What I'm Reading: Ariel, Birthday Letters & The Letters of Sylvia Plath
If you follow me on Instagram, you won’t be surprised to see that What I’m Reading this week is Sylvia Plath / Ted Hughes related. I fell down the SP vortex in October and, so far, I haven’t recovered. Her craft, her life, her obsessions and her creative process—it’s incredibly interesting. Couple that with the time period—‘50s and ‘60s—and I might never make it out alive because I have an unhealthy obsession with the past.
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
I haven’t finished this title yet because I find it to be an emotionally taxing read—though I really love it. Birthday Letters is a collection of 88 poems written after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, Hughes’s estranged wife. Some were written a couple of years following her suicide (and the eerily similar murder-suicide of his mistress and their four-year-old daughter, Assia Wevill and Shura Hughes, though the book focuses solely on his time with Plath) and others were written decades later. First published in 1998 just months before his death, it won multiple literary awards and was a national bestseller. It’s an endearing look at their life together—Plath’s mannerisms, their good and bad times, and their intense otherworldly and superstitious beliefs. Though it is a visual delight to read through, it’s heavy, even when lighthearted and engaging. My favorite piece so far in this book is The Badlands—a vivid poem about traveling America. It spans five pages, and though I’m not usually one for lengthy poems, I go back to it again and again. I found this stanza in particular to be an intense recollection that gives us insight about their relationship and Plath’s complexities.
‘Maybe it’s the earth,’
You said. ‘Or maybe it’s ourselves.
This emptiness is sucking something out of us.
Here where there is only death, maybe our life
Is terrifying us. Maybe it’s the life
Frightening the earth, and frightening us.’
Excerpt from The Badlands, Copyright Ted Hughes.
Ariel by Sylvia Plath—first US edition published in 1966, selected and arranged by Ted Hughes
I’ve already read Ariel a number of times, but I was lucky enough to come across an excellent condition first edition paperback copy from 1966 for three whole dollars. I was interested to read and analyze this early edition because it was published posthumously by Hughes, and he did not submit her work in the order Plath originally arranged it. He omitted some poems that she intended to be published as well. Though Ariel has since been restored to Plath’s original arrangement and includes all of the poems she intended to print, this copy was an exciting find for me. Sure, I could have easily Googled the arrangement and selection from the 1966 edition and just read it in that order in my current copy, but that isn’t nearly as nostalgic. It looks really cool on my bookshelf, too. My favorite poem from Ariel is Lady Lazarus—it’s chilling and loose—much different than her earlier work. She read this poem for the BBC in December of 1962, just months before her death, and it’s definitely worth three minutes and fifteen seconds of your time.
The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1946 – 1956 Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
I received this hefty title for Christmas from my husband (THANK YOU <3), and though I’ve barely made a dent in these letters, they are so wistful to read. Imagine a time where we could not pick up a telephone and call our mother from our grandmother’s house, summer camp, or send a text or email. The Letters of Sylvia Plath is a fascinating translation that conveys her careful nature when crafting letters to her mother, friends, boyfriends and, in the later years, professional contacts and time spent with Ted Hughes. This book is so large that I sit down with it at the table with a cup of tea rather than curl up on the couch with it, but I am thoroughly enjoying it so far. I love that it gives Plath an opportunity to narrate her life in her own words. I highly recommend for those who also find themselves in SP wormholes—especially those who honestly don’t hope to recover.