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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

16 JULY, 2013

Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love

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“Two people … who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person … one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind.”

In 1960, Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — began recording a series of broadcasts for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice.” At least 17 known broadcasts were produced between November of 1960 and January of 1963, just weeks before Plath took her own life. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive, which also gave us Plath’s beautiful reading of her poem “Tulips” — comes this fascinating 20-minute interview with Plath and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, by BBC’s Owen Leeming. Titled “Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership,” it was recorded on January 18, 1961, and aired on January 31.

Though their actual first encounter was decidedly steamy and salacious, the couple concocts an intellectually revisionist history:

Plath: We kept writing poems to each other, and then it just grew out of that, I guess — a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided we should keep on.

Hughes: The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage, it took a hold. [laughs]

When asked about her childhood, Plath traces the psychoemotional backdrop against which her love of writing developed — the source of both her genius and her tragedy:

I think I was happy up to the age of about nine — very carefree — and I believed in magic, which influenced me a great bit. And then, at nine, I was rather disillusioned — I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers — and became more realistic and depressed, I think, and then, gradually, became a bit more adjusted about the age of sixteen or seventeen. But I certainly didn’t have a happy adolescence — and, perhaps, that’s partly why I turned specially to writing — I wrote diaries, stories, and so forth. I was quite introverted during those early years.

When Leeming asks Hughes whether he thinks their two temperaments are “parallel” or “in conflict” — a “marriage of opposites” — the poet gives an answer that is at once mystical, poetic, and strangely ominous in the retrospective context of what the imminent future was to bring:

We’re very alike — we like the same things, live at the same tempo, have the same sort of rhythm in almost every way. But obviously this is a very fortunate covering for temperaments that are extremely different. But they lead secret lives, you see — they content themselves in an imaginative world, so they never really come into open conflict.

In discussing the various ways in which the two have been making ends meet, Plath articulates something that would resonate deeply with most writers:

We actually look ahead from year to year, and try very hard not to look ahead beyond that … when you’re writing, you don’t do any twenty-year pension plans or anything of that sort, and need a bit more faith and brazenness perhaps than if one has a steady job. [But] I wouldn’t [have it any other way], even being a very practical and domestic housewife as I am — I think the advantages are too great to want to change.

Though jokingly offered, Hughes touches on the “hedonic treadmill” of consumerism and contributes a sad insight on material culture:

You begin to worry about money when you get a job.

(Cue in this wonderful guide to how to worry less about money.)

When asked at what stage they are going to start introducing their nine-month-old daughter Frieda to poetry, Plath, who had herself just authored a couple of little-known and lovely books of children’s verse, argues that there is no room for snobbery when it comes to priming children for poetry:

She already has listened to nursery rhymes, which I consider a poetry — I don’t believe in being self-conscious about it. I think that everything from little nursery rhymes and songs to Eliot’s Practical Cats is perfect material.

Hughes offers a beautiful meditation on the power of creative intimacy — something manifested in this lovely modern-day example — in which two people who are romantically intertwined also serve as springboards for each other’s interpretation of reality:

What she writes out needn’t be at all the contents of her own mind — it needn’t be anything she knows — but it’s something that somebody in the room knows, or somebody that she’s very close to knows. And, in this way, two people who are sympathetic to each other and who are right, who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person — they make up one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind. … It’s not that you choose the same things to write about, necessarily, and you certainly don’t write about them in the same way — it’s that you draw on an experience, it’s as though you knew more about something than you, from your own life, have ever really learned. . .

It’s a complicated idea to get across, because you’ve first of all to believe in this sort of telepathic union exists between two sympathetic people.

Pair The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath with Plath on life, death, hope and happiness and Hughes’s exquisite letter of existential advice to their son.

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09 JULY, 2013

Sylvia Plath Reads Her Moving Poem “Tulips”: A Rare 1961 BBC Recording

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“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.”

Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — endures as one of the most influential yet poorly understood figures in literary history.

In 1957, Plath approached the BBC, submitting a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. Plath kept trying. By the summer of 1960, she finally broke through and two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath’s voice regularly graced the BBC airwaves, producing at least 17 known broadcasts. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive — comes Plath’s exquisite reading of her poem “Tulips,” written in 1961 and published in Plath’s posthumous volume Ariel (public library), one of the most memorable and important poetry collections in modern literature.

Penned two years after Plath’s lovely children’s story about the perils of self-consciousness and two years before her suicide, “Tulips” was inspired by a bouquet of flowers the poet received while recovering from an appendectomy at the hospital and bespeaks in equal measure a serene inner stillness and a subtle existential emptiness, which Plath’s evocative voice, at once sensual and stern, channels with unequaled mesmerism:

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage —
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free —
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

All tracks on The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath are an absolute treasure, and Ariel remains an indispensable piece of literary history.

Complement with the only surviving sound of Virginia Woolf speaking, also for the BBC, and the only known recording of Walt Whitman’s voice. Also enjoy Plath reading “A Birthday Present.”

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12 JUNE, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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What a catalog of superficiality reveals about the complex inner worlds of young women.

