Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, presents a moving reading of her mother’s work at the British Library, on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death.
“My name is Frieda Hughes and Sylvia Plath is my mother.” So began a fascinating and very moving poetry reading held last night at the British Library, as part of the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour; a series of poetry readings by well-known actors, encompassing the work of T S Eliot, Lord Byron and Christina Rossetti among others.
2013 marks 50 years since Plath’s suicide and in a fitting tribute, a selection of Plath’s poems were read aloud to a packed audience by the actors Joanna David and her daughter Emilia Fox. The recordings will be added to The Poetry App, which allows people to access a wealth of digital poetry. Hughes accompanied the poems with introductions written by Josephine Hart, a writer and passionate evangelist for poetry, who died in 2011.
The evening was separated into three groups of five poems, read alternately between David and Fox. They were read in chronological order, which gave an excellent sense of how events in Plath’s turbulent life influenced her work. As Hart wrote: “Her work and her life – and rarely has a life of a writer been more intertwined with the work – challenges artistically, psychologically, philosophically and morally.”
The first five poems were written between 1956-59, a time dominated by creativity, passion and marriage, despite the fact that Plath’s young life had already been devastated by the abrupt death of her father when she was eight, and despite her already agonising battle with depression. In 1956 she married the poet Ted Hughes, and wrote to her mother, “I have never been so exultant.” These poems contained the wonderfully humorous but also menacing Mushrooms and the disturbing The Thin People, filled with its terrifying Holocaust imagery.
The second batch of poems were written between 1959-61. As Hughes explained, this was a time of exhilaration and joy for Plath, but also one of growing tension and stress. During this period, she gave birth to her two children, but she also became desperately possessive of Hughes. She suffered a miscarriage, which was then followed by an appendectomy – her various experiences in hospital greatly influenced her work.
The highlight of this section, and perhaps of the entire evening, was undeniably the jubilant Morning Song, in which Plath expresses her joy at the birth of her daughter, Frieda. The poem contains the famous line: Love set you going like a fat gold watch. It was made all the more emotional to have a poem about Frieda read aloud by David as Frieda sat next to her, a sad smile on her face.
David spoke later of the experience: “It was very moving to be standing on a stage with Sylvia Plath’s daughter. I was very specifically thinking of Frieda in that poem, but I shall ever read it and reread it and think of my own children being born and my granddaughter Rose.
“Frieda was so controlled talking about her parents, which I think is very, very tough for her. But she did it beautifully.”
During the autumn of 1962, Plath wrote the poems which would form her posthumous collection, Ariel, and for which she is best remembered. She had recently separated from Hughes, after he embarked on an affair with Assia Wevill. In an energetic, prolific burst of activity, 40 poems were written in a two-month period. Hart noted the irony of the Ariel poems: “Although Sylvia Plath arranged her manuscript so that it began with the word ‘love’ and ended with the word ‘spring’, they are some of the most shockingly powerful, wildly exhilarating and most frightening poems in literature.”
David described to me the incredible power of Plath’s final work, and the effect Plath’s poems had on her own life. “We know now what her tragic ending was, but she painted such pictures of what had happened to her in her life. She was incredibly strong, in spite of having this frailty, which I find fascinating. I have been terribly depressed in the past and was in a psychiatric hospital twice, and it’s riveting looking into an artist like Plath, a writer who has been in those depths of despair, and how she was able to get outside it, and write.
“When you’ve been depressed like that, at the time, you cannot believe you will ever, ever be normal again, or get out of it. That has had a very profound effect on me.”
The evening concluded with the two poems, Words and Edge, which were written in January and February 1963. On 11th February 1963, Plath took her own life, prompting her mother to write: “Her energies have been depleted by illness, anxiety and overwork. For although she had for so long managed to be gallant and equal to the life experience, some darker day than usual had temporarily made it seem impossible to pursue.”
Edge was the only poem read by Hughes, herself a poet. She had arranged the evening beautifully, the power of Plath’s enduring brilliance and mastery as a poet almost eclipsing the details of her tragic life. As Hart herself mused: “This woman is not a victim. She is quite splendid I think.”
To listen to a combination of modern and classic poems, including recordings from the Sylvia Plath reading, download the app, now available on iTunes or Google Play for Android, iPad and iPhone devices.