Reading Aloud: Plath and Hughes
In an iconic incident commemorated in the film 'Sylvia', Sylvia Plath was able to recite parts of Ted Hughes's poems when she first met him. Memorization and reading aloud have always been vital parts of the experience of poetry, but they may at present be as neglected as they have ever been. On this page graduate student Adam Crothers and the Cambridge Authors team have put together what we hope might be some thought-provoking suggestions and quotations, relating to Hughes, and then Plath. Memorizing and reciting poetry enhances our experience of it, and may make us think differently about it; and it's good practice for both memory and voice.
I. Hughes: By Heart
Hughes was a great advocate of memorisation and reading aloud. Here graduate student Adam Crothers introduces some of his key words on the topic.
In a letter to his sister, Olwyn, written in 1952 during his first year at Cambridge, Ted Hughes writes of a conversation with his tutor, the Classicist Anthony Camps, about the English Tripos. They agreed that the syllabus was too wide, and led to 'opinions about literature', rather than 'a real knowledge':
I aired my belief - the old bards used to have to learn huge set tomes and become so intimate with them, that they became part of their mind. And just as one thinks with adopted ideas, so, if one studied say, just Shakespeare for 3 years intensely, it would be thereafter your mind, and an anchor for all other reading or art. (Letters, p. 15)
This idea - that intimate knowledge, repeated reading, and memorization, led to something very substantial - stayed with Hughes throughout his life. In 1988 it prompted him to write the following to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education:
What kids need, say I, is a headfull of songs that are not songs but blocks of achieved & exemplary language. When they know by heart fifteen pages of Robert Frost, a page of Swift's Modest Proposal, Animula etc etc, they have the guardian angel installed behind the tongue. They have reefs, for the life of language to build and breed around. A 'globe of precepts' and a great sheet anchor in the maelstrom of linguistic turbulence - (now we're really at sea!). (Letters, p. 546)
This is Hughes proposing the memorising of poetry not as busywork, and not as exam preparation, but as a grounding in the better uses of the oft-abused English language, a way of preserving a link to that language's power. Having laid some groundwork in the anthologies The Rattle Bag and The School Bag, edited in collaboration with the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Hughes put together an anthology of poems-for-remembering that was published in 1997 as By Heart.
A key component in the experience of poetry, both as poet and as reader, is reading aloud, as Hughes advises in a letter to Plath:
Beethoven composed singing and roaring and walking very fast and so did Dostoevsky - not singing but vociferating. So read aloud a lot, and read aloud poetry as you walk to and fro in your room timing the metre to your steps. This would be ideal, but you'll think it too ridiculous. (Letters, p. 51)
Whether or not this is good advice, it seems that speaking a poem aloud was an important part of Hughes's compositional process: for this reason if no other, it is worth paying close attention to the actual, heard sound, as opposed to the imagined, seen sound, of his poems. This may be helpful in anchoring one's mind in Hughes's own 'achieved & exemplary language', even if the process might end up emphasising that some of the poem's powers are greater when being read than when being remembered.
One might consider one of two stanzas from the poem 'Shells':
Shells white, shells brown, sea-shells
Or, cast bare, gleam dry. (You can find the whole stanza in Birthday Letters or in Collected Poems, p. 55)
Listen to the repetitions in this poem: of words, like 'shells', but also of sounds. The 'm' of 'Tumbled' is picked up by 'Swarm', 'foam' and 'gleam', a hum of oceanic ambiance running through the background of the poem. Perfect rhymes, like 'cry' rhyming with 'dry', mingle with half rhymes (shells / shoals / hauls, and the echo of the final syllable of 'curiosity' with the perfect rhymes). The word 'screech' picks up on the 's' sound while distorting the 'sh', the screech of the shells fitting in with a sound pattern yet also deviating from it. In poetry, the sound of the word and the word's meaning are not separate things, and a pattern of sounds helps the reader to experience the poem and to remember details of that experience.
