03 September 2007

Sylvia Plath (Great Writers): Unused sidebars

In my 2004 biography simply titled Sylvia Plath, Chelsea House considered having sidebars appear throughout the text. When all the editing was done, however, these were excluded. Each explored a topic that did not truly fit into the text, or presented some information I felt it important to highlight or separate. Each of the sidebars below is preceded by a quote from Plath, relevant to the time period discussed in the chapter.

Chapter One: Becoming a Poet, 1932-1950

“Breath, that is the first thing. Something is breathing. My own breath? The breath of my mother? No, something else, something larger, farther, more serious, more weary.” (JP, pg. 20)

The life of Sylvia Plath was not tragic. She grew up in three distinct neighborhoods around Boston. Her first home in Jamaica Plain was in-between a pond and an arboretum. Her second home in Winthrop was literally beach front, although it was on the calmer, bayside of the Atlantic Ocean; her grandparent’s house had views of both. A major hurricane unleashed its fury over Massachusetts in 1938, and Plath saw the ocean in a wild manner she had never seen before. The ocean always captivated Plath’s attention and she wrote about it ceaselessly throughout her life. She loved the salty air, its color and its consistency and depth. Her memories of the ocean are recalled in “Ocean 1212-W.” The title comes from her grandparent’s phone number, which she called frequently. Her father died on November 5, 1940 and less than two years later, she moved, along with her grandparent’s, to Wellesley, a suburb west of Boston. Compared to Winthrop, Wellesley was landlocked although there is a pond or two. Living in three houses before the age of ten did not affect Plath negatively; she maintained friendships she had as a child while making new ones in Wellesley. She enjoyed playing outdoors during the summer and getting a tan. Wellesley has always been a pleasant place to be and to live; but as a child Sylvia Plath was not “well off” financially. Her brother, Warren, won a scholarship to Philip Exeter Academy for high school and Plath attended the local public school. She performed excellently in school; she was number one in her class and earned a scholarship to attended Smith College, in Northampton.

Chapter Two: Climbing the Ranks: Plath at Smith, 1950-1953

“So I am going to one of the most outstanding colleges is America; I am living with two thousand of the most outstanding girls in the United States…The main way I can add to my self-respect is by saying I’m on scholarship, and if I hadn’t exercised my free will in high school I never would be here.” (J, pg. 33)

At Smith College, Plath continued her academic excellence. She practiced so hard as a writer that between class notes, letters home and to her friends, her journals and creative writing, it appeared as though she was never without a pen in hand. It was important to her to perform well academically to keep her scholarship. In 1952, Plath applied to the Elks National Foundation hopeful to receive their “Most Valuable Student” Scholarship Award to help pay her tuition (the scholarship she did receive, in the name of Olive Higgins Prouty, was not a “full” scholarship). Her submission is held with the Sylvia Plath Archives at the Lilly Library, Indiana University. Her application was accompanied by a letter from her mother, a transcript of High School and college records, and five glowing letters of recommendation. She did not win the award, but sustained financial balance by publishing poems, stories, and articles in local and national periodicals. Seventeen published her first “professional” story in August 1950; they became fairly faithful publishers of her work until she broke into more reputable magazines such as Mademoiselle and Harper’s. Her creative works increased in maturity in a very short amount of time. Her story “Sunday at the Minton’s” won the Mademoiselle Short Fiction Contest in 1952, netting a prize of $500. This success led her to apply for a Guest Editor position at Mademoiselle the next summer; and she won that too.

Chapter Three: The World Split Open, 1953-1955

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” (TBJ, pg. 167)

