It's been a long time coming. For British audiences, there have been three key audio releases concerning the US poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) up to now: Sylvia Plath Reads (1977/1992), The Poet Speaks (1982/1995), and The Voice of the Poet (1999). But this new CD is special: it contains a previously unreleased live recording of Plath reading a poem in a London theatre, providing listeners with the chance to experience the poet in a new, tantalising immediacy. All of her other known poetry recordings occurred in radio studios (usually at the BBC or the British Council). But here, she is introduced by a male host to a live audience and loud applause. She was a relatively unknown poet at the time, more famous as the wife of British poet Ted Hughes than as a writer in her own right.
The Spoken Word CD also contains a 20-minute interview with Plath and Hughes, in which they talk about where they were born, how they met, the differences and similarities between their writing styles, and their placidly domestic life in north London. In contrast to the dark myth that rose about her following her suicide in 1963 aged 30 and which rapidly spread as more and more poems - partly of an unforgiving, terrifying nature, but which also showed sharp wit and humour - came to light, Plath sounds relaxed, chatty and open. In another recording included here, What Made You Stay, Plath is interviewed alone and really comes into her own (it was conducted a month before her marriage suddenly collapsed in the wake of Hughes's affair with Assia Wevill). She talks wittily of her first impressions of England, being offered the choice of a hot water bottle or a cat before she went to bed, and her wonder at seeing real dead pigs and slabs of meat at the local butchers instead of neatly cellophaned chops filling the shelves of the supermarkets she knew from her childhood in Massachusetts.
The recordings, which are presented chronologically, took place in the last two and a half years of her life between October 1960 and January 1963. Alongside these interviews and the live theatre recording, Plath reads nine of her poems, mostly from the 'earlier' period of her writing career. Peter K Steinberg, author of the blog Sylvia Plath Info, provides a 6-page introduction in the booklet. The CD ends on what was probably the last audio recording that Plath made: a mere 32 days before her suicide (the influenza that deepened her difficulties and sense of hopelessness towards the end can be heard), the poet discusses and reads extracts from a new anthology of American verse. This is unmissable, essential listening. (5 stars)
Track listing (the speaker is Plath unless noted otherwise):
1. a) Leaving Early b) Candles 2. Two of a Kind a) Radio interview with Plath and Ted Hughes 18.01.1961 b) Mushrooms (+ introduction) c) Pike (read + introduced by Ted Hughes) 3. a) The Disquieting Muses (+ introduction) b) Spinster (+ introduction) c) Parliament Hill Fields (+ introduction) d) The Stones (+ introduction) 4. Live poetry reading at Mermaid Theatre, London 17.07.1961 a) Plath introduced by unknown male moderator b) Tulips (+ introducton) 5. The Surgeon at 2 a.m. (+ introduction) 6. What Made You Stay? Recorded interview with Plath on why she chose to live and work in the UK 14.04.1962 7. Berck-Plage 8. Plath reviews a recent anthology entitled Contemporary American Poetry, 10.01.1963