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Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Ariel by Sylvia Plath, London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre, 26th May

The women participating in the reading, each taking one of the collection of forty poems, were sat facing the audience in a sweeping crescent shape. They approached the stage in groups of three and we were asked to applaud only at the end. Many of the women were reading red, whether by agreement or happy accident it was unclear, but it looked wonderful. Some of the readings were obviously more personal than others – Ruth Fainlight, to whom the poem was originally dedicated, read Elm.

This collection of poems was begun in 1962, and was first published in 1965 three year’s after Plath’s death. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter with Ted Hughes, made an introductory speech. She said this was how her mother would have wanted her poetry to be heard. This chimed against the exhumations by Elizabeth Winder (Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 and American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson in the last year).

Would Plath prefer these to be described as gradual peelings away of her legacy? Both Ariel and Cut refer to an unfurling of skin in this way. This in turn brings to mind the words of The Couriers: “It is not mine. Do not accept it.” Plath’s true voice is unmistakeable in its jarring, altering nature. Thalidomide even now still reads as a visceral and shocking series of stark, monochromatic images shot through with red.

There are certain subjects she returns to again and again: gorse with its contrasting colours and bitter black spikes, for example. The moon is vital in Barren Woman: “The moon lays a hand on my forehead, / Blank-faced and mum as a nurse.” The moon is always there, as her mother, and her rival, quiet but not sweet. Cats are also shown to be central in Lady Lazarus, read on this occasion by the intense Emily Bruni, who looked very much ‘like the cat with ‘nine times to die’. She returned to cats in Morning Song: “Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s”, and The Other: “Between myself and myself.
I scratch like a cat.”

Ariel contains moments of humour: The Applicant read in the droll Scottish tones of Phyllis Logan was more manageable, even funny: “First, are you our sort of a person?” In the way that only a Scot could pull off. However, there is no escaping the writer’s despair – moments of happiness in a pair of gum boots grinning at the sun while being heavily pregnant (“Snug as a bud and at home / Like a sprat in a pickle jug.”) are all too soon subsumed by the smiles of her family like little hooks on her skin.

Her true desires emerge in Tulips:

“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.” And this drive to be pure, alone and insubstantial are illustrated beautifully in Fever 103:

“I am too pure for you or anyone.
Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern—

My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.”

Her plight seems to worsen, and solidify in Lesbos read powerfully by Kate Farhy:

“Now I am silent, hate

Up to my neck, Thick, thick.”

A Birthday Present read by Claire Louise Cordwell was done so well that it should be read in full and heard aloud, rather than cut up by me trying to do it justice. This goes for every poem in the collection to varying degrees, heard is better than read with many of Plath’s poems in Ariel. Ideally, of course, do both.

Towards the end a recording of Daddy read by Plath herself was played, I had this on my iPod ten years ago and listened to it every night, held fast by her clipped drawl.  This collection of poems was a staggering experience for as a member of the audience; a truly powerful series of (often lightning quick) razor sharp incisions across every botched re-imagining of Plath, and across the skin of the listener, peeling away the outer, tougher layers of epidermis only to reveal the moon-pale tissue beneath.

The Editors

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