“Add to the available accounts of Plath (there are so many) this, please: nobody brought a house to life the way she did.” So writes Dan Chiasson in a February New Yorker piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. Chiasson’s plea is made all the more poignant by his careful readings of the tenderness—amidst the pain and horror—in Plath’s final collection, Ariel, which she left sitting on the kitchen table to be found along with her body. (The collection has recently been restored to correspond to Plath’s final wishes).
Chiasson’s refocusing of Plath’s legacy feels necessary, given that, as James Parker writes in The Atlantic, “Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation.” It is sometimes difficult to connect with work—even with that as stunningly accomplished and resonant as Plath’s—through this thick haze of sensationalism and cult fandom. Even if many of the poems in Ariel—most famously “Lady Lazarus”—seem to request this kind of scrutiny, many others, Chiasson writes, including the title poem, need to be approached afresh, without the morbid celebrity baggage Plath’s name carries.
Is this possible? Perhaps one way to reconnect with the poetry is to hear Plath herself reading it. In these recordings, you can hear her read fifteen poems from Ariel, her New England Brahmin vowels inflecting every line, drawing out internal rhymes and assonance, then clipping at caesuras like a well-bred horse’s trotting hooves.
The title poem “Ariel”—which Chiasson eulogizes as “a perfect poem, perfect in its excesses and stray blasphemies”—is, in fact, partly named after Plath’s favorite horse. Also enfolded in the title is the captive sprite bound to perform tricks for Shakespeare’s mage Prospero in The Tempest, and an Old Testament name given to Jerusalem, meaning “lion of God” (the second stanza begins “God’s lioness…”). Plath’s poetic self-understanding is as complex as this allusive layering suggests, and the poem’s jarring ellipses demand very close attention.
The readings here are arranged in chronological order (of composition) from recordings made on October 20, 1962. Part One (top) contains “The Rabbit Catcher,” “A Birthday Present,” “A Secret,” “The Applicant,” and “Daddy.” In Part Two (middle), Plath reads “Medusa,” “Stopped Dead,” “Fever 103°,” “Amnesiac,” and “Cut.” Finally, Part Three (bottom) begins with the title poem, “Ariel,” then “Poppies In October,” “Nick And The Candlestick,” “Purdah,” and, lastly, “Lady Lazarus.”