'Shells' sounds beautiful, but ugly sounds can also be memorable, and thus beautiful in their own way. The poem 'Lineage' begins thus:
In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Wing
Who begat Bone
Who begat Granite
Who begat Violet
Who begat Guitar
And so on. Rhyme does not help the reader to remember the list of begettings; and rhythmically the unpunctuated lines simply repeat the same structure, by a rhetorical figure called anaphora. The poem eventually breaks away from this mould, but this still would convince nobody that a memorable pattern of sound had been established. Are not these words - Scream, Blood, Eye, and so on - interchangeable? Perhaps, and yet their order is their order, and the reader is expected to respect this. This might seem frustrating, as if the poem is trying to get away with something. But by reading the poem aloud, by reminding oneself that this is a coherent audio-visual experience rather than a typed list, one might become more alert to the mnemonic possibilities of 'Lineage'. 'Who begat' becomes a drone (not unlike the murmuring 'm' already detected in 'Shells') against which the names of the begotten are clear and bright notes, as might emerge from that capitalised, anthropomorphised 'Guitar'. This apparently ugly and ramshackle composition creates the sonic context against which it plays its music. Once the reader becomes accustomed to inviting this process, giving the poem the opportunity to make itself heard, 'Lineage' and other such texts show that while regular rhyme and metre can make a poem powerful and memorable, there remain other techniques: poets like Hughes master as many as they can, and combine them with great subtlety and skill. Reading poems aloud, and memorising some poems or even handfuls of lines, is a way of sensitising the mind to these different techniques, enhancing the experience of reading and writing poetry, installing that 'guardian angel' to watch over one's encounters with literature and with language.
Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid (London: Faber, 2007)
The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes (London: Faber, 2003).
1. Adam Crothers suggests 'Shells' and 'Lineage' as two Hughes poems with very different mnemonic characteristics, and different effects when reading aloud. Give them a try - and tell us your findings.
2. Then, of course, you could find other things to memorise and recite. You could try a speech from a Shakespeare play, alongside a Shakespeare sonnet. What differences between them emerge in the process?
II. Plath: 'Daddy' in Different Voices
The wonders of Youtube mean that you can hear Hughes and Plath reading their own poetry. What predictable and less predictable qualities do you observe?
Sylvia Plath's voice, reading 'Daddy' or 'Lady Lazarus', is particularly striking. This is partly because of the poet's life-story: her death overhangs the poems, and her voice seems like a voice from the dead. (Amazingly, you can find Tennyson's voice on Youtube as well. The faint recording (from 1890) has a deathly quality, but there isn't quite the same chill as there is with Plath.)
Another reason why the recordings are so striking is her accent. In the U.K., people hear American voices all the time, but they probably aren't that sensitive to the implications of accent. For example: when British audiences hear the voices of the actors in the Harry Potter films, it's reasonable to think that they can quickly (though appearances can be deceiving) form assumptions about the geographical origins and the social background of the speakers. They might be able to discern some different American accents, but they aren't so tuned in. It must work the other way around as well. In Plath's case, though, a lot of modern English speakers can recognise that this is an accent that they don't hear very often: a respectable New England voice, speaking with the formality and correctness that characterizes both British and American English of the 1950s. No glottal stops here.
Given the way that readers today appreciate the raw emotion of Plath's poetry, the voice might not seem to fit obviously with a poem like 'Daddy'. Perhaps it indicates that raw emotion might not be the key quality to appreciate in a finely wrought poem? Do you think her way of reading it has special authority to guide our interpretation? How does it affect the way you look at this, or another poem?
There are other places in the Cambridge Authors website where you can consider questions like this. For example, the issues of regional accents and dialects are considered in an interview with Stephen Logan in the Wordsworth section. In the case of 'Daddy', why not try a few experiments. Read it out yourself in different ways: which bits are difficult to get right? Does this tell you something about the poem? Consider also whether your own voice, with its characteristics of location and background: what difference does it make to the poem when read out loud? What difference does a male voice make?
There are already lots of suggestions here about how to make use of recordings of Plath's voice. You could extend it to other poets, perhaps those who have distinctive regional qualities (for example, Seamus Heaney, or Robert Burns). Please tell us what you have found by adding a comment below.
If you find yourself interested in some of the issues raised here, you might enjoy hearing Stephen Logan speaking about Wordsworth, regional accents, identity, and criticism in the Wordsworth section.