Thursday, December 02, 2004

Airel Restored

NEW YORK (AP) - British painter and writer Frieda Hughes was 35 before she was able to even glance at the poetry of her mother, Sylvia Plath, whose painfully sharp images and tumultuous life have captivated readers for decades.

But now, having flown from Wales for the occasion, Hughes sat calmly for more than two hours Tuesday evening as six authors read Ariel: The Restored Edition. It was the first time that the restored manuscript had ever been publicly read in its entirety.

The 40 ferocious poems were written around the time of the disintegration of Plath's marriage to British poet Ted Hughes, and not long before her suicide in London on Feb. 11, 1963.
Poets Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, Kimiko Hahn, Richard Howard and Katha Pollitt, and literary critic Helen Vendler took turns reading the poems at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Hughes read the first and last poems, and Plath, restored to life in a recording, read the title poem.
The clipped consonants and drawn-out vowels of Plath's Massachusetts accent perfectly suited the stringent verse: "And I/Am the arrow,/The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning."

The cumulative thrust of her crystalline vision was overwhelming and hypnotic. Hughes occasionally swallowed hard or pressed a finger beneath her eyes during the reading. The more than 400 audience members in the sold-out Proshansky Auditorium sat with eyes closed, or followed along in their books; by intermission, organizers had sold out all 200 volumes.
The marathon and historic reading celebrated the new collection, which reinstates Plath's original selection and arrangement of the poems. In editing the book for the 1965 British and 1966 U.S. versions, Ted Hughes had removed more than 10 of Plath's poems and replaced them with some of the last poems Plath wrote before her death.

As Frieda Hughes explains in the introduction, her father did this both to shield neighbours and family from some of the more venomous works, and because he believed the later poems made for a stronger collection. Though he included the poems in Plath's The Collected Poems, in 1981, many vilified Hughes for his initial omissions.

"His choice was made with one kind of purpose in mind, but also to make it the best book he could, and my mother's was made with another purpose in mind, but also to make it the best book she could," Frieda Hughes told The Associated Press earlier on Tuesday.
Hughes said she was hesitant when asked to write the foreword by publisher HarperCollins. Though she had read her father's Birthday Letters at his request, shortly before he died in 1998, and later read his posthumous Collected Poems, Hughes had only skimmed a dozen of her mother's poems to satisfy herself that her own poetry was not like Plath's.
"Going anywhere near my mother's poetry just reminded me of the fact that she wasn't there," Hughes said, "and the fact that she wasn't there was constantly being brought up by the media, and it made it very emotionally difficult.

"I feel very acutely the loss of her. ... It was almost as if I was never allowed to grow out of it, because of this perpetual rehashing of her actual suicide. I had begun to feel that that was the only thing she was famous for - when in fact, although she lived a short life, she made her life count."

Despite any initial misgivings, Hughes's thoughts on her mother's life and writing offer a calm, tender account of a life that has too often been fodder for sensationalist coverage. The new book also contains such historical treasures as a facsimile of Plath's typed manuscript, her handwritten and typed versions of the title poem and the author's wonderfully dry introductions to poems she read for a BBC broadcast.

Different voices brought various aspects of Plath to Tuesday's reading, from Bidart's animated but conversational delivery to Pollitt's quiet humour to Graham's theatricality.
Afterward, Hahn and Howard spoke of being depleted, but also awed and enriched by the evening.

"It was a revelation," Howard said. "I just was astonished and loved being in it."

The reading was presented by the Academy of American Poets, HarperCollins and the Poetry Society of America.

Frieda Hughes was interviewed on NPR's Morning Addition. The interview can be heard here.
It includes a recording of both Sylvia herself reading as well as her daughter in a rare reading of her mother's work.
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