On June 1, 1953, twenty women in the summer before their senior year of college were selected to travel to New York City from all over the United States to work for one month as guest editors of the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. The young women had already been members of Mademoiselle’s College Board, feeding tips about college life to editors in New York “on frosted pink paper…the general effect was that you were corresponding with an older, very stylish, very sweet, and very pretty friend.”

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (public library) by Elizabeth Widmer is a fascinating chronicle of a busy month in the lives of these twenty young women, made famous by one of their own when guest editor Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known artist and children’s book author, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — published her novel The Bell Jar under a pseudonym in 1963. In writing about Sylvia Plath’s life before her marriage, many have tried to scour her letters, her diaries, her taste in clothes, music, poems, and men, as signposts on the way to an inevitable end, and her month at Mademoiselle as the breakdown that started it all. But this short time was also a period of joyful and intense work for nineteen other women, a summer that was far more about living than dying. In 2003, when the surviving women returned the Barbizon, the hotel for women where the guest editors lived, it was apparent that the famous month was a sliver of time in the lives of these women: “You rarely have a reunion of people who only knew each other for a few weeks.”

'Six Girls in a Two Room Apartment in Greenwich Village, New York,' from LIFE Magazine, January 1954 (Photograph by Lisa Larsen)

In the early 1950s, the single girl living in the city was such a curious phenomenon that the merited a spread in LIFE Magazine, curious about how a young girl could possibly take care of herself at the age of twenty. An array of objects stands in for their hopes and dreams:

There are makeshift desks piled with raspberry jam, toast, tea-cups, leaf-shaped ashtrays and packs of Chesterfield cigarettes. Black Bakelite telephones, hatboxes, and corkboards pinned with glamour shots and modeling cards. Rusty radiators, guitar propped by the window…

It’s a telling description of the Mademoiselle girl, a catalog of accomplishments and things, more suitcase than personality. In her application letter to Mademoiselle, Sylvia addressed her vocational skills: she was a “skilled” waitress, an “excellent” spinach-picker, a governess, a villanelle writer, and a “reasonably” good typist. Her first assignment was to interview the poet Elizabeth Bowen, (and for Sylvia to have her photograph taken while interviewing her). She was concerned about her appearance as she knew it was a powerful and creative force. For months before she left, she had collected “blouses of sheer nylon, straight gray skirts, tight black jerseys, and black heeled pumps.” She wore her very best outfit to interview Bowen, with pearls, gloves, and a hat.

Sylvia Plath is photographed while interviewing poet Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle

One of the most confounding and exhausting parts of the experience was that the girls were both charged with creating a product — writing and editing an issue of Mademoiselle — and simultaneously living that product, showing up neatly pressed to cocktail parties, attending lingerie shows. That June was hot during the week, and it rained every weekend, but the pressure remained to appear dewy and fresh each morning. The month was a mania of seeing and being seen, where every girl expected to be both the model and the mind. The “Millie” guest editor was a member of the most glamorous finishing school of the day, in which the final product was shipped to young women all over the country.

Plath in a Mademoiselle photo shoot of the guest editors

June, 1953 may have been one of the most well-documented months in Sylvia Plath’s life, but she barely wrote about it in her diary. On the night of Friday, June 26, the girls celebrated their last night on the rooftop of the Barbizon, and Sylvia hauled up her suitcase and threw every last nylon, slip, skirt, and blouse off the roof. The next day, she borrowed a skirt and peasant top and, without a single item she brought with her to New York, took the train back home. There was no job after the month at Mademoiselle. Any girl who stayed in the city had likely been spotted by a model scout or hired by a fashion designer she had met during the monthlong gig.

That August, the college issue of Mademoiselle went on newsstands. It contained thirty-three advertisements for secretary schools, an article written by Sylvia about famous poets teaching on college campuses, a column by the inventor of the “Beat Generation” that claimed “careers are passé among young women” next to an add for blouses with French cuffs for career girls, ideas for dorm crafts, how to pin the perfect curl, and tips on finding the perfect Ivy League boyfriend.

Only nine years later, a new kind of magazine would give young women hope for an empowered existence.

The August 1953 college issue of Mademoiselle, which Sylvia Plath worked on.

The college girl, the career girl, and the wife each had their set of accessories, and the choices women had — to be an intellectual, a mother, an editor — were characters to play, not lives to live. That July, small tragedies compounded for Sylvia: a rejection from a fiction writing class, a boyfriend leaving for officer training, depression, electroshock therapy, and twenty-one days without sleep. On August 24, just as her issue was about to leave newsstands forever, Sylvia crawled into the basement of her house with a bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills and made her first medically documented suicide attempt.

Pain, Parties, Work might at first appear like a frivolous account — a catalog of clothes, shoes, haircuts, suitcases, lunches, dates, parties, typewriters, letters, nylons, and men — but it allows that the banalities of the exterior life do affect the interior life, that madness, moods, and depth of feeling exist within the same world as morning coffee and an egg sandwich on the way to work. Most of the working women of Mademoiselle didn’t simply exist on a polar scale of benign beauties and basket cases, burning out their creative energies, but instead lived in that month the best anyone could, and moved on. Complement it with 18-year-old Plath’s meditation on life, death, hope, and happiness.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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