25 April 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Elizabeth Winder

The following is the first of three guest posts by Annette Stevens.

Author Elizabeth Winder
My name is Annette Stevens, and I blog over at Mademoisellewomen.wordpress.com. (Yes, named after Sylvia Plath's internship!) Sylvia Plath has been a source of fascination to me for a while now; with all her biographers, there seems to be no limit on the amount of Sylvia-esque books. I have been lucky enough to speak to some of them-and as a blog series (thanks to Peter for re-printing all of these!), we'll be posting some interviews. This post is an interview with Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work:

Hello Elizabeth, thank you for agreeing to this interview. At what age did your 'Kinship' with Sylvia Plath begin?

I was fourteen. One day a girl who sat behind me in geometry was reading Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems before class started. I was struck by the way the book looked—it was the 1981 edition with that interesting brush-stroke font. And the name "Sylvia Plath" sort of bewitched me—I loved the way the letters looked together. Later that year a friend leant me her copy of The Bell Jar—the version with the very gothic cover—the velvet gloved hand holding an upside down rose. I'd never seen words used in such a vivid, visceral way. It was like reading in Technicolor.

Out of all her poetry, do you have a favourite poem?

"Fever 103". The "weak hothouse baby" the hot metal beads flying out—it's a poem you can feel on your skin.

In five words, what is The Bell Jar to you?

Cigarettes, aldehydes, Doreen, nylon, sticky

How did you come to the idea to write a book about Sylvia Plath?

My Sylvia Plath—the one you'll find in the Unabridged Journals—is full of bright red energy and joy takes a real sensual delight in life. You can see that in the poems too. I was sick of seeing her flattened out into the grey image of a depressed woman. Yes, she experienced spells of depression—but those spells made up such a small fraction of her life. People feel some sick compulsion to reduce women to their worst moments. Hemingway suffered from depression and committed suicide. But in our mind's eye he's banging on a typewriter in Paris or buying shots for an entire fishing village in Cuba. We remember him not just for his talent, but for his zest for life. We should do the same for Sylvia Plath.

The Magazine
Why did you focus specifically on Plath's time at Mademoiselle Magazine?

Those four weeks were so dramatic, dazzling, and densely packed. It always surprised me that other biographers seemed to kind of gloss over them. Sylvia loved fashion, she loved New York. And I've always love mid-century fashion and material culture, so it was fun to immerse myself in that.

In writing Pain, Parties, Work, you interviewed guest editors who had an editorship at the same time as Plath. How did you go about doing so?

That was the best part of the process—I was so lucky. The Guest Editors I reached out to were so generous and witty. I loved hearing all their stories—gossip in the hallways, scenes in the elevator, borrowed clothes and very, very late nights!

Whilst writing the book, did you compile any research?

Yes—I went through the Plath archives of the Lily Library. I practically buried myself fin research but it was all such great stuff—shopping lists, clothing budgets, diaries from junior high and stacks and stacks of letters from her numerous boyfriends.

The Book
How long did Pain, Parties, Work, take to write?

Maybe about a year and a half. It was total immersion.

Would you ever consider writing a follow-up to Pain, Parties, Work?

That's interesting—I hadn't thought of that! Actually, in a subtle sort of way I think the book I'm writing now is a follow up, even though it isn't about Sylvia Plath.

Overall, do you think that Plath was a victim of her time-"being an ambitious girl" in 1950's America?

Absolutely. We don't give the women of Plath's generation enough credit. Girls like Sylvia—and all the Guest Editors—were under tremendous pressure. "Get into the best school, keep your scholarship, win prizes and make sure you're invited to the Yale Spring Dance…" But women are always bombarded with mixed messages. That's why Sylvia's struggles are just as relevant today.

Previously, have you worked in the publishing industry?

Oh, not at all. It was completely new to me.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes—I think I was about five when I realized that and I haven't wavered since.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Words and images! Reading Anna Karenina for the 20th time, Anne Carson's amazing poetry, the scent of the shampoo I used when I was twelve, the name of a nail polish shade in the Ulta catalog, a 17th century French cookbook. Anything and everything.

Are there any more Sylvia Plath-inspired projects in the works?

Not at the moment, but I wouldn't rule it out.

For anyone wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any tips?

Read! Seek out the writers that resonate with you, and then seek out more. Read and re-read and re-read again and copy the sentences and phrases you like best in notebooks. Study the syntax your favourite writers use, the way they stick words together. Pay attention to what you like and why you like it.

