Literature Live – I am I am I am: Jackie Kay and Ali Smith discuss Sylvia Plath, Manchester Literature Festival at the Martin Harris Centre, Oct 13th, reviewed by Eve Foster

Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break

These were the opening images of Ali Smith and Jackie Kay’s thoroughly engaging discussion and appreciation of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and, of course, her novel The Bell Jar. Although this year marks fifty years since the original publication of The Bell Jar, you wouldn’t have guessed this from the number of people in the audience, nor from their reaction to Plath’s work. Most strikingly, as both authors pointed out, you wouldn’t have guessed it from the selection of her writing that they chose to read: Plath’s work remains as fresh and exciting today as when it was first written. There was a sense of awe, from the audience and from Smith and Kay, as they read a range of her poetry, from more obscure early works such as The Disquieting Muses to one of her most famous poems Lady Lazarus. The vivid imagery in each of her unique poems clearly impressed the everyone there.
We can not look at Plath’s work without considering her infamous life. This was most present in the audience’s mind when listening to what was fittingly the final poem of the evening, the last poem Plath ever wrote, Edge.But the sombre tone of this poem was soon contrasted by excerpts from The Bell Jar. Although the chosen section dealt with a similar theme – the episode in which the protagonist, Esther, tries and fails to hang herself – the treatment of this matter could not be more different. Listening as Ester walks about her house, looking up and bemoaning the fact that her ceilings’ are not suitable for tying up the silken dressing gown cord she has decided to hang herself with, the audience were evidently amused at the touching and ironic take on what would usually be such serious subject matter. Indeed, as Smith and Kay aimed to stress, there is more to Plath’s work than her life. The skilled, composed structure of her poetry contrasts with the volatile meanings behind them, and even in Edge her imagery is startling and original. Meanwhile The Bell Jar contains many themes, from insanity, sexism and politics which keeps her work as fresh and meaningful today. Kay’s anecdote, of how she wrote an essay discussing Lady Lazarus not as a poem simply about suicide, and was told by a teacher to ‘read the poem again’, was met with much amusement and agreement from the audience.
Both Smith and Kay have evidently been influenced by Plath’s work. Smith spoke of how, in the poetry anthology she studied at school, Plath was one of only two female writers featured, and that the striking nature of her poetry made Smith realise she could approach things in a completely different manner. Meanwhile Kay told us that her first book of poetry, The Adoption Papers, was inspired by the voices in Plath’s poem, Three Women. Certainly Plath has inspired a whole generation of poets and writers and, since she is still as popular as ever today, I’m sure she will go on to inspired many more for years to come.

And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons

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