11 February 2011

Sylvia Plath: By the numbers

Sylvia Plath’s first published poem was in August 1941. Her first published artwork was a year later in August 1942. This kind of got me thinking: what was Plath’s most successful month in which her work was published? Working with Stephen Tabor’s excellent Analytical Bibliography - as well as publications that I have found that he did not include/know about - I was able to come up with the following counts.

January - 16
February - 11
March - 18
April - 27
May - 27
June - 14
July - 14
August - 24
September - 8
October - 39
November - 26
December - 12
Undated/Unknown - 3

I had to set some limits. Well, I did not have to... But I felt like I should and so I worked with known publications from 1941 through the end of 1963. The reason for this being that although some of those 1963 poems were submitted by Ted Hughes on Plath’s behalf after her death, a number of the publications were, in fact, submitted by Plath prior to her death. Also, for quarterlies I assigned publication in Winter to January, in Spring to April, Summer to July, and Autumn to October. The few undated/unknowns are annual publications.

October is the highest number at 39 publications. Fitting, no? It was her month, after all.

There were 239 publications in total which averages, over the 23 years included in this review, to 10.39 publications per year.

Looking at publications by the month made me also wonder: what was her busiest, most successful year (in terms of the number of publications). The numbers for these, for the same inclusive years, are:

1941 - 1
1942 - 1
1943 - 0
1944 - 0
1945 - 4
1946 - 8
1947 - 7
1948 - 2
1949 - 6
1950 - 8
1951 - 4
1952 - 23
1953 - 18
1954 - 6
1955 - 7
1956 - 17
1957 - 14
1958 - 7
1959 - 35
1960 - 18
1961 - 16
1962 - 20
1963 - 17

A great many of the 1952 and 1953 publications came anonymously as little articles in regional newspapers around Smith College during Plath’s stint on Press Board. She did publish poetry and prose too, but the drop in 1953 is noticeable, as is the slow recovery in 1954 and 1955 as she herself recovered from her nervous/exhaustion breakdown and suicide attempt. Plath got her groove back in 1956 and 1957 before the terror of the teaching year at Smith in 1957/58 got the better of her (the majority of publications in 1957 came before she started teaching at Smith and not surprising at all, all of her 1958 publications came after she stopped teaching). 1959 was the busiest year, the majority of her publications coming in poems and articles (with illustrations) in Boston’s Christian Science Monitor; 17 of them to be exact.

By decade - because why not: when one is this far over the deep-end does it really matter how much further down one can go? - the numbers are: 1940s - 29; 1950s - 139; 1960s - 71.

I think these numbers are interesting. In her Collected Poems we can track how many she wrote per year (although we know there to be faults with the current arrangement of poems in the book) but approaching Plath’s poems this way makes them look a bit different. For example, according to her Collected Poems Plath wrote something like 12 poems in 1960 (plus a couple of short stories); but in that year she published 18 times (including multiple poems appearing in single issues of periodicals). So while her poetic creativity and output does not look very impressive or consistent compared to other years - taking into consideration her move to London and the birth of her first child an all - she was quite productive. It also shows that in the early 1960s her work was being very receptively accepted, and consistently so. Of note is that these numbers above do not take into account that she published in the 1960s three books: The Colossus in October 1960 and May 1962 and The Bell Jar in January 1963.

This post celebrates the achievements of Sylvia Plath on the 48th anniversary of her death.

10 comments :

panther said...

I like the poems she wrote in 1960 very much. I think Hughes' observation that she "shed a style" every time they moved is an accurate one. Those poems, written in their flat in Chalcot Square, baby Frieda there or thereabouts, feel beautifully measured and less gloomy that quite a lot of the late 50s material. Less fussy too, in keeping with SP's wish for "a plainer, realer poetry." Perhaps fewer acceptances, but more tranquillity within the person ? SP drove herself so hard.

Anonymous said...

oh my gosh what a great job of counting u've done Peter! really interesting to read/know.

and yes,i agree today is not a day to remember her death but to CELEBRATE(seems contracdittory) her life,her genius, her amazing work!

love,
a very-busy(and sorry for not coming here so often as before)-Alessandra.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Alessandra, I was never very good at math, so it took several attempts to get the numbers right and to match! But, phew!