And finally one random question, just in case you're bored of always being asked about Sylvia Plath:
What is your favourite black and white film, prior to the 1960's?

Great question! The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir (1939.) There's a hunting party in this French chateau, lots of banter and flirtation and sly looks. At night everyone is darting in and out of their rooms, running around in these silky ruffled robes, sneaking around with their lovers. There's an adorable pouty little French maid named Lisette who will make you want to wear white and black for the rest of your life. There's a count dressed up as a teddy bear, tons of drinking, lots of slinking around in wine cellars and china closets to kiss someone or make a crazed love confession. There's a real darkness there—sad marriages, broken hearts, death—but at the same time there's this dizzy pajama party vibe that always makes me smile.

18 April 2015

The Cradle Sylvia Plath Painted

By mid-October 1961, Sylvia Plath was already thinking about Christmas as she and Ted Hughes were hard at work making Court Green in North Tawton not just their own, but also livable. She mentioned in letter dated 13 October that year of her desire to make her daughter Frieda Hughes a doll's wood cradle. Christmas likely sprung into her mind as she had recently received a from her mother mentioning that she would be sending her granddaughter a doll for Christmas. The subject of the cradle was mentioned in general in subsequent letters to Aurelia and Warren Plath on 18 December 1961 and to her Aunt Dorothy Benotti on 31 January 1962.

In "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England", Plath scholar Gail Crowther discusses this very doll's cradle (see pages 44-47; an image of the cradle appears on page 45). Working with the documents Plath and Hughes created is one thing: particularly those which bear evidence of both the poets such as poetry or fiction manuscripts or their address book. But this cradle is also something to which both Plath and Hughes contributed. Hughes made the cradle and Plath enameled and painted it. In Birthday Letters, Hughes called these items a "Totem", writing: "You painted little hearts on everything . . . Sometimes, off to the side, an eight-year-old's bluebird . . And on the cradle I made for a doll you painted,/Hearts" (163). As Gail stated in our paper, "Such items, we feel, belong in an archive because they are able to bring Plath alive in a unique, multi-dimensional manner. In many ways they do not feel 'of the past,' but rather very much of the present" (46-47).

In a second installment to a letter Plath wrote on 29 December 1961, she discusses a little more about the cradle, and from where the design and inspiration came. The part where Plath writes about the cradle was was edited out of Letters Home and so therefore cannot be quoted. But, the original letter is held by the Lilly Library for anyone who visits to read.

In this 29 December 1961 letter, Plath mentions that Marion Freeman sent her some copies of Woman's Day magazine which left her with a nostalgia for American-market women's magazines. Marion Freeman, sometimes called "Aunt Marion", was the mother of David and Ruth Freeman. Ruth, fondly called Ruthie in Plath's letters and diaries, was Plath's best childhood friend from Winthrop. In one of those issues of Woman's Day, Plath found the ideal design and pattern for a cradle made of wood.

In a letter to Marion Freeman dated 31 January 1962, Plath thanks her for the Woman's Day magazines and mentions how a design in one of the issues was just right for a doll's cradle they made for Frieda for Christmas. She mentioned too that that she got inspiration for the imagery she painted on the cradle -- hearts and flowers (and birds) -- from the quilting section.

This got me thinking: which issue of Woman's Day was it? I found via a search on eBay that the November 1961 issue had a big Christmas section in it, and so started there. By chance (or luck), I had to look no further as the seller of the item confirmed to me that the November 1961 issue had the instructions for building a cradle.

The quilting section Plath referred to was on page 39; a photograph of a cradle on page 44; and the instructions on cutting the wood and assembly on page 105. As you will see in the images below, Plath made her own of the flowers and used the colors and general shapes to inspire the hearts, sun, and decorative flourishes, but the bluebird is just about spot-on.

Page 39, note blue bird and flowers at right
Page 44, see cradle at left-center
Page 105, instructions

Plath also painted hearts and flowers on a chair, a wastebasket, and table. These four household items are held by Smith College; and a color image of them was recently reproduced in Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther's Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning (2014).

