In March of last year, Toronto collector Greg Gatenby auctioned off “some 1,700 LPs, 45s, and 10-inch discs”-worth of recorded literary history, containing readings by such canonical figures as “Auden and Atwood, Camus and Capote, Eliot, Faulkner, Kipling, Shaw and Yeats,” and the recordings featured here from Sylvia Plath. Gatenby’s entire collection went on sale for a buy-it-now price of $85,000 (I assume it’s sold by now), and while we might have preferred that he donated these artifacts to libraries, there may have been no need. Most of them are already, or we hope soon will be, digitized and free online. Sylvia Plath reading her poetry (now out of print) was originally released on vinyl and cassette in 1977 by prolific spoken word record label Caedmon, but of course the readings they document all took place over fifteen years earlier, some at least as early as 1959, the year before the publication of her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems.
Many of the poems here appeared in The Colossus, the only collection of poems Plath published in her lifetime. Some, like “November Graveyard”—first published in Mademoiselle in 1958—were collected late, in the Ted Hughes-edited Collected Poems in 1981, and the rest appeared in Ariel and other posthumous collections. Oddly, the title poem of her first book doesn’t appear, nor will you hear any of the poems that made Plath an infamous literary figure: no “Ariel,” no “Daddy,” no “Lady Lazarus,” though you can hear her read those poems elsewhere. Many of these poems are more lush, less visceral and personal, though no less rich with arresting and sometimes disturbing imagery. Several of these readings took place in February 1959 at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. The album’s official description tells us these are “selections from the last 6 years of her life,” and also include “readings for the BBC before she wrote her controversial novel, The Bell Jar.”
Before Caedmon collected these lesser-known poems recorded readings of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” had already been released on the compilation record The Poet Speaks in 1965. Listening to Plath read these poems may prompt you to pull out your own editions to read them for yourself, whether again or for the first time.
*For this many thanks to comrade Eleni Dimitriadi.