For Sylvia Plath’s 81st Birthday, Hear Her Read ‘A Birthday Present’

Sylvia Plath would have turned 81 years old today. It’s a strange thing to imag­ine. Plath’s rep­u­ta­tion as a poet is so sad­ly bound up with her death by sui­cide at the age of 30, and so many of the lines in her lat­er poet­ry sound like sui­cide notes, that it seems impos­si­ble to pic­ture her mak­ing it to old age. In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath writes: “Dying/Is an art, like every­thing else./I do it excep­tion­al­ly well.”

Plath is remem­bered main­ly for the poems she wrote in the last half year of her life, when she had sep­a­rat­ed from her hus­band, the poet Ted Hugh­es. It was then that Plath found her “real voice,” as Hugh­es put it, in a marathon burst of cre­ativ­i­ty that result­ed in the com­po­si­tion of some 70 poems, over half of which were col­lect­ed in her posthu­mous book, Ariel.

But the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Plath’s final days–her anger and sense of betray­al over her hus­band’s infi­deli­ty, her deci­sion to kill her­self by turn­ing on the gas and plac­ing her head in an unlight­ed oven while her two young chil­dren slept in anoth­er room–have com­pli­cat­ed her lit­er­ary lega­cy. A mor­bid cult has sur­round­ed Plath, with many of her most fer­vent admir­ers gloss­ing over the poet­’s long strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness to find in her a mar­tyred fem­i­nist saint, a mod­ern Ophe­lia.

“It has fre­quent­ly been asked whether the poet­ry of Plath would have so aroused the atten­tion of the world if Plath had not killed her­self,” writes Janet Mal­colm in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hugh­es“I would agree with those who say no. The death-rid­den poems move us and elec­tri­fy us because of our knowl­edge of what hap­pened.” It’s a shame, because Plath’s achieve­ment should be judged on its own mer­its. In 2000, Joyce Car­ol Oates described some of the qual­i­ties she admired in Plath’s writ­ing:

The most mem­o­rable of Sylvia Plath’s incan­ta­to­ry poems, many of them writ­ten dur­ing the final, tur­bu­lent weeks of her life, read as if they’ve been chis­eled, with a fine sur­gi­cal instru­ment, out of Arc­tic ice. Her lan­guage is taught and orig­i­nal; her strat­e­gy elip­ti­cal; such poems as “Les­bos,” “The Munich Man­nequins,” “Par­a­lyt­ic,” “Dad­dy” (Plath’s most noto­ri­ous poem), and “Edge” (Plath’s last poem, writ­ten in Feb­ru­ary, 1963), and the pre­scient “Death & Co.” linger long in the mem­o­ry, with the pow­er of malev­o­lent nurs­ery rhymes. For Plath, “The blood jet is poet­ry,” and read­ers who might know lit­tle of the poet­’s pri­vate life can nonethe­less feel the authen­tic­i­ty of Plath’s recur­ring emo­tions: hurt, bewil­der­ment, rage, sto­ic calm, bit­ter res­ig­na­tion. Like the great­est of her pre­de­ces­sors, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Plath under­stood that poet­ic truth is best told slant­wise, in as few words as pos­si­ble.

Oates called Plath “our acknowl­edged Queen of Sor­rows, the spokes­woman for our most pri­vate, most help­less night­mares.” The poem above, “A Birth­day Present,” is one of the pri­vate and night­mar­ish poems col­lect­ed in Ariel. Plath wrote it just over half a cen­tu­ry ago as she was con­tem­plat­ing the approach of her 30th birth­day, and some­thing dark­er. The record­ing is from a BBC broad­cast in Decem­ber of 1962, only two months before Plath’s death. (You can read the text as you lis­ten.) In his 1966 fore­ward to the first U.S. edi­tion of Ariel, the poet Robert Low­ell made the fol­low­ing assess­ment of Plath:

Sui­cide, father-hatred, self-loathing–nothing is too much for the macabre gai­ety of her con­trol. Yet it is too much; her art’s immor­tal­i­ty is life’s dis­in­te­gra­tion. The sur­prise, the shim­mer­ing, unwrapped birth­day present, the tran­scen­dence “into the red eye, the caul­dron of morn­ing,” and the lover, who are always wait­ing for her, are Death, her own abrupt and defi­ant death.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dylan Thomas Recites ‘Do Not Go Gen­tle into That Good Night’ and Oth­er Poems

Charles Bukows­ki Reads His Poem “The Secret of My Endurance”

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Famous­ly Cen­sored Beat Poem, Howl

Hear Sylvia Plath Read Fif­teen Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in 1962 Record­ing

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