Seeing the cradle in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College and holding it is truly a wonderful experience. For me it ranks up there with seeing a poetry manuscript, her journals, a typescript of The Bell Jar: really anything Plath created. "Realia", can be classified perhaps as a more fetishistic object than a manuscript would be: certainly this kind of thing falls out of the traditional purview of academics. But it is an important product and relic regardless. It is something, like a sketch or drawing Plath made, to which she temporarily devoted all of her mind, creativity, and energy towards completing. Plath said as much in a letter to her husband Ted Hughes on 7 October 1956. On drawing teapots, shoes and chestnuts, she said, "it gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it" (Sylvia Plath: Drawings, 3). And seeing the original issue of Woman's Day that gave Plath her idea's is also fascinating. It felt surprisingly unreal, if you catch my meaning. And stepping back like that into November 1961 was quite interesting for the advertisements and articles. Those are long gone days. You can see how Plath took something she studied and transformed it into a veritable timeless work of art: much the same way you can find nuggets real people and experiences metamorphosed in her poetry and prose.

All links accessed 6 March 2015.

08 April 2015

Sylvia Plath Collections: Sylvia Plath collection, 1952-1989

Emory University recently put a finding aid online for the Sylvia Plath collection, 1952-1989. A small collection, but one certainly with significant materials for the Plath scholar.

The items were purchased in 2014 and include:

Folder 1: Compass, Southeastern Massachusetts University, Summer 1987
Folder 2: Mademoiselle, January 1959
Folder 3: The New Yorker, August 3, 1963 [2 copies, one annotated by Aurelia Plath]
Folder 4: Smith Review, Fall 1952
Folder 5: Smith Review, Spring 1953 [annotated by Aurelia Plath]
Folder 6: Thomas, Trevor, Sylvia Plath: Last Encounters, 1989 [inscribed from the author to Richard Larschan and includes a letter from Thomas to Larschan and several clippings about the work]

The material in folder 1, Compass is the the magazine of Southern Massachusetts University (now University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth), and features an article by Maeve Hickock titled "Aurelia Plath and Richard Larschan". The article is about the video production of the Plath program in the Voices and Visions series from 1986. A second article, "A Case of Mistaken Identity" by Charles Wright, is on the then recent Jane Anderson lawsuit against Ted Hughes and the makers of the 1979 film version of The Bell Jar.

The materials in folders 2 through 5 are original periodicals featuring Plath's work ("The Times are Tidy" in Mademoiselle, January 1959; seven poems ("Two Campers in Cloud Country", "The Elm Speaks" ["Elm"], "Mystic", "Amnesiac", "Mirror", "Among the Narcissi", and "The Moon and the Yew Tree" -- essentially everything the magazine had purchased from Plath since 1960 yet to be printed) in The New Yorker, 3 August 1963; "Sunday at the Mintons'" from Smith Review, Fall 1952; and "Mad Girl's Love Song", "To Eva Descending the Stair"; and "Doomsday" from Smith Review, Spring 1953. Each of these contains annotations in Aurelia Plath's hand. Particularly moving is Aurelia Plath's commenting that she relates to every word in stanza 10 from "Elm": "I am inhabited by a cry. / Nightly it flaps out, / Looking, with its hooks, for something to love."

The Trevor Thomas materials in Folder 6 include a copy of Thomas' limited edition memoir Sylvia Plath: Last Encounters; a letter from Thomas to Larschan dated 30 November 1989; and a photocopy of a newspaper clipping "Poet Laureate Serves Writ on Professor" from Bedfordshire on Sunday 21 January 1990, page 9. The letter concerns Aurelia Plath, Anne Stevenson & Bitter Fame; Clarissa Roche; mentions Elizabeth Sigmund; and the lawsuit against Thomas by Ted Hughes.

Thanks to Amanda Golden for alerting us to the availability of the small collection.

All links accessed 23 & 27 January 2015.

01 April 2015

An Apology and a Promise from Sylvia Plath Info Blog

The following is a transcription of the public statement offered by Peter K. Steinberg of the Sylvia Plath Info Blog, which aired on Seattle's WC8H10N4O2 (the Starbucks Network) this morning at 4:01 A.M. local time.

For the last eight years, Sylvia Plath Info Blog has been providing posts on Sylvia Plath covering a range of topics including archival materials, to newsworthy events, books and book reviews, and quasi-live blogging from conferences.

Unfortunately, much the content and information presented has been done so under the influence of performance enhancing drugs. Admitting this at this point in time (I was going to hand write it in the attempt to have it come off as more sincere) is a big step for me in conquering the problem.

Continually I had intended to try to break free of the grip these drugs have had on me. But to no avail. I want to apologize deeply and sincerely if I have let any of you down as a result of this admission.

