Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ the restored edition, at the Southbank

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Who could resist this event, part 0f the London Literature Festival , where 40 leading female poets and performers read one poem each from the restored edition of the final unedited manuscript.   Introduced by her daughter Frieda Hughes this was a celebration of Sylvia Plath’s work fifty years after her death.

As Frieda Hughes explained, there are two versions of ‘Ariel’, one edited by her father Ted Hughes and this one as Sylvia Plath left it. Apparently she changed the title four times and, of course, it was interrupted by her death.   Freida Hughes told us that her mother turned her depression and emotional experience into a jewel, a necklace which was her poetry.  She went on to say that her mother had been ‘dissected, analysed, reinterpreted, reinvented, fictionalised and in some cases completely fabricated.   However her own words describe her best’.

So three at a time, the poets stepped up to a set of microphones and read one poem each whilst their image in close up was shown on a big screen at the back of the stage. The whole thing had been beautifully choreographed, the timing, the stillness of the other poets as each one read added to the atmosphere.

Each poet brought something special to their task. Juliet Stevenson reading ‘Tulips’ brought her acting ability to her performance, but the others collectively also added to the rich tapestry of the poetry.  So many of them concerned with suffering, love and loss, blood, death, child birth. It seemed strange that some were almost ‘matter of fact’ while others were quite difficult to follow. However it proved to be a rewarding experience to hear them in the order that she had wanted them published.

‘Daddy’ with just a voice-over seemed to go to the heart of the person and, for me, revealed more about Sylvia Plath than some of the others.

Many of the poems were inevitably about her mental state but  also brought the spirit of the age alive. How interesting too that the last four were about bees and that she and Ted Hughes were bee-keepers at one stage in their lives.

I was surprised that ‘Balloons’ was not there but it probably came too late to be included as I understand this was the last poem she wrote before her untimely death.

I did buy the book at the end, it was all the more poignant for being a facsimile of the original manuscript. Now I can read it and hear in my head the voices of the poets that took part.

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