Letters of Sylvia Plath was an evening of revelling at the brilliance of the late literary luminary; trailing the hefty publication of Sylvia Plath’s collected letters between 1940-1956 and a veritable staple of the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival.
In the words of the Southbank, “The festival celebrates the role words can play in reimagining a world on the brink” and this year’s bill boasted everyone from Claudia Rankine to Tom Hanks and Hilary Rodham Clinton. As I headed over Waterloo bridge I couldn’t help but notice cascades of illuminated messages daubing the building’s exterior as part of the “Wall of Dreams” initiative for the Poetry International Festival; hopes and dreams of European refugees and migrants, setting a sombre tone and emphasising the importance of language, of self, and of action.
The evening was arranged with a panel of literary veterans; Eimear McBride, Max Porter, Sarah Howe and chaired by Lavinia Greenlaw, all clustered in the vast hall like some great cultural womb. Plath’s letters were read by Lydia Wilson following an introduction from Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes. “She is best explained in her own words” Frieda began, marking her respect for her father’s sensitive treatment of her mother’s literary catalogue and the posthumous publishing of Ariel. She praises her mother’s determination and formidable work ethic, evidenced at a strikingly young age in her letters. Plath’s first letter is written aged 7 to her father, and as Greenlaw notes, shows that she is “thinking about colour, pause and effect”, experimenting with the colours she writes in and dramatically varying sentence length. “I got ink on my fingers. I had to rub it off with a stone” Plath dreams, prophesising her poetic voice.
In a letter to her mother in 1943, the young Sylvia recounts a meticulous list of tasks and times, showing a sense of maternal guardianship over her younger brother Warren, as well as an eagerness to please. Plath shows a strong awareness of her poetic voice and a need to shape her reception in the letter she writes aged 17 to her German pen-pal Hans, sent along with a selection of poems in traditional rhyme. Alongside these, Plath laments “I wish I could be there to explain the poems to you”. In this selection of her early poems; The City, The Farewell and The Stranger, Plath imitates the technical perfection of Frost and Dickenson in the custom of “New England mastery”. There is a fascination with how things work and the effect of action, and Sarah Howe marks Plath’s profound impact on her own work and the “powerful and dangerous influence” of Plath during early adolescence through her beguiling engagement with the self and external presentation. The self is a core preoccupation of Plath at this age, and she takes an active role in the deliberate editing of her presented self. From letter to letter we seen a renewed Plath, keenly aware of the stern eye of the letter’s recipient with each new self fresh and attuned to the intended reader. These voices are far removed from the pained cries of her journals and Plath shapes her self from correspondence to correspondence.
In 1950, aged 17, Plath’s voice is sardonic and shows a pitying scorn for left-footed intellectuals in letters to her long-time confidante Eddie Cohen. Plath enacts the desire to sculpt her true image and remains critical of deceptive photography; naming herself “a red-blooded American girl […] original, unconventional […] ice-cream and pickles are my dish”. However, behind this “sarcastic, sceptical and callous” surface is a far more misanthropic core and Plath deplores that her contemporaries “seldom realise the chaos that oozes beneath my exterior”. As Eimear McBride articulates, “you don’t think this gracious writing will reveal a savage interior”.
In a letter to the editor of Harper’s magazine in 1953, aged 20, Plath evidences her driving desire to edit, post-submission, by suggesting revisions for her poem Doomsday in her first dalliance with an “adult” publication. The narrative voice is what Porter calls a “high functioning Capitalist”, laughing and gloating that through working random odd-jobs she is paid twice; financially as well as using experience as subject fodder for poems and stories. Drawing back to the panel, Max Porter confesses his admiration for Plath’s daring professionalism, business-like determination and incredible attention to detail; every letter a “calibrated weapon”. Plath is highly productive despite being on the precipice of a self-destructive depression, this letter marginally predating her suicide attempt of 1953.
This period of trauma is retrospectively addressed in a 1953 letter to Eddie Cohen, as Plath explains the delay in her response to Cohen’s letter. She charts her summer at Mademoiselle, an exhausted return home, writing “glib jingles” and a consuming sense of being “sterile, empty, unread”. “The body is amazingly stubborn when it comes to sacrificing oneself” Plath writes, adding “the worst I hope is over”.
The neat timeline of the evening then follows Plath’s relocation to Cambridge in 1955, disapprovingly pronouncing her disdain at British men and their neglectful dental hygiene, British weather and British food. Plath’s overt disgust at Cambridge’s poor coffee and dwindling sunshine is swiftly forgotten as she meets her future husband at a literary soiree. Plath’s love for Ted Hughes is all-encompassing, she writes in 1956, “I do not merely idolise, I can see the core of him”. Still, there is a bitter pessimism to her writing that resists a rose-tinted honeymoon phase “I have fallen terribly in love which can only lead to great hurt […] such a torment and pain to love him” she writes, and it feels unbearably prescient. Nevertheless, Plath is creatively rich, living and loving and immersing her poetry in Britain’s pastoral. Her creative output increases and she declares “my voice is taking shape, coming strong”.
The evening is rounded off with readings from the panellists – Eimear McBride choosing a haunting extract from The Bell Jar in which Esther fawns over baths “so hot you can barely stand to get in it”, with a shrewd attention to detail and memory of tubs and patterned ceilings. Max Porter reads Plath’s poem “The Detective”, following Sarah Howe reading of “Sheep in Fog”. We are reminded of Plath’s surreptitious wedding to Ted Hughes, and she boasts “if possible we are a happy Heathcliffe and Cathy”.
We hear an archived clip of Plath reading her poem Spinster set against an image of her at a typewriter on the Yorkshire moors. In this, the evening’s final reading, the unspoken is deafening. The disintegration of Plath’s relationship with Hughes and the much-speculated marital turmoil is barely alluded to throughout the evening. This is, I feel, in part a result of the timeframe which the letters span as well as the presence of Frieda Hughes as the family’s successor.
Letters of Sylvia Plath celebrates Plath’s lifelong curiosity with the world around her, pulsating from her formative years to the collection’s end. The letters capture her insatiable desire to shape opinion, capture her environment and reflect her essential spirit through language. There’s a wry sense of humour, a quick mind and a furious commitment to practise and discipline. Words can’t even begin.
Words, Ellie Potts – @eldpotts
Pic: allhalls (Flickr)