Kindness--in the form of comments, followers, and emails--served only to egg me on in a way I am sure none of the blog's readers intended. But naturally, defensiveness and over-sensitivity has led me to privately blame each of you in the attempt to not accept accountability for my actions.

Youth was passing me by, and I felt desperate to keep up both with the more seasoned and recognized Sylvia Plath scholars, as well as trying not to lag too behind the newer, smarter, and more talented ones.

Only one option seemed right: the cheating option.

Under no circumstances did I ever think I would be caught, but caught I was. Which has led to this statement. Recent history of politicians and professional athletes also being caught doing various nefarious deeds has led me to believe that a full acceptance of responsibility --no matter how disingenuous-- followed by a period of laying low, will provide the opportunity for the masses of us with short-term memory issues (developed from being over-stimulated on media in all its various formats and functions) will allow me to make a full and triumphant comeback.

Just about twenty-four hours from now, I will be entering a program to ween myself off of these drugs in an attempt to get my life back. It is a very rigorous program and will test my strength and will.

Unless this turns out to be a failed recovery, I hope to return to blogging on Sylvia Plath -- and doing so cleanly -- by the end of the month or maybe sometime in May. I hope you understand and forgive any silence from this blog in the meantime. It is imperative that I go through with this.

Let it not go unsaid that I feel as though I have let you all down. Which is weird considering, obviously, you are all in some ways responsible...  I will do everything in my power to crush this demon. To rise from the ashes like "Lady Lazarus" herself.

I make a promise to you to that should I succeed in shocking my system clean and clear of this performance enhancing drug, I will return better, bigger, and stronger. More terrible than ever I was. More ferocious a Plath scholar than can be fathomed, with a heart dedicated to being a clean scholar.

Only time will tell, I suppose, if I can defeat this. My only hope is that you, dear readers, can give me a second chance.

Thank you for reading and for being so understanding.

--Sylvia Plath Info (aka Peter K. Steinberg)

24 March 2015

Four Days at the Lilly Library with Sylvia Plath Archives

The Lilly Library
From 16-19 March, I was at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington, working with the Sylvia Plath archives there doing reference leg work and inquiry for the Letters of Sylvia Plath project. In the past, I have made nightly updates on the materials with which I worked, but I found this too time consuming for the kind of work I was doing this time around. In the process of being there, I was able to look through the majority of all the boxes and folders in Plath mss II; as well as dabbling a little in other, smaller collections  such as the Lameyer mss; Plath mss IV; Plath mss VI; and one book from her library, Christopher Fry's 1950 play The Lady's Not for Burning.

The trip was very successful and rewarding, and the staff, from the Curator of Manuscripts Cherry Williams to Reference Librarian David K. Frasier and Public Services Assistant Zach Downey, and all the additional library staff who paged materials, brought them to me, took them away, and let me stay until the exact closing time, did everything they could do to make me feel welcome. This was IU's Spring Break, and so the campus was quiet and the library open one hour less each day. I missed those hours, but was happy to trade that loss for the benefit of a ghost-town like feel to the campus.
Cambridge & the Charles River

Leaving snowy Boston was bittersweet, but I was greeted by unusual things such above freezing temperatures, grass and sidewalks.

Research commenced at 9 am sharp on Monday and I worked with the correspondence first, looking at the originals of letters I had copies of to see if any unclear bits were discernible. Then I worked with Plath's earliest diaries from 1944 and 1945 as well as the small envelopes of loose materials removed from the diaries.  From there, I worked with Plath's "Publications Scrapbook" in Box 15. It is truly an honor to work with these materials and to see and hold diaries, documents, photographs, menus, matchbooks, ticket stubs, theater programs, etc. that Plath used to own. The Publication scrapbooks hold letters of acceptance for her work, telegrams, and other memorabilia of her life as a professional writer. It shows the concentrated focus that he had for this profession from a very early age.

Moving along to Boxes 11 and 12 which hold "Smith College Memorabilia", I found some fascinating materials. Again, all of which was proving useful to be able to write good contextual reference notes and annotations to Plath's letters. I am gaining a far greater understanding and education on Plath's early life. This is vital, I think, as so much attention is given to her post 1956 doings when she was a professional teacher, writer, wife, and mother. In the process of this day, I made an exciting discovery. But then it was closing time.

