A voice conveys so much about a person. I know as an immigrant, both the plus and the minus of this and I know that when I first came to the states, I would have done anything to get rid of an accent that brought me nothing but mostly grief, save for the occasional comment (that I still get) that it’s “cute” a word that exists in American, but not in English. In England, we don’t do cute, alas, and so this never connoted anything good.
And thinking about voice lately after thinking about poetry and how poetry was meant, intended that is, to be read aloud, I set out to see if I could find any original recordings of the poets that I was curious about. Of course, too many are not recorded because they are simply too old and their work too long ago. What I would give to hear Tennyson – but I am left to deal with what history has given us and I write to you today of Sylvia Plath.
I chose Plath because, like her or hate her or don’t give a hoot either way, she has become an important character in the field, and not just because of her death, but mostly because of her last book Ariel, written in the few short months before her death when it seems she was a poem machine, churning out the best work of her life, in fact, some of the best work period, and the work that, as she had predicted at the time, “would make her name.” Too bad she didn’t stick around to see it happen, for it would have happened regardless. Sylvia Plath is not famous solely because she killed herself. Let’s face it; lots of not so talented poet wannabes kill themselves or make half-hearted attempts and never achieve the measure of fame and myth that our Ms. Plath has achieved. No. Face the ugly truth, which is that like her or hate her, Plath had a rare gift for slicing through the bullshit (unless it was her own), and in particular, her husband’s bullshit, and telling us like it is an this icy and aloof tone and turn of phrase that made one almost glad that he was a cheating bastard because never before had infidelity been written about so brilliantly cuttingly. Of course, this kind of work can only grow out of great pain, and for this, I am truly sorry. But it happened and we are left with the remnants and we sift through them.
I have read all of Plath’s earlier work, including her stories and thought them good, but no better than most of the students I’ve had or some of the work I heard girls read in high school. It wasn’t until Ariel that I sat up and paid attention for here she gets to the root of the matter. But what were these poems meant to sound like I wondered, and so went in search of audio Plath.
I tell you, there is not very much to find; a few clips here and there but the rest you have to pay for. Not much is free and I do intend to buy the Plath recordings because now I’ve heard a few, I want to review the lot. First though, here, let me tell you about the few that I did manage to download and listen to. I found “Lady Lazarus,” the famous “Daddy,” (some would say her most important work, though I disagree), “Stones” and “November Graveyard.” I also found them all from different sources, which was interesting. None had all of the poems. It was a real hunt and peck.
Plath’s voice came through the wire as a shock. What I heard was not a thirty year old woman in the last months before her life – or that is what I heard, technically speaking. An old BBC recording from the year of her death, 1963, when she was still a young woman and just barely thirty. This was the voice of a sixty year old schoolmarm. I am quite used to the accent – pure Winthrop, Massachusetts, with its hard vowels and aahhs and flat affect, but Ms. Plath sounded more like an uptight school teacher giving us all a lesson on elocution. The other thing I noticed was that, and this part was less of a surprise, there was not a shred of humor in the tone. Now, I know that asking for a sense of humor from someone who is about to commit suicide is a tough thing, but I suppose I expected at least some sense of irony – irony because Ted Hughes, for all his sin and rubbish, was just being Ted Hughes. He was having his little sordid affair with Assia Weevil because she was different and he was bored and he was always a flirt and a charmer and couldn’t resist any woman who wanted him. Ted Hughes, for as much as he was our Ted Huge with his ego etc., was always an insecure man, and in this way, I can’t help but see him as a rather pathetic figure. Some part of me had hoped, or for all these years believed, that our Sivvy had seen this too. She had seen it because I had read about it in Ariel. I had read about her “Rabbit Catcher” and I had seen him mocked, shredded, put squarely back in his place, scoffed at, chided the way one would a child because that was all it deserved – that and a swift divorce perhaps – but certainly, his affair with Assia Weevil and any others before that as hurtful as they no doubt were, were never reason enough for someone of Plath’s intellect to actually end her life over. He was abusive, no doubt. He was a liar. All of these things, but Plath as we know had tested incredibly high on IQ tests, she had a good measure of success, and if she had just waited it out, her Ariel poems would have, and in fact did post-humously, have surpassed her ex-husband’s work if she had just waited long enough for the ex part.
