Chances are, you’ve already had your Sylvia Plath literary moment. And chances are it went something like this: Sometime in high school or college you found a tattered copy of The Bell Jar. It spoke to you. It said, “You are female and I am a Rite. Of. Passage. Pick me.” You read it. You loved it or maybe you did not love it or maybe you were like, “Wait, this is all the fuss about Sylvia Plath? I must find more fuss.” Next you spent a maudlin, revelatory week clutching and absorbing and wanting to crawl inside Ariel. Your mind was blown. How could such feelings be felt? How could you have witnessed these feelings? Who are you anyway? You moved on. You moved into the vibrant, relatable neurosis of The Unabridged Journals, culminated your journey with a close-read investigation of Birthday Letters (Ted Hughes: villain or victim? WE SHALL NEVER KNOW) and finally landed safely and internet-ly with a CSI-worthy Google Image search of every picture ever taken of Sylvia, Ted Hughes, the Hughes-Plath children and Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2003 Sylvia Plath film.
After all this, you feel like you know Sylvia Plath. Plath was one of those writers who shared so much, was so raw and intimate and naked in her work, who wrote deeply on so many distinctly female experiences, that she’s forever a larger-than-life figure — and the way she lived (dramatically, forcefully, romantically, publicly) and died (tragically, memorably, selfishly) only adds to her literary lore. (There are so many, but this is just one great essay on Plath, which urges us to separate the drama of her life from her work.)
But as much as you may feel Sylvia Plath spoke to you, you’ve probably never heard her talk. That is until now (or, OK, 2010 if you are really up on these things). Today would’ve been Plath’s 83rd birthday and, in honor of it, we found this rare recording of Plath reading her poem “A Birthday Present.” It’s part of a larger collection she recorded for the 1960s BBC series “The Poet’s Voice.” You can (and totally should) find it and other poems on The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath, which was released, as mentioned, in 2010.
The recording is jarring. Plath’s voice is scathing, hard, more formal than you expect. There’s a hint of New England and of England England. She sounds as if she’s affecting a certain haughtiness of the time, like an Old-Hollywood actress heading out to spar with Bette Davis. But more than anything, what you get here is resignation. There is no joy in this “Birthday Present” for Plath. It’s October 1962. She would die by her own hand just four months later and we – no matter how intense our literary obsessions – would never really know her at all.