Still life at 5:47 a.m.with bananas, pears, 
laptop, photocopies, and coffee
On Tuesday I picked up where I left off in Boxes 11 and 12 and right off the bat found a letter I previously did not have listed in my files. This was an excellent way to start the day, which ended having found several more letters in a variety of places! This makes for more work, but it is work happily done. After I wrapped up with these boxes, I moved to two of my favorite Plath documents out there: her high school and Smith College Scrapbooks, housed respectively in Oversize 3 and Oversize 8, and spent the bulk of the day playing with these.

The scrapbooks are glorious documents of Plath's life, colored with creative and fun captions, illustrated with the stuff of her life. Some of those things mentioned above like programs, menus, matchbook cases, photographs galore and other wonderful things. Having no idea how many times I have visited the Lilly, I do know that each visit I look at these scrapbooks and I gain more and more information with each time. This is something the archive does. Your own knowledge and perspective shifts and expands, so re-visiting a collection or a document can yield wonderful insight. On a project like the letters, which I have read through three times completely so far, documents like the scrapbook practically scream with newly relevant information.

Continuing with the oversize materials, I looked at the Clippings in Oversize 10 and ended the day in Box 13, which holds materials relating to Cambridge University and Plath's teaching year at Smith College. Also on this day, a former Smith College student and current student at IU's Library school, Amanda Ferrara, found me and so it was wonderful to see her and to chat. You will remember Amanda from her excellently curated The Bell Jar exhibit that was on at both Roger Williams University and Smith College in 2013.

On Wednesday I worked with Boxes 7a and 8 which hold Plath's poems and prose among other materials which include an early scrapbook of poems, the typescript for "Circus in Three Rings", a manuscript she put together in her last semester at Smith College; the typescript of The Colossus she submitted to the Yale Series of Younger Poets, In looking at this and in particular at the very massive list of Acknowledgements, a thought occurred to me that perhaps Plath did not win because she was too accomplished a younger poet. Also looked at Oversize 1 ("Awards"), 2 (The Bradford), 10 (those clippings again), and Oversize 11 ("Clippings Miscellaneous"). In 10 I particularly enjoyed seeing clippings that Plath sent, signed with  a note, to Olive Higgins Prouty, as well as that famous one of "Sylvia Plath Tours the Stores and Forecasts May Fashions Week" where she typed on a clipping of her in swimsuit "with love, from Betty Grable".

Thursday was wide open as I had largely worked through everything I had wanted to by the end of the day on Wednesday. So, I started the day looking at Plath's other early diaries from summer camp 1945 through 1949 (with an entry or two from 1951). I looked more through boxes 8 (Poems and Fiction Prose), 9 (Non-fiction prose & Letters Home), and 10 (High school memorabilia) as follow-ups to things I worked with the other days and based on things I had researched on in my hotel in the evenings and in the mornings, too, before the library opened. Looked also at Plath mss VI a small collection of materials related to Sylvia Plath, which had to my surprise some fascinating information. About 90 minutes was dedicated solely to examining intimately (what?) a 1962 letter by Plath to her mother with lights and magnifying glasses; standing up, sitting down, on my knees, trying to read some redacted text. This was the day that I was cramming information in right up until quarter to five when the staff (respectfully) boots you out.

By far this was the most intense four day research trip I have ever undertaken. Not that it will do me any good now, but I even learned the combination to Plath's high school locker! Too stimulated to fall asleep, mind racing too fasts to stay asleep, and abandoning sleep altogether I was up generally by 4:30 am going through everything from the day before and mapping out a plan of attack for the day ahead. Does this happen to others?  In all, I found eight or nine new letters and one or two other simply fascinating discoveries which I will write about later. When not in the library, I was enjoying to quiet of downtown Bloomington. Though, it being spring break it never occurred to me that places would be shut down, so finding food was made a little more challenging. I found excellent beer and vegetarian/vegan food at the Owlery (and conversation there Thursday for dinner with the aforementioned Amanda). As well, delicious ice cream for dessert most nights at Hartzell's on Dunn Street.

The Lilly Library, at this present moment, as 9 Plath mss collections. You can see them all listed nicely here in a general run of alphabetical P collections. I have noticed recently some new information in them, so make sure that you check back regularly for added value information, or even new collections. If that list is too long, I recommend (and prefer) this view.

All links accessed 22 March 2015.

