She explained that it is hard to know which version of the work can be considered the ‘definitive’ one: it had already gone through 65 versions and four different titles before Plath left it.
“After fifty years of multiple representations of Sylvia Plath and her work,” Frieda announced, “where both have been dissected, analysed, reinvented and completely fabricated, for this night my mother is presented exactly as she would have wanted, through her poetry”.
Ariel was left behind after Plath’s death as a black binder of poems, written as her marriage to Ted Hughes was dissolving and she found herself left alone with two young children.
“Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad,” she wrote to her mother in 1962. “I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”
In 1965, three years after her death, the collection was re-ordered and edited by Hughes and published. It would go on to become one of the most compelling and remarkable in the canon of 20th century poetry.
It was brought to life here by forty women, actors and poets, who each read one poem. Celebrating just one book of poems with an audience of that size was a thrilling and unique experience. The order of readings was Plath’s own, following her final arrangement.
After Frieda’s introduction, she left the stage before the first reading, ‘Morning Song’, about her own birth. Forty women dressed in a palette of red, black and grey – the only colours in Ariel - filled the stage in a vast semicircle.
They included actors Juliet Stevenson, Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor and Harriet Walter, and poets Jo Shapcott, Imtiaz Dharker and very movingly, Ruth Fainlight, who read ‘Elm’ a poem Plath had dedicated to her.
Daddy, one of the most powerful pieces in the collection, was read by Plath herself, in a BBC recording.
The readings, like the poems themselves, were brilliant, precisely controlled and searingly honest. Their power was immense and listening to them aloud in one almost unpalatable serving amplified their boldness.
Rhythms like incantations leapt out, themes came into focus and the work became one unified piece. Layers were removed and revealed, presenting mouths and mouths full of words, breath and fluids that spill out the body. Words drew the audience deeper, beneath the skin, offering images of raw, rotting flesh, rancid smells and lidless eyes.
These poems emerged fifty years ago with stark and arresting images which invented a language for ambivalent mothers and vengeful lovers everywhere. They convey an uncensored, unbridled force. Hearing them today, spoken by a legion of women, makes it searingly clear that Plath’s voice still resonates beyond her generation.
Although there are few collections that could stand up to this close and careful attention, this might be the ultimate way to present a collection of poetry.
Were you at the Ariel reading? What did you think?