Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Peculiar, private, and taboo subjects": spoken word interview with Sylvia Plath

We're all so saturated with photos of authors, which have become virtually ubiquitous since the advent of Google images. But what about recordings of their voices? I was mesmerized by this substantial 1962 interview with Sylvia Plath, who comes across as mature, intelligent, and well-spoken. In her dialogue with Peter Orr, she champions the "peculiar, private, and taboo subjects" that American poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton addressed, praising their ability to deal with mental health issues and commending the emotional and psychological depth of Sexton's poetry in particular.
 "I'm about fifty years behind as far as my preferences go" she tells Orr, "and I must say that the poets who excite me most are the Americans. There are very few contemporary English poets that I admire.
ORR: Does this mean that you think contemporary English poetry is behind the times compared with American?
PLATH: No, I think it is in a bit of a strait-jacket, if I may say so. There was an essay by Alvarez, the British critic: his arguments about the dangers of gentility in England are very pertinent, very true. I must say that I am not very genteel and I feel that gentility has a stranglehold: the neatness, the wonderful tidiness, which is so evident everywhere in England is perhaps more dangerous than it would appear on the surface.
She also tell hims that her poems come "immediately out of the sensual and emotional experiences I have" but that personal poetry "shouldn't be a mirror-looking narcissistic experience but must be relevant to the larger things ... such as Hiroshima and Dachau." When asked which poets meant a lot to her in her youth, she recalls being "stunned and astounded by the moderns" such as Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Auden. 
Looking back on her own collection Colossus, Plath found herself bored and said it was not written to be said aloud, as contrasted to the more recent work that ultimately appeared in Ariel. "I feel that this development of recording poems, of speaking poems at readings … is a wonderful thing. I'm very excited by it. In a sense, there's a return, isn't there, to the old role of the poet."
To a question about whether she prefers her friends to be writers, Plath replies in the negative: "As a  poet one lives on air.… I always like someone who can teach me something practical" (e.g. her midwife taught her how to keep bees). "I find myself absolutely fulfilled having written a poem" she ultimately exults. "The actual experience is a magnificent one."
You can read a complete transcription of the interview here. Plath reads "Tulips" from Ariel here.
More from The Daily Glean on Plath: "She burned with determination": Sylvia Plath's early magazine writing


  1. Really interesting to hear Plath's voice. She sounds a bit different than I expected.

    1. So New England! I guess because we see so many of her youthful pictures we imagine her voice as being more girlish.