22 March 2015

Sylvia Plath Event: Gail Crowther at Tony Cockayne at Blackburn

As I work on a blog post discussing my recent four-days visit to work with the Sylvia Plath materials at the Lilly Library, here is an announcement about an upcoming Sylvia Plath related event.

Author Gail Crowther and artist Tony Cockayne will be presenting on Gail and Elizabeth Sigmund's recent Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning this Thursday, 26 March 2015 at 1:30 p.m.at Blackburn University Centre, The John Thomas Lecture Theatre (map).

The author's will discuss the story of the book, show slides, answer questions, and sign books. Further talks are in the works in locations like Falmouth. More information and details will be forthcoming.


16 March 2015

Sylvia Plath's Ariel Anomaly

To be sung to the tune of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back":

I like rare books and I cannot lie!
The mass market paperback can just die...


Rare books can sometimes be like watching sports. In sports, on any given day you may see something that has never been done before. In the case of books, you might suddenly see a copy of something that you did not know existed. In December, while browsing around ABEbooks.com, this very thing happened.

One of the more memorable and famous books from the 20th century, which is celebrating 50 years of publication this coming March, was Sylvia Plath's Ariel. A copy of Plath's Ariel, a Faber first edition, second impression, recently came across my view. But it was unusual. The dust wrapper was different. The first editions that I have seen and held have three bands of color on the face and spine. Blue at the top taking up the majority of the space with the words ARIEL in yellow, as if cut out; then that yellow in the middle with "Poems by / Sylvia Plath" in black, and then a beautiful solid red color band along the bottom, hinting that the the poems inside are a "blood-flush"; "blood hot and personal".

However, the jacket presented for sale by the bookseller had as the image the book with only two colors: blue and yellow. Missing is that red band at the bottom. I did a quick search for other examples for sale of the second impression, but all copies with bookseller supplied photos had present the red band. At its price was most affordable, even to a poor archivist like me, so I snatched it up. This particular copy has the stain of a previous owners name "d f gough" on the ffep (front free end paper), but otherwise is virtually clear of other markings throughout the book. It does have one other peculiarity which is present in at least one other first edition, second impression of Ariel that I have seen: the type did not strike fully on the copyright page leaving a gap in the copyright year.

Ariel (Faber, 1965). First edition, second impression.
Lacking red color band at bottom.
Ariel (Faber, 1965). First edition, second impression & sadly price-clipped.
With red color band but sadly price-clipped.
I have reached out to the archives of Faber to see if they can tell me anything about the book.  In some ways the book and wrapper feels like a proof. An email recently from Faber archivist Robert Brown was not able to shed any additional light on the dust wrapper, and it was his suspicion that it was most likely a printing error. I have been unable also to find other examples of this particular impression with this particular two-colored wrapper. Naturally I do not think that does not mean they do not exist, but it is nice feeling that I have something unique.

All links accessed 9 January 2015.

11 March 2015

A Major Literary Event: Ariel by [Sylvia Plath], 50 years later

Sylvia Plath has a reputation. In fact, she has many reputations. Sylvia Plath is most widely known for her life and her death; her novel The Bell Jar, and her poems, most notably those in Ariel but also for those works published in 1981in The Collected Poems for which Plath did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize. In recent years -- say since 1987 -- Plath's life has been the focus of attention as a number biographies have been published: and most of those with some drama or contention surrounding it. And in 2000, with the publication of her full journals, again the focus was displaced somewhat from her creative writing and onto her life.

In some strange and perverse way, Plath's reputation --poetic and otherwise -- is because of Hughes, just as Hughes' own fast ascent as a poet of world-renowned can be credited to Plath who effectively and efficiently got his poems first in a wide array of reputable and international magazines, but also in book form.

Fifty years ago today, on 11 March 1965, Ted Hughes saw to publication his version of Sylvia Plath's Ariel. Published in a first run of 3100 copies. But as is very well-known by now, this Ariel was neither the order nor the collection of poems that Plath intended. That notwithstanding, the poems and book were a massive success. According to Stephen Tabor's 1987 book Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography reprints were quickly issued on "14 January 1966 (3180 copies); 6 July 1967 (2500); and 20 March 1972 (2000)" (21). It was not until June 1966 that the Harper & Row edition was published in the United States.