Plath wrote the sonnet “Doom of Exiles” on April 16, 1954, her first poem in over a year. It is a fantastic poem and it should not come as a surprise that it discusses her healed mind. She sent a copy of it home to her mother the same day, with other upbeat news and information. Due to her recovery at McLean Hospital during the fall semester of 1953, Plath would not graduate with her class, the class of 1954. Plath told her mother that she settled on her roommate for the following year, and it would be Nancy Hunter. Plath had been living in a single since her return to Smith, and was grateful for Nancy’s friendship. Later in 1954, Plath met Elinor Klein, a junior at Smith. They became very close friends, exchanging letters in later years. In 1966, Klein published her memoir “A Friend Recalls Sylvia Plath” in the November issue of Glamour. It was published right after Ariel hit the bookshelves in the United States; and stood to serve as a reminder that Plath was often happy. This period in Plath’s life was perhaps the most important; she needed to re-assimilate herself into the Smith world. She succeeded. Nancy Hunter also wrote a memoir, titled A Closer Look at Ariel. By 1973, when her book length memoir was published, Plath and Ariel were synonymous. Both recollections provide valuable insight to Plath’s life because of the absence of journals during this period. Plath’s ex-boyfriend, Gordon Lameyer, also wrote a memoir, but it was not deemed publishable; it is currently held with the Plath Archive at the Lilly Library.

Chapter Four: Plath in England, 1955-1957

“Forget myself, myself. Become a vehicle of the world, a tongue, a voice. Abandon my ego.” (J, pg. 502)

Over a weekend in April 1955, Plath competed with other New England college poets at the Glascock Poetry Festival at Mt. Holyoke College, in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was there that she met Lynne Lawner, a poet at Wellesley College, in Plath’s hometown. It was the only time the two poets met each other, but they remained friendly via letters until Plath’s death. Plath was generally not very friendly to other female poets, but she would make an exception for Lawner. In 1978, Antaeus published “Nine Letters to Lynne Lawner” from Sylvia Plath. In many respects, Plath treats Lawner like a younger sister. As Plath was leaving Cambridge in June 1957, Lawner was on her way over to begin her own Fulbright, at Whitstead, too. Plath left her bicycle and standard black gown for Lawner’s use, as she reported that the bicycle was necessary to get to classes. This was true; Whitstead was a fair hike from the center of Cambridge. Many of Plath’s lectures, and likely Lawner’s too, were in the city at places like Grove Hall.

In the end, Lawner found the weather detestable and did not remain in Cambridge for long. She received a transfer to study in Rome and lived there for many years. Plath, too, found the weather abominable, but she had found Hughes, which made her life richer. Their letters, often long and intimate, are a good source to see Plath’s most genuine poetic camaraderie. In the 1960s, Lawner published two collections of poetry, Wedding Night of a Nun and Triangle Dream.

Chapter Five: Explorations in America, 1957-1959

“The artist’s life nourishes itself on the particular, the concrete…” (J, pg. 291)

In September 1959, Sylvia Plath began meticulously tracking the poetry and story missives that she sent to publishers for consideration. Throughout her life, she had been particularly keen on details, noticing more and more as she grew older. Although she never experienced a streak whereby all of her poems were accepted; she still felt that just one acceptance would catapult her into a period more of creativity. Laced throughout her journals, these highs and lows appear with frequency in correlation to acceptance and rejections. She was also a bit pessimistic regarding her bouts of writers’ blocks during her two year return to the United States. During her two years in America, she wrote three children’s stories, but was unable to publish any of them during her lifetime. At one point she had two stories out simultaneously, in her journals she said, “Yet I dream of a transfiguration: a letter of acceptance.” (J, pp. 508-9)

The keeping of lists coincided with her stay, with Hughes, at Yaddo, the writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. The entire estate proved to be of valuable inspiration to Plath, writing poems about the manor house, the rose gardens, a pond, another visitor’s favorite tree, and even a dead mole. At one point, they took a day trip to see an old, disused spa, which Plath made into “The Burnt-out Spa.” Most of these Yaddo poems were not in circulation long enough before Plath included them in The Colossus; in fact, Plath’s lists are coated with giant X’s. She gradually moved from putting stars next to accepted works, to boldly underlining them. Plath worked very hard to become a poet, and it later became natural, effortless.

Chapter Six: Confined Spaces, 1960- August 1961

“I wake to listen:/A far sea moves in my ear.” (CP, pg. 157)

Sylvia Plath failed to write a novel before the spring of 1961. She made several attempts beginning at Cambridge University. She wanted to fictionalize her meeting with Ted Hughes, and set down its importance, thinly veiled. Her inability to write longer fiction was broken sometime in late 1960, most likely with her short story “The Lucky Stone.” Plath wrote The Bell Jar very quickly; mixing together fact and fiction to make a semi-autobiographical, and humorous, novel. The events in The Bell Jar span nearly all of Plath’s life, though much of it is not discussed. It was not written chronologically, though it was written in the past tense.

