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Sylvia Plath Reads “A Birthday Present”: A Rare 1962 Recording

“I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all I am alive only by accident.”

Sylvia Plath’s is one of the most heartbreaking tragedies in modern literary history. How does a creature so breathlessly and earnestly in love with the world, in love with art, and in love with love come to take her own life?

In October of 1962, mere months before her death, Plath recorded herself reading “A Birthday Present,” written the previous month and later included in her beloved poetry collection Ariel. The recording was one of several broadcasts Plath participated in for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice” and survives on The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. With lines like “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all I am alive only by accident. / I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way,” the poem stops you dead in your tracks as you absorb the quiet catastrophe of Plath’s fate and simultaneously behold the all-too-human, universal terror that birthdays stir in all of us, that subtle but inevitable reminder of our own mortality. And yet — “sweetly, sweetly” — perhaps you’re moved to reach for, to choose, a different truth, the one 18-year-old Sylvia knew when she wrote, “I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have.”

A Birthday Present

What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?

I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking

Is this the one I am to appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?

Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.

Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!’

But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.
I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button.

I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
After all I am alive only by accident.

I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,

The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies’ bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory!

It must be a tusk there, a ghost column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is.

Can you not give it to me?
Do not be ashamed–I do not mind if it is small.

Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,

The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.

I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrified

The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,
Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,

A marvel to your great-grandchildren.
Do not be afraid, it is not so.

I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle,

No falling ribbons, no scream at the end.
I do not think you credit me with this discretion.

If you only knew how the veils were killing my days.
To you they are only transparencies, clear air.

But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.

Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles, with the million

Probable motes that tick the years off my life.
You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine—–

Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?
Must you stamp each piece purple,

Must you kill what you can?
There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.

It stands at my window, big as the sky.
It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center

Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.

Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty
By the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it.

Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.

Thanks, Natascha

BP

The Etymology of “Hangover”

What George Washington and coarse French fabric have to do with the language of drunkenness.

The fringes of language have a special kind of allure, especially when it comes to the unsuspected origins of common words. That’s precisely what Mark Forsyth explores with equal parts wryness, curiosity, and erudition in The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (public library), based on his popular language-geekery blog The Inky Fool. Among Forsyth’s fascinating, meandering stories of linguistic historicity is that of the hangover — a phenomenon encrusted with rich empirical familiarity, and even some scientific knowledge, but paltry etymological grasp.

[George Washington] had an elder half-brother and mentor called Lawrence Washington who had, in fact, been a British soldier. Specifically, he was a marine in the Royal Navy. As a recruit from the British dominions in North America, he served under Admiral Edward Vernon in the Caribbean, and was part of the force that seized a strategically important base called Guantánamo, which has some minor position in modern history.

Lawrence Washington was very attached to admiral Vernon. So loyal was he that when he went home to the family estate, which had been called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, he decided to rename it Mount Vernon. So Washington’s house was named after a British admiral.

Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, though. In 1739 Vernon led the British assault on Porto Bello in what is now Panama. He had only six ships, but with lots of derring-do and British pluck, et cetera, he won a startling victory. In fact, so startling was the victory that a patriotic English farmer heard the news, dashed off to the countryside west of London, and built Portobello Farm in honour of the victory’s startlingness. Green’s Lane, which was nearby, soon became known as Portobello Lane and then Portobello Road. And that’s why the London market, now one of the largest antiques markets in the world, is called Portobello Market.

But Admiral Vernon’s naming exploits didn’t end there, either. When the seas were stormy he used to wear a thick coat made out of coarse material called grogram (from the French gros grain). So his men nicknamed him Old Grog.

British sailors used to have a daily allowance of rum. In 1740, flushed from victory at Porto Bello and perhaps under the pernicious influence of Lawrence Washington, Vernon ordered that the rum be watered down. The resulting mixture, which eventually became standard for the whole navy, was also named after Vernon. It was called grog.

If you drank too much grog you became drunk or groggy, and the meaning has slowly shifted from there to the wages of gin: a hangover.

The rest of The Etymologicon traces curious linguistic origin stories connecting concepts as seemingly unrelated as sex and bread, Medieval monks and cappuccino, sausage poison and botox, and much more.

BP

Susan Sontag on the Creative Purpose of Boredom

“Most of the interesting art of our time is boring.”

Artist Maira Kalman believes that it’s very important not to be bored for too long. And yet the history of boredom shows that boredom has an essential function in the history of art.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 is the sequel to Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, which gave us Sontag’s rules and duties for being 24, her 10 guidelines for raising a child, and her love, death, art and freedom.

BP

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