For contemporary readers of Sylvia Plath, the 1965 Ariel represented a severe and marked departure from her 1960 book, The Colossus. In his review of the earlier volume, the critic Al Alvarez wrote, "most of her poems rest secure in a mass of experience that is never quite brought out into daylight [quote from "Black Rook in Rainy Weather"] . . . It is this sense of threat, as though she were continually menaced by something she could see only out of the corners of her eyes" ("The Poet and the Poetess" The Observer, 18 December 1960: 21). With Ariel, Plath confronts these threats which on the one hand confronted her head-on and on the other, needed quelling.

The Guardian has a select archive of reviews of Plath's works from the 1960s. Among them is Richard Kell's "The Foil of Despair" from 12 March 1965. Kell writes that "the writer is very much involved in all her poems", an early recognition of a biographical aspect to her poetry. He recognizes that Plath's ability to merge "landscape and mindscape" in "The Moon and the Yew Tree" shows Plath's "writing at her best." But ultimately, Kell seems unnerved by the intensity of Plath's poetry: "But the experiences these poems are 'about' become a kind of foil: if a fine poem of despair leaves the reader despairing, instead of marvelling at the power that can create something perfect out of destruction, the poet's struggle is to that extent devalued, and it is better not to read at all."

Alvarez, a more faithful reader and early proponent of Plath's poetry, and one who was more familiar with Plath's progression, reviewed Ariel as well in the Sunday, 14 March 1965 issue of The Observer. The review begins, "It is over two years now since Sylvia Plath died suddenly at the age of 30, and in that time a myth has been gathering around her work. It has to do with her extraordinary outburst of creative energy in the months before her death . . ." Alvarez was the first to "speak", as it were, after Plath's death when he wrote "A Poet's Epitaph" in the Sunday 17 February 1963 issue of The Observer (see an image of that on this page), which also printed four of Plath's last known poems: "Edge", "The Fearful", "Kindness", and "Contusion". In that piece, Alvarez set Plath's reputation going, almost like a "fat gold watch". He writes, "For the last few months she had been writing continually, almost as though possessed. In these last poems, she was systematically probing the narrow, violent area between the viable and the impossible, between experience which can be transmuted into poetry and that which is overwhelming. It represents a totally new breakthrough in modern verse, and establishes her, I think, as the most gifted woman poet of our time. . . . The loss the literature in inestimable" (23).

In his Observer review, Alvarez attempts to distance Plath's personal poetry from that of the budding "confessional" school but unfortunately she was lumped in there against her own will. He rightly calls the shift from the poems in The Colossus to those in Ariel "unforeseeable". Alvarez's own view of Plath's poetry matured, just as Plath's poetry itself did. From his review of the Colossus quoted above ("she were continually menaced by something she could see only out of the corners of her eyes") Alvarez claims of Ariel that "the preparation [the poetry of The Colossus] was essential: when the wrenching crisis took place she had the art to handle it." Alvarez named it beautifully when he judged Ariel to be "a major literary event".

Ariel by Sylvia Plath, though compiled and edited by Ted Hughes, was and remains a major literary event. It set Plath up as the leading poet of the 20th century. Plath continues to be a force in the 21st century as well. And this is right because of the universality of her poems and their messages, among other reasons. The grip of these poems is so strong that even the long overdue publication of Ariel: The Restored Edition in 2004 has done little to topple the former from being the book of poetry for which Plath is primarily known. The former is collection is so strong and so shocking, still today. I cannot read them without either alarm or an increased heart rate. But the tone of the two books so different. One crescendos in bleak, almost inevitable sadness; and the other defiantly survives the chaos and fire of life. No matter which book you prefer and what message you take from it, read the 1965 Ariel today if you have access to it.

The speaker of Plath's "Edge" says: "We have come to far" (Ariel, 85). It is anything but over.

Sylvia Plath's worksheets for the Ariel poems are largely held by the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College. A few stragglers are elsewhere such as "Tulips" at the Houghton Library of Harvard, and several including "The Moon and the Yew Tree", "Morning Song", and "The Rival" in Plath mss. at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington.

All links accessed 18 February and 2 March 2015.

01 March 2015

Sylvia Plath: Two Films

On Sunday 2 March 1958, Sylvia Plath wrote a letter to . . . her mother! I know! #Shocking. Wholly omitted from Letters Home but available to read at the Lilly Library, the typed letter was written on the now famous pink Smith College Memorandum paper. Among other things, Plath writes that the night before --1 March-- was spent lazily seeing two films: one on Goya and another on a documentary on a bullfighter.

