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Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath (Faber and Faber, 1981)

On the 11th Febrary 2013, to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, our Poetry Library Book Club looked at five of her poems.

 Sylvia Plath poems chosen by Carol Ann Duffy / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Duffy, Carol Ann (preface). -- London : Faber and Faber, 2012.

The evening began with a brief biography of Sylvia Plath. Biographical information on Plath can be found on these two websites:



Although we were holding the book club on the 50th anniversary of Plath's death we wanted to focus on five on her poems and celebrate her extraordinary work and legacy and we read out the following just before we looked at the poems:

When English Heritage tried to put a blue plaque on the flat where Sylvia Plath died her daughter Frieda managed to persuade them to move it to the flat where Plath and Hughes first lived in London, where Plath wrote The Bell Jar, published The Colossus and gave birth to Frieda.  Writing about this in the introduction to the restored edition of Ariel Frieda Hughes has written:
"This was a place where she had truly lived and where she'd been happy and productive - with my father.... I did not want my mother's death to be commemorated as if it had won an award.  I wanted her life to be celebrated, the fact that she had existed, lived to the fullness of her ability, been happy and sad, tormented and ecstatic, and given birth to my brother and me.  I think my mother was extraordinary in her work, and valiant in her efforts to fight the depression that dogged her throughout her life. She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress; she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect."

From Frieda Hughes introduction to Ariel : the restored edition : a facsimile of Plath's manuscript, reinstating her original and arrangement / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Hughes, Frieda (foreword). -- London : Faber and Faber, 2004.

We tried to pick five poems from different stages of Plath's writing life to discuss.

1. Black Rook in Rainy Weather

This poem was written in 1956 when Plath was 24 or 25. She had not yet taken writing classes with Robert Lowell, or met the poet Ann Sexton, both of whom encouraged her to write in a more confessional style.

You can listen to Plath reading this poem here:
This poem was recorded in Massachusetts in 1958.

1. Does the poem surprise you in any way? Did you think the rook would take a more obvious central role in the poem?
2. Do you think the poem sets up anything - depression, identification with non-human objects, nature - that is refined and developed in Plath's later poems?
3. Did you find the poem's structure tighter, or more constructed, than Plath's later poems? Do you like it?
4. Do you think it is an optimistic or pessimistic poem?

2. Mushrooms

"Mushrooms" was finished in November 1959, the last poem Plath wrote that year. She was pregnant with her first child when she wrote it. It appeared in her first collection The Colossus, which was published in 1960, a few months after the birth of her daughter Frieda Hughes, but already shows the sparer, more direct style that Plath would develop when writing Ariel. It was completed not long before Plath and Hughes returned to London in December that year - they had been living in Boston, Massachusetts, travelling across America, and staying at Yaddo, a writers' retreat in New York State.

Plath reading this poem:
Recorded for BBC Radio in 1961.

1. Do you find the poem funny, sinister, or something else entirely?
2. How long did it take you to realise the mushrooms were narrating the poem? They have toes, noses and feet, and they "shoulder through" spaces - are they a metaphor, or a symbol, for something else?
3. The mushrooms are "nudgers and shovers / in spite of ourselves". Does this strike a chord with you? Do you think Plath intended this to be about human nature?

3. I Am Vertical

This poem was first published in the book Crossing the Water in 1971 which Hughes edited.  It was written in March 1961 after the publication of The Colossus and before the poems that Plath would collect together for the Ariel manuscript.  It was written when she and Hughes were still living in London before their move to Devon.

1. From this poem's title and opening line did you expect it to be about trees and flowers?
2. Are you surprised by the feelings the poet has towards the trees and flowers?
3. Do you like the way she describes them?
4. Did you notice the poem is written in couplets of half-rhyme?
5. What effect does the long line at the end of the poem create?

4. Nick and the Candlestick

This poem was written at the end of October 1962 when Plath and Hughes had separated and Hughes was now living in London, Plath and the children (Frieda and Nicholas) in Devon.  Plath included it in her Ariel manuscript and Hughes included it in the collection of Ariel that he published.

Plath reading the poem:
This recording includes an extra stanza at the end of the poem that Plath edited out. It was recorded on 30th October 1962.

1. Could the opening words of this poem have been "I am a writer"?  Why might Plath call herself a miner?  What image does this create?
2. Can you picture the cave she is in?
3. With the lines "The candle / Gulps and recovers its small altitude" do you find that the tone of the poem changes?  The poem is now addressed to someone, who?
4. Do you need to know that when this poem was written Plath had separated from Hughes to fully understand this poem?
5. What do you make of the religious imagery in this poem.  As well as being her own baby son, who is "the baby in the barn"?  Is this a positive ending?