Panther, I like the poems she wrote in 1960 very much too. There are quite discernible shifts in her poetics that does seem to match with major moves, events, etc. Getting the book contract for The Colossus, which she signed on 10 February 1960, I think also has something to do with the shift, or the shedding, for it meant truly that what she had written and accomplished could be firmly put behind her and that she could begin anew. I've always felt it to be an interesting procedure for Plath, to have had The Colossus published in 1960 with certain poems, and then in 1962 with fewer poems. So she was still submitting and publishing those poems for a good long while after the book was published in England. I wonder if this stifled her or held her back in some way?

pks

panther said...

That's a good point, Peter, about her signing the contract for The Colossus. I know in her journal she went through much anxiety as she shaped that collection, tried to get it off her hands,and changing its title a few times to mirror its shifts in focus.

I know when MY first collection was accepted, i suddenly felt that a lot of poems were well and truly off my hands. . .for good ! A space was created in which new stuff could happen.

Do you know, by the way, if SP wrote stuff that she decided NOT to follow through with ? Stuff that she started out on and abandoned in the waste paper basket ? It's frustrating that that time in her life (1960-1961) is not available to us in her journals.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Panther,

I kind of feel that there are probably works that she started and abandoned & subsequently tossed. Her pre-1960 journals included references, I think, to dozens of stories ideas and even some titles for which there are no extant drafts. Just check the index under "Works" (or whatever it is) and you'll see many titles that are unfamiliar. I have a list of known works (or alluded to works) on my website, too. It's not as up-to-date as I'd like it to be...

In the archives, there are poems such as "Stings (1)" and "Fever" that are 1962 poems that she never finished, or that were abandoned. It's tough to say which term should be assigned. And there's a part II to "The Rival," first published in the Pursuit limited edition book in 1973.

-pks

panther said...

Thank you, Peter, for your response.
Yes, i didn't make that clear in my initial post. I was aware of her references to SHORT STORIES that never really seemed to take off, but not so much of poems that didn't.

Hughes refers in the intro to Collected Poems (Faber and Faber) to how if she couldn't make a table out of a poem (I'm paraphrasing), she would fashion a chair or even a toy.That she hated to abandon anything. . .This strikes me as quite unusual : most poets get through loads of stuff that ends up in the bin !

I feel that part of being a writer involves the ability to just write and write and write, not self-censoring, the ability to give oneself permission to write rubbish. And THEN, to weed out what is good, what less so. Feeling that one absolutely has to create something marvellous every time must be very anxiety-inducing.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I think the best example of Plath's abandoned or unfinished/unrealized poetry exists in the mangled, crossed-out lines in her poetry drafts, particularly the those that went into Ariel. (Anyone can request photocopies.) Sometime around 1960 or 1961, Plath started to save everything she was writing (drafts). (I think this change in behavior has to do with hers and Hughes' marketability to sell their "scrap paper" to libraries and archives.) This is the norm though there are exceptions (I can't recall seeing a manuscript draft of "Three Women", for example. But as that was a poem written for radio, perhaps she composed it on the typewriter?) So most of The Colossus stuff (as well as her "Juvenilia" doesn't seem to survive in manuscript form; at least not the drafting process. But I wonder if this has more to do with her style of creation for these poems? I hope I'm on the same page with you, as it were...otherwise I can bin this comment!

I suppose if Plath did bin some poetry we'll never know. Does that mean we should assume that there were some? Or that there weren't? My guess would be yes, some poetry did end up in the trash.

Julia said...

Every poet out there knows how hard it is to get *anything* accepted for publication--much less publication in magazines such as the Atlantic, Harper's, etc. Even Plath's low-count years are impressive.

panther said...

Peter, if she'd kept ALL the drafts of ALL the poems, or even all the poems post-1955 (forgetting all the Juvenilia). that would be a hell of a lot of drafts. Which she would have had to store somewhere, pack up every time they moved house, etc.

I think their starting to keep drafts in 1960/61 reflects, doesn't it ? their growing awareness that these drafts would be of interest to scholars and, yes, marketable. Nowadays, quite a lot of poets teach workshops and keeping all the drafts is useful for those, as they demonstrate how a poet works and reworks a piece.

panther said...

Forgot to add, I agree with you, Peter : maybe there WERE fewer drafts for her Juvenilia and The Colossus poems because her way of writing them appears to have been different (heavy reliance on a thesaurus, for example. Working out rhythms with her fingers.) The Ariel poems seem to be much more organic : not written in a day, all out, but rather grown, like a plant is grown.

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