The film on Spanish painter Francisco De Goya (info) was The Glory of Goya (1950) and featured music by Andres Segovia, a musician Plath saw perform at Smith College as an undergraduate on 10 April 1954.

The documentary on the bullfighter was the 1956 Mexican film Torero! (YouTube) about the Mexican bullfighter Luis Procuna (info).

The film on Goya is interesting as within three weeks Plath was on Spring Break, writing nearly a poem a day and all largely influenced by art, specifically modern art. Also this creative outbreak was inspired by both her auditing of Priscilla Van der Poel's course on modern art (Art 315) and receiving a request for poems from the magazine ARTNews. The course description for Van der Poel's Art 315 course reads: "Contemporary art and its backgrounds from Jacques Louis David and the French Revolution to the present. Open to sophomores by permission of the instructor. Open also in the second semester to students who have had a course in nineteenth-century art abroad. Recommended background, [Art] 11 [Introduction to the History of Art]. M T W 10" (49).

The French painter Jacques Louis David (info) was a contemporary of Goya's and both artists likely influenced the work of future artists to which Plath responded to verbally in her Spring Break poems inspired by Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, Paul Klee, and Paul Gaugin.

The film names above were provided by Dianne Weiland, a College Archives Intern at Smith College. For her help and research on this I am extremely grateful. The films were listed in the 23 February 1958 issue of the Smith College Weekly Bulletin. Grateful thanks also must go to Nanci Young, College Archivist, of Smith College.

All links accessed 14 June 2014 and 19 February 2015.

18 February 2015

Sylvia Plath Memorial Evening

In 1 November 2014, I posted on "Collecting Sylvia Plath". This post was originally part of that, but I decided to break it out for a special occasion. That occasion is today, just after the 52nd anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death.

The following document was acquired from The Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, and was something also formerly belonging to long-time BBC producer Fred Hunter (obit; another obit).

Truly this is a piece of ephemera: a single-sided leaflet produced by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, for a "Sylvia Plath Memorial Evening" which was (to be) held on 29 April. The full text reads:

INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ARTS
17 Dover Street
W 1

Sylvia Plath Memorial Evening

The ICA are arranging a memorial evening for
Sylvia Plath on thursday, april 29th at 8.15 pm

The speakers will be Ian Hamilton and M L
Rosenthal and Al Alvarez will be in the Chair.

The evening will be illustrated with recordings
of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems.

ICA                                members & students 2/-
17 Dover Street              non-members 3/6
W 1

Initially, I thought this evening was planned for 1963. The archival record suggested that it originally was.  The ICA's archive is held by the Tate Museum in London. On contacting them, I inquired if they had any event materials pertaining to this evening, as well as any possible correspondence. There was no material for the event, and a search of correspondence found just one letter from the ICA's Dorothy Morland (obit) to Ted Hughes dated 26 February 1963 (15 days after Plath's death). In this letter, Morland expresses interest in the ICA hosting the memorial evening. It would feature "readings of her poetry with only a short introduction". She discussed the event with Alvarez who "expressed some doubts"; though Alvarez said he would talk it over with Hughes. The letter also mentions that Alvarez would be absent all of April. There is a chance the event took place, then, in May. But then again, nothing appears to have taken place that year.There was no reply letter from Hughes found in the ICA's archive.

However, as a few people pointed out in emails to me (thank you Paul, Sheila, and Tim), there was a "Sylvia Plath Memorial Evening" held on 29 April 1965. According to WorldCat, UNC at Chapel Hill holds a copy of the ICA Bulletin for April 1965 detailing that the programme would be "illustrated with recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems." The three page Bulletin includes a "brief biographical and bibliographical entry for Plath opposite on p. 2." The failure of the ICA to host this event in 1963 suggests that Ted Hughes did not want them to celebrate her life -- or possibly call attention to her recent death. Instead, the timing most likely coincides with the publication late that winter (11 March) of Ariel.

Plath had a little history with the ICA in London which was discussed a bit in this blog post. The ICA when Plath was living was located at 17 Dover Street (map) London.

My thanks to Allison Foster of the Tate Museum Archives for her assistance with my queries. And, again to Paul, Sheila, and Tim for their emails and helpful information. Initially I thought that the event would have taken place in 1963 and failed to consider that it might have happened in another year.

All links accessed 2 & 8 July, 1 October 2014, 21 January and 17 February 2015. The post was significantly revised on 20 and 22 February 2015.
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