05 April 2009

The Finals: 2009 Sylvia Plath Poetry Tournament

The finals are set! The voters have spoken.

From Sylvia Plath Info

In this corner, weighing in at three voices, with too many lines and too many stanzas to count right now and representing Crossing the Water/Winter Trees Region we have "Three Women". Plath triple-voiced monologue tour de force which beat out The Colossus' seven part extravaganza "Poem for a Birthday" in a fairly close race.

And in this corner, weighing in at 30 lines in six, five-lined stanzas and representing Ariel we have "Balloons". Possibly the last poem Plath wrote, "Balloons" was able to dislocate, disengage, and discombobulate "The Rabbit Catcher" - completely. This is a wonderful, late poem by Plath composed just six days before her death. Though critics long called for the restoration of Plath's intended Ariel, you, the voters - all five of us, selected and elected a Hughes-inserted poem.

A mighty battle.

How ever will a winner be chosen? Simple - by voting. The winner be announced on Tuesday morning, thus leaving voting open through Monday.


Peter K Steinberg said...

Though I love "Balloons", my vote is for "Three Women".

The challenges of writing a poem of this length, with the complex, emotional ranges of the three voices, for me makes it a more successful, more realized, and more effective poem.

I look at this also from the point of view of what its composition enabled Plath to do. Immediately afterwards she launched into poems like "Elm", "Little Fugue", "The Rabbit Catcher", "Among the Narcissi", "Pheasant", etc.

While "Balloons" - which I believe is the last poem Plath wrote - just didn't have the same effect. In fact, with her death coming six days later means, in a way, that it had the opposite effect.

Sorlil said...

A bit unfair to any poem that is placed against Three Women!

Three Women is a great achievement, the sustained intensity of imagery and the effective switching between the voices is beautifully done.

Though I am surprised that it's made it into the final, it's not my favourite Plath poem which would be a toss up between Totem, Sheep in Fog, The Night Dances, Gulliver, and The Moon and The Yew Tree.

panther said...

Peter, you've convinced me ! It seems this poem, wonderful in its own right, freed Plath up to do all that other stuff. Is it too naive to suggest this is because it is, in many ways, a celebration of life at its most potent and visceral ?

I hadn't realized "Pheasant" and "Among the Narcissi" were written then. I'd somehow placed them rather earlier. I first knew Plath from my mother's copy of CROSSING THE WATER so those poems and "Leaving Early", "Insomnia" etc. are very close to my heart. I didn't know ABOUT Sylvia then, not even the suicide, though I somehow knew she was no longer living.

So, my vote goes to : THREE WOMEN.

That novel sounds oddball ! I mean that as a compliment. Geez, we've had enough none-oddball treatments of the Plath enchilada.

Laurie said...

My vote is for (no surprise!)


It does seem like an unfair fight, given the greater page space that Three Women occupies. I really don't consider it a poem. It seems that POV is important here to some extent; I am voting for poems that work for 'me' and others seem to be thinking more along the lines of the Plath big picture with many details at hand to explain their choice. I suppose for me, lacking those details for the most part, has dictated my voting criteria. But I am just whining because Balloons doesn't have a chance :)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Laurie, Balloons.

It just shows Plath being a human.

Anonymous said...

Though normally I would go for Three Women - isn't it technically a radio play? - in honor of Nick Hughes, I am going to say "Balloons." Although, if I had known of this contest earlier, the Moon and the Yew Tree would have been in the finals, along with Bee Meeting! kim

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, the more it seems like comparing apples and oranges..."Three Women" vs. "Balloons"...They really are like different genres of poetry...they both have their unique qualities that make them favorites. But I don't agree that "Three Women" is not a poem.

Anyone who knows me knows that I think "Three Women" is an extraordinary accomplishment. And "Balloons" is really a breakthrough to an important insight into her psychological predicament at such a late stage in her life. I wish I could give them half a vote each. But...given that I have to make a choice...I have to go with "Three Women", which was one of the first poems of Plath's that convinced me of her greatness, and seduced me into what has become a 35-yr involvement with her life and work.
--Jim Long

Anonymous said...


I'm always judging the poems on what they mean to me personally. When I look at them in relation to "the big picture" it's only to justify their importance because of what they mean to me personally. I first encountered "Three Women" in 1972, when "Winter Trees" first came out. After having read the "Ariel" poems before that, with their load of anger and self-pity, it was such a welcome discovery to find poems that not only summed up the themes I had seen in "Ariel", but brought them to a conclusion that resolved all these conflicting feelings in such a life-affirming way. In relation to the rest of her later work, it just seems like such an enormous accomplishment as a summation of her poetic mission...to find a way out of the mind by way of the body "Is there no way out of the mind?" [Mystic] "The little grasses crack through stone / and they are green with life" [T.W.] In that, it's a kind of masterpiece.
--Jim Long

Laurie said...

Hi Jim~
You had me in your previous post when you ended your comments with the '35-year seduction' statement. I almost jumped in and posted something like "group hug" at that point. But honestly that post did make me realize how special it is to find folks who all share this 'seduction' in varying degrees. And it reminded about the Lean years, pre-internet where mine was a singular obsession, which is only about 20 years old for me. I was nearly thirty and remember it was: Metaphor that grabbed me. I'd never paid any attention to poetry and here I was seeing this amazing little vignette and each line had exactly nine syllables. Elemental, but eye-opening for me, a complete novice.

I appreciate your explanation and it has caused me to re-read T W, a piece I considered taxing in the past. It is what I'd consider an Uber Poem :) and a monument to her ability to juggle voices yet still remain undeniably, Sylvia. And if it was the nexus to your Plath journey, no wonder it is special to you!

Laurie said...

Interesting that you believe "Balloons" was her last poem. I hope so. It seems to me a bit sparse in Plath terms...to focus on poetry during those last days must have been a completely instinctual task. I had "Collected" poems out last night and turned to the back and stumbled across Balloons with Edge printed immediately after. That poem never fails to give me a most uneasy feeling. The writing of Balloons, if last, might have altered a much worse outcome.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Laurie, Yes, I do believe "Balloons" was her last poem (that we know about. While "Edge" is a neat, tidying and fit way to wrap up her Collected Poems, I find it too neat, too tidying, etc.

Smith College has the list of poems Plath sent out, which is annotated by Plath (and then Hughes) denoting which poems were accepted and by which journal/periodical. The batch of poems Plath sent out last include many of those early February poems. The typewritten list ends with "Edge" and written below this in Plath's hand is "Balloons".

This can be interpreted in at least two ways:

1) That "Balloons" was written after "Edge" or,

2) That Plath decided to include "Balloons" after she had already prepared a batch for The New Yorker.

I favor the former option clearly, though there may be other factors/situations/possibilities.

The way I look at it is that Plath woke early on 5 February and wrote "Edge" and then later after the children woke up and were playing around, the scene for "Balloons" took place, thus prompting the poem. Pure speculation obviously, but...

angelictenderbutton said...

Poem for a Birthday

Rabbit Catcher

These are my choices from the final four

Laurie said...

Thanks for all the great insight.

I like your imagining of the sequence of events...which is backed up by tangible items.

It does seem "Collected" went for 'drama' by printing the rather creepy (I think) Edge as a final word.

Al said...

I vote for "Three Women".

Though I have to say, I've spent the last 2 hours vacillating between either of the finalists.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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.