5. Wintering

Plath's father was an expert on bees and published a book on them.  When Plath and Hughes moved to Devon Plath tried her hand at keeping bees.  She wrote a series of poems about this experience, "The Bee Meeting", "The Arrival of the Bee Box", "Stings" and "Wintering".  They were written around the time that Hughes left the family home in Devon and moved to London.  These poems were to be the last poems in the manuscript of Ariel that Plath left on her desk when she killed herself and this poem "Wintering" was to be the final poem in the book.  When Hughes published Ariel two years after Plath's death he included some later poems and changed the order and "Wintering" was no longer the last poem.  In 2004, 6 years after her father's death, Frieda Hughes their daughter published Ariel according to her mother's manuscript as Ariel : the restored edition.

1. Is it just the bees who are wintering?
2. The opening line states "This is the easy time".  Is this poem describing an "easy time"?
3. Does Plath identify with the bees?  Reading a line like "It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers" do you think Plath could be speaking about herself?  Is this poem about loss?
4. The verses have a mix of long and short lines.  What effect does this create?
5. Do you find the last verse hopeful?  Plath intended this to be the last poem in Ariel so the collection would have ended with the word "spring" so the original Ariel manuscript ends with a note of hope?

We finished the Book Club by listening to Plath reading Lady Lazarus:
This poem is from the same recording session as "Nick and the Candlestick" recorded on 30th October 1962.

A selection of material by and about Sylvia Plath in the Poetry Library Collection:

1.  Ariel / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Lowell, Robert (foreword). -- New York, N.Y.: Harper & Row : Harper & Row, 1965. (Book) Adult collection

2.  Ariel : the restored edition : a facsimile of Plath's manuscript, reinstating her original and arrangement / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Hughes, Frieda (foreword). -- London : Faber and Faber, 2004. (Book) Adult collection

3.  The bed book / PLATH, SYLVIA. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1976. (Book) Child collection

4.  Birthday letters / HUGHES, TED. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1998. (Book) Adult collection

5.  Coming of age as a poet : Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath / Vendler, Helen ; Milton, John (criticism of) ; Keats, John (criticism of) ; Eliot, T. S. (criticism of) ; Plath, Sylvia (criticism of). -- Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press, 2004, c2003. (Book) Criticism

6.  Crossing the water / PLATH, SYLVIA. -- London : Faber and Faber, 1971. (Book) Adult collection

7.  Homage to Sylvia Plath [compact disc] / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Wood, Dilys (introduction) ; Sampson, Fiona (reader) ; Stainer, Pauline (reader) ; Tracy, Marion (reader) ; Stewart, Anne (reader) ; Schneider, Myra (reader) ; Cluysenaar, Anne (reader). -- London : Southbank Centre, 2012. (Compact disc) Adult collection

8.  Sylvia Plath : a critical study / Plath, Sylvia (criticism of) ; KENDALL, TIM. -- London : Faber and Faber, 2001. (Book) Criticism

9.  Sylvia Plath : a literary life / Wagner-Martin, Linda ; Plath, Sylvia (criticism of). -- Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, c1993. (Book) Criticism

10.  Sylvia Plath [cassette] / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Plath, Sylvia (reader) ; McClatchy, J.D. (introduction). -- New York : Random House Audio Publishing, 1999. (Cassette) Adult collection

11.  Sylvia Plath collected poems / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Hughes, Ted (a/r). -- London Faber, 1981. (Book) Adult collection

12.  Sylvia Plath [compact disc] : the surviving BBC broadcasts / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Plath, Sylvia (reader). -- London : British Library, c2010. (Compact disc) Adult collection

13.  Sylvia Plath poems chosen by Carol Ann Duffy / PLATH, SYLVIA ; Duffy, Carol Ann (preface). -- London : Faber and Faber, 2012. (Book) Adult collection

14.  Sylvia Plath [press cuttings] / PLATH, SYLVIA. (Press cuttings)

15.  Sylvia Plath [video] / PLATH, SYLVIA. -- New York: The New York Center for Visual History : New York Center for Visual History, 1988. (Video Cassette) Adult collection

16.  The wounded surgeon : confession and transformation in six American poets : Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath / Kirsch, Adam ; Lowell, Robert (criticism of) ; Bishop, Elizabeth (criticism of) ; Berryman, John (criticism of) ; Jarrell, Randall (criticism of) ; Schwartz, Delmore (criticism of) ; Plath, Sylvia (criticism of). -- New York ; London : W. W. Norton & Co., 2005. (Book) Criticism


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