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Episode 37: Rewriting the Script: The short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath with her acclaimed biographer Heather Clark

Heather Clark, Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield and author of the award-winning biography Red Comet, joins the Slightly Foxed team from New York to dispel the myths that have come to surround Sylvia Plath’s life and art.

Tired of the cliché of the hysterical female writer, and of the enduring focus on Plath’s death rather than her trailblazing poetry and fiction, Clark used a wealth of new material – including juvenilia, unpublished letters and manuscripts, and psychiatric records – to explore Plath’s literary landscape. She conjures the spirit of the star English student at Smith College who won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University and who brought her enormous appetite for life to her writing and relationships. We follow her life from the ‘mad passionate abandon’ of her thunderclap meeting with Ted Hughes, rebellion against genteel verse and her creation of a dark ‘potboiler’ in The Bell Jar to her belief that a full literary life and a family unit can coexist and the outpouring of first-rate poems fuelled by rage in her final days. She introduced female anger and energy into the poetic lexicon with ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Ariel’ and more; poems that were considered shocking at the time, but which are now regarded as masterpieces.

And there are more biographies to be found in our round-up of reading recommendations – of renegade anthropologists and female abstract expressionists – as well as a relationship between a father and his young son told through illustrated letters that leap off the page in Letters to Michael, with wonderful readings by the actor Nigel Anthony.

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Show Notes

Please find links to books, articles, and further reading listed below. The digits in brackets following each listing refer to the minute and second they are mentioned. (Episode duration: 48 minutes; 48 seconds)

Books Mentioned

We may be able to get hold of second-hand copies of the out-of-print titles listed below. Please get in touch with Jess in the Slightly Foxed office for more information.

– Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol. I: 1940-1956

The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol. II: 1956-1963

– Sylvia Plath, Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices, a radio play (23:28)

– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (30:16)

– Sylvia Plath, Ariel: The Restored Edition (39:23)

– Sylvia Plath, The Colossus

– Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes

– Lucie Elven, The Weak Spot (41:55)

– Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air is not currently available in the UK (43:44)

– Lily King, Euphoria (44:06)

– Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women (44:15)

– Charles Phillipson, Letters to Michael: a father writes to his son 1945–1947. With thanks to the actor Nigel Anthony for the readings. (45:19)

Related Slightly Foxed Articles & Podcasts

Slightly Foxed Podcast Episode 29: A Poet’s Haven. Dr Mark Wormald, a scholar on the life and writings of Ted Hughes, on the Barrie Cooke archive

Other Links

Heather Clark’s website

Heather Clark wins The Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2020 for Red Comet

– Listen to the 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (17:07)

– Listen to the BBC Radio 3 Arts & Ideas podcast on Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Seamus Heaney (44:45)

– The artist Heather Phillipson’s Sketches from Space Instagram account, where she first shared Charles Phillipson’s letters to Michael (45:38)

The National Poetry Library, Southbank Centre, London (47:31)

Opening music: Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E Major by Bach

The Slightly Foxed Podcast is hosted by Philippa Lamb and produced by Podcastable

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