To celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar, the Manchester Literature Festival turned its attention to the work of Sylvia Plath for an evening. The event was led by multi-award winning author Ali Smith and Manchester-based poet Jackie Kay.
Smith and Kay read poems spanning Plath’s career, starting with “The Disquieting Muses” and ending with “Edge”, the last poem she wrote before her death. They then read extracts from The Bell Jar, before taking questions from the audience.
The poems selected showcased Plath’s skills as a writer, and The Bell Jar extracts emphasized the black humour present in Plath’s work, which is not always recognised.
One of the most interesting parts of the event was to hear the impact that Plath had had on the two writers. Both talked of how Plath’s work had taught them that women could have a place in poetry. They spoke with huge adoration for Plath, with Kay mentioning her poem “Baby Lazarus”, an obvious homage to one of Plath’s most famous texts.
Equally interesting was Smith and Kay’s exploration of the mythology of Plath and the tendency to overemphasise the relation that her work has to her life. Both writers highlighted the tight structure and controlled forms of most of her poems to show that they were not simply a frenzied cry for help but beautiful artworks in their own right.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the event, I would have preferred to hear more from Smith and Kay about the effect Plath’s work had had, not only on their careers, but on them. It may have also been interesting to reflect on Plath’s legacy outside the literary world. However, the event was still a fascinating insight into the two writers as well as a wonderful chance to reflect on the brilliance of Plath’s work.