(Faber and Faber London, 2012); hdbk, £14.99
The shelves are not short of Plath collections, and we might question the need for yet another volume; however, this particular volume is well worthy of consideration. Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, introduces an anthology of Plath’s poems with a lengthy, but not gratuitous, foreword, explaining her choices and outlining her own love of Plath’s poetry. Although she briefly sketches Plath’s biography, Duffy focuses principally on Plath’s work and its place within the world of women’s writing. Dedicated to Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, Duffy rejoices in the growth and maturation of Plath’s poetry, explaining that this collection provided her with the opportunity to come to these poems afresh, re-experiencing “the almost physical excitement” she’d felt when first discovering Plath. Duffy’s enthusiasm sustains the selection and she includes both familiar and lesser-known poems, which flow together gracefully and with evident, well-honed consideration.
“Poets are ultimately celebrators,” Duffy writes, “of life and of poetry itself. A vocational poet like Sylvia Plath gives life back to us in glittering language.” This collection certainly shows the “glittering language”, offering snippets of Plath’s world, from the mundane to the impressive. We are taken into cities and farms, through childhood to motherhood, to view everything from a table to the moon. The vast scope of Plath’s work is explored, offering everything from the well-known “Mushrooms” to such lesser-known treasures as “Love Letter” and “I am Vertical”. The true strength of Duffy’s selection comes from its ability to include the many facets of Plath without it overwhelming or intimidating the reader. So often, Plath is associated with huge and tangled explanations of feminism, or mental health and illness issues; although this volume could be read in any of these ways, it appears instead to be a labour of love from one poet to another.
In this richly coloured exploration of her poetry, Duffy has woven a collection that is both daring and comforting, allowing the unfamiliar reader to approach the work just as easily as the seasoned Plath specialist. Duffy likens her own method of reading Plath to taking a “walk through the landscape” of her work. Duffy arranges the poems in chronological order, sharing her own, very personal, experience of Plath’s life and work. This arrangement also details Plath’s unique view of life, adding another joyous element to the reading of the collection.
Those who are new to Plath will enjoy this volume; the enthusiasm created in the foreword alone is enough to carry the reader forward. However, the careful selection of these poems, the sensitivity towards Plath’s biography and admiration of her poetic skill, all combine to create a collection that is a must-have for any Plath admirer or indeed any lover of verse. There are poems here that will resonate with readers of any age. Unquestionably, this book will become a fond favourite.
Sylvia Plath poems chosen by Carol Ann Duffy creates an experience whereby we are sharing Duffy’s relationship with Plath, while cultivating our own with the latter, through her work, rather than, perhaps, through her over-written life. The most astonishing thing is Duffy’s ability to make you reconsider a poem that you have already encountered. Several times, I found myself rereading a poem that was made wonderfully unfamiliar by its place in the sequencing of this volume. In this way, this collection has not only caused Duffy to revisit Plath, but has made me do likewise. Its great strength is its power to refresh Plath’s words, bringing her back into focus for a generation of readers who will be able to rejoice at having discovered such a talented and wonderful poet.