Though the novel does somewhat resemble real events, many people and places were skewed for effect. As an example, in the novel, Esther writes the following after a visits to her father’s grave during the “Bell Jar” summer, “The graveyard disappointed me…The stones in the modern part were crude and cheap… [his headstone] was crowded right up by another gravestone, head to head, the way people are crowded in a charity ward when there isn’t enough space. (TBJ, pp. 187-8) There is no evidence at all that Plath did this in 1953. In her journal, dated March 9, 1959, however, Plath described her visit to Winthrop, “Went to my father’s grave, a very depressing site…ugly crude block stones, headstones together, as if the dead were sleeping head to head in a poorhouse…I found the flat stone…right beside the path, where it would be walked over. Felt cheated….Left shortly. It is good to have the place in mind.” (J, pg. 473)

Chapter Seven: The Triumphant Fulfillment, August 1961- February 1963

“Writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world through the small ordered word-patterns I make.” (J, pg. 232)

Sylvia Plath’s journals, published in an unexpurgated format in 2000, stop in late 1959, just before she and Hughes returned to live in England. Plath continued writing a journal until near the time of her death, but Hughes destroyed one and another was lost. A few journal fragments exist from this period, however, and there is evidence from them that her journalistic style matured and became more useful to her creative writing. From her 1961 “Hospital Notes,” in Appendix 14 in the Unabridged Journals, one can read the origination of her poems “Tulips” and “In Plaster.” A year, in Appendix 15 “Journal 1962,” later she began careful note taking on her acquaintances in North Tawton. In particular, she detailed many encounters with the Tyrer family and her neighbors Rose and Percy Key. Plath’s voyeuristic objective here was to make poems and stories, possibly even a novel. She wrote two poems involving the Key’s, “Among the Narcissi” and “Berck-Plage.” In June 1962, she detailed her excursions with the local beekeeping society and with a five sequence poems she wrote on bees in early October 1962, she established a connection between the two styles of writing. Her journals leave a traceable documentary of significant places to seek out. With only time and occasional modernization as an interference, a serious Plath scholar can “[dash] down the hill past the old factory to Mill Lane” and see the “row of pale stucco cottages on the Taw” to see the location of “The Bee Meeting.” (J, pg. 656) The search for Sylvia Plath requires a careful reading of her work and a calculating approach for understanding.

Chapter Eight: The Afterlife: “A celebration, this is”

“Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning … a shaping which does not pass away like a day … the writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world. People read it: react to it as to a person, a philosophy, a religion, a flower: they like it or they do not.” (J, pg. 436)

In 1965, Ted Hughes printed a limited edition of Uncollected Poems by Sylvia Plath. For the most part, they are poems written between the poems of The Colossus and the poems of Ariel. Over the next twenty years, Hughes would publish over a dozen other limited edition collections, ranging from poetry collections to a single poem, a short story, or a broadside. Just as Sylvia Plath typed his poems and got his name into the great world of poetry; so too Hughes would circulate with Plath’s. As a poet, he recognized the brilliance of Plath’s “late” work, and sought to have it in print. It is very easy to find fault with his editorial decisions and practices, however, he did was he could.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hughes published the following limited editions: Wreath for a Bridal, The Surgeon at 2 A.M. & Other Poems, Crystal Gazer, Fiesta Melons, Among the Narcissi, Lyonnesse, Million Dollar Month, Child, Pursuit, Two Poems, Two Uncollected Poems, A Day in June, Dialogue Over a Ouija Board, The Green Rock, and Above the Oxbow. In addition to his own work, Hughes edited and saw published the following Plath titles: Ariel, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, The Bell Jar, Letters Home, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, The Collected Poems, and The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Plath’s ambition as a writer and her belief of Hughes’s genius, led her to prophesize that they would “publish a bookshelf of books between us before we perish.” (J, pg. 270) Although Plath died with only two books by each in print, Hughes saw to it that her prediction was realized.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.