The British Library’s “The Spoken Word” series of CDs feature poets reading their own work from the BBC sound archives and have finally got round to Sylvia Plath (according to the list in the CD, the only other women to feature are Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell). She made 17 radio broadcasts between 20 November 1960 and 10 January 1963, although only 7 survive.
The CD opens with an interview recorded with Ted Hughes, “Two of a Kind” where both were invited to speak about writing poetry and living with another poet. As you’d expect, Ted Hughes is rather reticent and Sylvia Plath more generous with her answers, although the questions are fairly inane and the interview doesn’t reveal anything people aware of both poets’ biographies don’t already know. At the point of the interview both poets are living in a small flat in London with a small child, Frieda, and effectively living off savings and small amounts of income from writing. Sylvia mentions that Ted can write even with the distractions of other people in a room whereas she needs solitude otherwise she’s too tempted to join in the conversation. There are hesitations and interruptions as there always are in a live interview where the subject is not given the questions in advance.
There are poems too, including “Leaving Early” and “Candles” recorded in October 1960, “Mushrooms” recorded in January 1961 along with Ted Hughes reading his “The Pike”, “The Disquieting Muses”, “Spinster”, “Parliament Hill Fields”, “The Stones” recorded June 1961, “The Surgeon at 2 am” recorded in August 1962 and “Berck-Plage” recorded in October 1962, with Sylvia’s brief introductions. At first Sylvia sounds wary and her pronunciation is cautious. So it’s not surprising that where she sounds most at ease in on “Tulips” which was read in front of a live audience rather than in a studio. But the later tracks show her becoming accustomed to reading in a studio and more at ease with presenting the poem as a live recording. Sylvia did read her poems to herself whilst drafting and editing but there’s a huge difference between murmuring to yourself in a study and reading a poem for broadcast.
That’s not to say she was precious about her readings. There’s also a brief interview where she was asked why she stayed in England. She starts with Milton’s tree at Cambridge, wandering round London and see double decker buses and scenes recognisable from Dickens. But goes on to her first experience of English sea: the muddy grey mizzle of Whitby poles apart from growing up on Cape Cod.
Sylvia was hampered by being tone deaf: she would have struggled to hear her own tones as she read so would find it hard if not impossible to judge how the recording sounded to others and whether she’d got the emotional tone right. This would have added to the self-consciousness of the earlier recordings. Tone deafness is a bit of a misnomer in that problem lies with an inability to interpret the tone when listening to someone speak. Seeing someone face to face allows you to see facial expression and body language so you can compensation for what you can’t hear. But when you only have the voice and you can’t interpret whether that voice is happy, sad, irritated, angry, bored, although speed and volume of the voice may hint at the mood of speaker, you’re generally left with just the words. Problem is, most people are sloppy with words because they rely on tone to get their message across. Sylvia would have had a more acute ear for rhythm and sound patternings in works whilst simultaneously being disadvantaged by not being able to interpret the tone the words were said with. It would be more difficult for her to assess how her own recordings sounded.
The CD is rounded off with her review of an anthology, “Contemporary American Poetry”. It’s a shame some of her recordings have been lost but wonderful to hear her read some of her own poems. I could practically feel those tulips burn through their wrapping as she read. Warmly recommended.