Monday, July 20, 2009

Who is Sylvia?

I've got some blog backup (five books!), so some of my recollections are bound to be hazy. I really enjoyed the Printz Honor book Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath when I read it a year or so ago. The author and poet, Stephanie Hemphill, creates accessible (for those of us who aren't fond of poetry), readable insights into the life of the poet. In my teenage and college years, Plath was a feminist icon, but because she was a poet, I didn't go near her stuff. Yet, upon reading Your Own, Sylvia, my first thought was how much more I wanted to learn about her. Alas, I've been lazy/busy; so instead of picking up The Bell Jar, I watched the Gwyneth Paltrow movie. [Hey, I guess I could listen to The Bell Jar!]

As a young woman, to me Plath's tragedy appeared to be that she was the woman who was better at her job than the men around her, but ultimately she was destroyed by them. Hemphill's biography establishes that Sylvia was suffering from depression well before she met Ted Hughes, so I guess we can no longer blame him directly. (Plus, her son, Nicholas, suffered from depression and recently committed suicide.) Certainly, though, his extramarital behavior didn't help matters. Regardless, I appreciated Hemphill's emotional, yet evenhanded treatment of Sylvia's last years as wife, mother and poet, and -- even upon a second (listening) visit to her book -- found the poems leading up to her suicide extremely moving.

However, listening to this book was mostly not as interesting or as moving to me as I recollect reading it was. Since each poem is "spoken" by a person in Sylvia's life (never Sylvia herself), there is a large cast of narrators, most of whom I have heard in one capacity or another over the course of my listening years. The lengthy list of readers is credited at the end of the book, but I would have appreciated a dramatis personae approach, i.e., Ted Hughes was read by ... (David Thorn?), but that is likely just for my own edification. Beyond appreciating that many readers contributed to this multicharacter work, I'm not sure that most listeners will care about the details.

Most of the readers were good at establishing character through a few lines of verse. Poetry can be difficult in an audio format, as the fact that it is poetry is often not immediately obvious. I was glad that the readers -- for the most part -- chose to read the poetry in normal, conversational voices. I really dislike listening to poetry declaimed in that ponderous, "important" way by anyone -- whether you're the poet or not.

I lost my notes on this title, but there was a narrator who was noticeably bad: He came to end of each line of blank verse and paused ... before going on, even if the thought continued. It was deeply distracting.

But, what really made this audiobook hard to listen to was the author. Hemphill reads her forward and afterword (now I'm having trouble remembering if there was indeed an afterword), plus the informational footnotes that she appended to each poem, and the half dozen (more?) poems that she wrote chronologically in "Sylvia's voice:" poems that reflected the style of a poem Sylvia had penned during the time of her life just covered in the book. The footnotes are merely annoying in the audio format -- they are disruptive and give the narrative an extremely choppy feel. I say this having loved this format in the book, short and succinctly informative.

Hemphill's voice just didn't seem right for the longer portions: She sounds very youthful, almost childlike. And while Hemphill may be close in age to Plath when she died, and the audiobook may be trying to give you a aural feel for this young woman, it just didn't set the right tone for me. Her vocal quality seemed thin and slight, almost inconsequential. Perhaps it is the side-by-side listening: Hemphill, preceded and/or followed by a skilled vocal actor. She couldn't measure up. But I think it was more than that.

Alma mater moment: Plath won an undergraduate poetry prize twice (?) while at Smith College (not my alma mater!): The Kathryn Irene Glascock '22 Intercollegiate Poetry Prize. Of course, it was poetry, so I never had anything to do with it while I was there. In (seven) sisterhood, however, here's the link to some information about Smith's Plath collection.

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