Image Credit: National Poetry Library © Pete Woodhead
It is 8:00 pm on the 1st of March, and I find myself in the quiet, intimate atmosphere of Southbank’s
National Poetry Library. Ian Humphreys and Sarah Corbett are launching their collection, ‘After Sylvia’, a
collection of sixty commissioned poems and essays celebrating the life and legacy of Sylvia Plath. On the
programme: three poetry readings and a Q&A featuring award-winning poets Emily Berry, Mary Jean Chan,
and Mona Arshi.
The audience is quiet but intense, and a palpable sense of eagerness lingers in the air. A staff member opens
the event, mentioning the library’s exhibit in the next room, ‘Poets in Vogue’, which features, coincidentally,
one of Sylvia’s skirts. Like the skirt, she says, this event will transform someone who ‘feels very mythical’
into someone ‘very human’.
Ian Humphreys is our host for the night, and takes the stage to introduce the book and poets.‘After Sylvia’,
created alongside the 2022 Plath festival, is shaped around five key, ‘Plathian’ themes: rebirth, womanhood,
mothers and fathers, magic, and nature. The interest in the book was so intense, he describes, that ‘a lot of
what Sarah and I did was fighting people off to try and keep our jobs as small and contained as possible.’ The
vigorous, all-consuming love people have across all generations for Plath is apparent.
Emily Berry goes first. She begins with her commission, titled ‘Last Poem’—a haunting poem about rebirth,
about writing one’s ‘last poem in praise of long life.’ Plathian tones echo in lines such as ‘My mother, too /
built a room that / she would later /die in.’ And as Emily reads, ‘and everything you wrote is alive,’ I think to
myself: this is a love letter to Sylvia.
With a slow, soft-spoken voice Emily goes on to read various poems from her previously published works,
all of them entangled with the theme of rebirth. It is clear that Emily is not afraid to dig for depth, for the
core of things: the way a dog’s ribs move when you hold it in ‘Dream of the Dog’ or how crying feels like
feeding in ‘Canopy’.
My personal favourite of the evening, an untitled poem from her collection ‘Unexhausted Time’, channels a
darker, more visceral version of Plath. Thanks to lines like ‘I am done with your dying’; ‘And yes, I accuse
you of not loving yourself’; and ‘Friend, I would kill you for not wanting to live’, the poem lingers
hauntingly in the room long after Emily has finished reading.
Mary Jean Chan goes next, streaming live on an on-stage screen. Following Emily’s lead, they start with
their commissioned piece: ‘The Painter’—a golden shovel piece written in response to Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’.
A beautiful, short poem on connection, colour, and intimacy, like most of Chan’s poems, a glowing sense of
unshakeable hope informs the writing.
They go on to read various poems from their forthcoming collection, ‘Bright Fear’ (August 2023). In lines
such as ‘Inscrutable house, constructed space, blue room, how the poets have named a heaven in which
lonely meanings sit companionably beside lonely children’ and ‘One day my mother said to me on the
phone: we are one body, you know that, right?’ they explore, with beautiful, ‘Plathian’ vulnerability, themes
like childhood loneliness, the act of writing poetry, family, and the modern, queer experience.
Our final reader, Mona Arshi, begins by explaining why Plath has, since her teenage years, meant so much to
her: ‘Once we have words for something, then we have it, rather than it having us. And that is why I think so
many people go to her (Plath).’ Her commissioned poem, an exploration of the mother in
Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, is a fervent portrait of the play’s banquet scene: the gutting of the animal; godly
presences; the carcass; the pregnancy—an ode to Plath’s ability to personify, the imagery is striking.
The rest of Mona’s readings occupy a more modern, domestic space; full of femininity, grief, reflections on
motherhood and wifehood, humour, and irony. My favourite poem of hers, ‘I ask Alexa’, the Google device,
asks: ‘Will you take me, Alexa, as your humble, un-electric kitchen wife?’ Each poem offers a unique voice,
though the presence of Plath still lingers: ‘What is the surest thing we know? That as we grow older we think
less of killing things and more of coming back.’
The audience, enraptured and enthralled, applauds for a long time before the Q&A section of the event
begins (sadly without Mary Jean Chan, who was disconnected). Ian and the audience ask the poets questions
on how they approached the commissions, Sylvia Plath’s legacy, communion with Plath, and Plath’s interest
in magic. In their answers, what seems to come back, again and again, is how intensely teenagers seem to
connect with Plath, most definitely, because of how unafraid Plath was to write about deeper, darker subjects
than other poets of her time. ‘She gets into your bloodstream,’ Mona says.
Though many beautiful things are said about Plath, I do find myself wishing for more exploration of Plath’s
legacy’s downsides: the racist language in her writings and how easy it is to unhealthily romanticise her
(especially for younger generations on social media). Though Emily does mention being ‘bothered by the
way her legacy has been interpreted in the light of her death’, nothing more is said. It is in the book itself,
Degna Stone’s essay ‘Lines That Jar’, that I find a more critical distance from a simple, blind love for Plath.
‘We are not reading Plath in the past, and to continue to ignore offensive tropes within her work seems like a
wilful act of erasure,’ Stone states. What we can do is ‘remain in conversation with that work and consider
what her writing tells us about our own time and how things have (or haven’t) changed.’
The event finishes and leaves behind a joyous, enchanted audience. People linger long after the end to have
enthusiastic conversations about Sylvia. All three poets did an incredible job with their commissions,
channelling, as Mona put it during the Q&A, Plath’s ability to transform: ‘working at something that exists
and making it into something different, ... transmuting it into language, and letting it proliferate.’
(You can buy the collection ‘After Sylvia’ online. I highly recommend it!)