Studying poetry usually involves analyzing the “poet’s voice” as it’s expressed through the poem itself. However, hearing the poet read a work in his or her actual physical voice can have an astonishing impact on the effect of the poem.
I’d been a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s work for a good 20 years before I ever heard BBC recordings of her readings and an interview. The voice I heard in my head when I read her work was clear and moderated, like an indistinct female voice-over on a radio commercial. When I heard her actual physical voice coming through the speakers of my stereo (I’d borrowed the recording from the public library), I could not reconcile it with the lines and language I knew so well. To me, Plath sounded more like Julia Child crossed with Glenda Jackson than a mad poet; I always imagined her almost hissing the final lines of “Lady Lazarus” (“…and I eat men like air”) as the bandages fell away and her red hair smoldered. That’s not the image I have in mind as I listen to Plath’s recorded reading of this poem. She sounds too superior and refined to do something as base as die. I can imagine her wearing a strand of real pearls, but not in a million years having worms picked off her “like sticky pearls.” If there’d been a little more Norma Desmond in her recitation, I might have been able to reconcile that voice to the voice I’d heard in my head for so long.
This isn’t to undermine Plath’s very real suffering and pain; and, naturally, she was basically performing her poetry for a radio audience. However, the recorded interview is just as disconcerting (for me, that is) in blasting away all my preconceived notions of what Plath sounded like. And once I’d heard Sylvia Plath’s physical voice, her poetic voice changed for me forever. (If you’ve never heard Plath recite her poetry, go to the BBC site to listen to her reading of “Lady Lazarus.”)
With the Internet, there are plenty of opportunities to hear poets, past and present, read their work. The Academy of American Poets, YouTube, The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, The Poetry Foundation, Poetry Everywhere on the PBS website, and the BBC’s Poetry Out Loud page are just a few sources for recordings and videos.