words by the previous speakers, allowing for a realisation of Plath not just in the fragmented semantics of words on a page, but of her own humanity.

The proceeding conclusion acted as a fitting reminder of Plath’s legacy, from ‘Plath herself’, reciting Mushrooms, where she makes the powerful final statement: ‘We shall inherit the Earth, our foot’s in the door.’ Plath was never to inherit the Earth, but perhaps that was the point, its intricacies and contradictions acting as the lagging ‘paperweight’ on her art and overwhelming her thoughts.

These discussions facilitated an understanding, not necessarily in her own words, but with the voices of those who were completely enamoured by her work, and wished to bring an essence of her artistry back through the voices of others – not simply the ‘tortured dead artist’ but the defiant artistic voice riddled by the constraints of biography.

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