The problem with Plath, and this is what her voice betrays, is that she could not see this. She was utterly lacking in any ability to get away from herself. For many poets, some of the best poets, their subject is the self, but often there is enough distance that the self becomes a stand in for what is universal. For a thing or an event or a quality that many or all can relate to. That is what makes good poetry transcendent. That is what keeps us reading, and even Plath managed to achieve this quality for there are millions of women who can relate to her work. Yet when I hear her read, she lost me. In place of that strong, albeit cold, woman who had a firm grip on the situation and was embittered yes, but who could blame her. I found a woman who could not, sadly, get any distance at all. Who was squarely in the thick of it, so much so that when in her Daddy poem she compares her father to Hitler, there is not a single note of irony or self-awareness to be found. Her father’s death feels to her what she imagines it must have been to be a Jew in a concentration camp. This kind of comparison is so extremely far-fetched and dramatic that, while it no doubt hurt a nine-year-old girl, it’s too much. She loses us.
When I had read the work, I hadn’t taken it so literally. I had added a bit of mirth, a bit of irony, a bit of self-awareness. I have even myself in a poem said that one had “Goering-ed it up” which was likening someone to Goering – to the person he was, elaborate, fussy, arrogant, vain, the famous “clothes horse” and that seemed appropriate and most agreed. But to so literally believe that your father leaving you through no fault of his own, by dying, is to make him like Hitler is a bit too much to take. How can we take this seriously? Haven’t we all lost those we love and been hurt, even at a young age? Did we ever think that our pain came close to that of those people who lost generations of their family in concentration camps?
The point I make here is the point I’ve always made about poetry and that is that poetry is meant to be read aloud. It’s hard to get a sense of what a poem is about or how the poet intends the poem if you do not hear them read it. Gone are the days of bards when reading poetry aloud was a regular practice. Now, the best we can hope for is a poorly attended slam at a bad coffee house, though frankly, that’s better than nothing and if we work on these slams and organize more readings, maybe we can get poetry back to what it’s mean to be. I’ve always felt it is of and for the people and that’s where it belongs. Poems are meant to be judged, to be felt, to be heard and to ring. Plath, alas, does not ring. She falls flat. She sounds so very old – at least sixty or more. A timorous voice, nervous and slightly mousy. Lacking in affect, but not so much that we don’t know that behind this Medea, this woman she created who was all strength and ice, there is still a frightened little girl and in a way, that’s a real let down. I had allowed myself to believe that in Ariel, although I knew Plath had committed suicide and no doubt this had something to do with her marriage, or more, with her husband’s infidelities (how could it not – an affair is just about the most devastating thing that can happen to anyone, next to the death of a relative, according to most psychiatrists.) I could understand a certain fragility in her voice, under the circumstances, and given that was likely having some kind of nervous breakdown, by most accounts. But I didn’t even find that.
I found a humorless, old, worn down, and overly self-involved woman who just can’t see irony anywhere. Who cannot see that the man she married is, afterall, just being himself. Maybe he’s a jerk, maybe not, but the fact is, Ted Hughes didn’t change – he was that way when she met him (at a party with another girl) and that way when she died (at a flat with another girl, his white fox, his foreign and lithe and prowling jaguar, the various metaphors he used for Assia – who, fyi, also took her life after finding out that he was cheating on her. Even our Assia who, initially anyway, seemed to have a sense of humor and went to “bag the great Ted Hughes” as she told a friend before leaving to visit the Hughes’s in Devon on the trip that would start the affair, in the end, was mortified and devastated to find herself in the same place she had left another woman. So much for love after all, eh.
Now what I want to know is what Plath sounded like before all of this mess. Before this devastation and the tears and the fights. Perhaps the affair with Hughes took the fight out of her, or perhaps she never had any fight. I can’t say. But what I can say is that her voice betrays a great deal and is worth listening to if for no other reason that a curiosity factor. I too record my poems because I want them to be heard as I intended – and you can check out my blog if the spirit moves you at www.number1audioblog.blogspot.com and see how I sound and judge me too. That’s okay. But do check out Plath and as for me, I am not on the hunt for Lowell, for Sexton, for any other of the greats whom I’ve admired to see how they sound. It’s not quality of voice we are looking for here – it is tone, and at the end of the day, how we ring our bell, how loud and how often, says everything about who we are and how we navigate our way through the world. May my bell never toll so solemn.
For links to Plath’s reading, check out www.plathonline.com and go to the Audio links and download. Most can be played with Realplayer only.