13 January 2012

Update from the Archive Day 5

The last day of an archival research trip is always a day I do not look forward to at all. The time seems to go neither too fast nor too slow, but inevitably there is not enough of it. This morning I again called for the boxes of Plath's poems, particularly those of October 1962, but also of January 1963. Specifically "Ariel," "Lady Lazarus," "The Munich Mannequins," and "Totem." As I type this, from the Mortimer Rare Book Room, draft 1, page 1 of "Ariel" stands right beside me. An inspiration on its rosy pink paper, the false start quickly corrected: the trot turns into a gallop. Three days after creating "Ariel," Plath did her famous interview with Peter Orr of the British Council. She was right when she said, "Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline, you've got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you've just got to burn away all the peripherals. And I miss them! I'm a woman, I like my little lares and penates, I like trivia, and I find that in a novel I can get more of life, perhaps not such intense life, but certainly more of life, and so I've become very interested in novel writing as a result."  You can see this in practice in drafts such as "Ariel" and "The Munich Mannequins" for they come together very quickly. Even in poems like "Lady Lazarus" which is longer and took longer to realize, the tyranny of brevity is clear.

In the draft of "Ariel" Plath starts out calmly, almost. The writing is her classically recognizable combination of deliberate printing and cursive. Unlike many of the other October poems, "Ariel" (as well as "Poppies in October") is created on fresh pink Smith College memorandum paper. Fresh as in not recycled; a sheet paper blank on verso, whereas many of those other poems were drafted on the back of drafts of The Bell Jar, or from Ted Hughes' papers, for example.

The first five lines of "Ariel" are struck through. A false start, the footing was right; or her feet weren't properly in the the stirrups. Then magically, she breaks through: "Stasis in darkness, then the blue". "Substanceless" is added in  after the fact. The structure of the draft is quite different looking to the poem in its final form for in the final form, the first five stanzas are condensed into just three. She struggled briefly after "cast dark" before continuing onto "Hooks".  Then when she gets to the line "Black sweet blood mouthfuls!" something changes in the way the poem develops, at least the appearance of Plath's handwriting.  Immediately after "Black sweet blood mouthfuls!" Plath writes "Something else" and from this point on the first page of the first draft races toward its conclusion. The handwriting is quite different and Plath would take a few more sheets of paper to get the poem to its final state. But the manuscript is amazing in its ability to be a sheet of paper which ultimately affords its reader the opportunity to re-live the poems' genesis and to therefore watch it develop into a thing of beauty.

In the last hours of the course "Editing Sylvia Plath's Correspondence" we read our letters in class. Backing up just a bit, on Monday, Karen asked the students to give an adjective to describe Sylvia Plath as they saw her. This was done, keep in mind, with each of the students having either no, or little, or slightly more familiarity with Plath's works and her life. And, it was done before we were assigned her letters to read and transcribe. The words were: dark, beautiful,  perseptive, complicated, brilliant, sensitive, driven, tragic/intense, trapped, passionate, cynical, motivated, gloomy, and frugal.

I think it is worth mentioning which letters were transcribed this week.

To Hans-Joahcim Neupert (all letters written from Wellesley): 13 April 1947, 24 September 1948, 20 December 1948, 29 January 1949, 14 April 1949, 4 July 1949, 10 October 1949 (enclosing poems: "White Phlox", "Gone is the River," "The Farewell," "The Stranger," and "City Streets" and giving authorial comments about each), 28 November 1949, 2 January 1950, 20 February 1950, and 30 May 1950. There are more letters to Hans-Joachim Neupert, but those are the only ones we transcribed in class.

To Enid Epstein Mark: 2 August 1952 (from Chatham, Mass.), 18 January 1954 (from McLean Hospital), and 26 January 1955 (from Smith)

To Sally Rogers (a prospective Smith student): 2 January 1954 (from McLean Hospital)

To Philip McCurdy (from Smith): 4 February 1954, 16 February 1954, 1 March 1954, 3 March 1954 (a card), 14 April 1954, 26 April 1954, 28 April 1954, 7 May 1954, and 13 May 1954

To Jane Anderson: 25 February 1954  (from Smith) and 21 March 1956 (from Cambridge, England)

To Aurelia Schober Plath (from Smith): 11 November 1954, 9 January 1955 (from Smith), and 27 March 1955 (from Smith)

To Ann Davidow: 23 November 1954 (from Smith), 14 April 1959 (from Boston), and Christmas 1960 (a card from both Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes)

To Jon Rosenthal: 13 December 1954

Today we revisited those adjectives to see if after working with Plath's letters and learning a bit about her biographically, contextually, etc., seeing her typewriter, prom dress, girl scout uniform, hearing her own voice read "Ariel"...or, after working "with" her. Most of the students stood by their original adjectives, but some changed to more positive sounds descriptive words like driven and fearless. In the course of reading the letters, we learned that the letter to Sally Rogers, which was recently acquired, where Plath is promoting Smith was written from McLean. Previously they had just the letter to Enid Epstein Mark, so the addition of the Rogers letter doubles their holdings!

It was an amazing week. Thank you to Karen for letting me sit in; thank you to the students in the course for making me feel welcome; thank you to you all for reading!

9 comments :

Rehan Qayoom said...

These updates make for fascinating reading. I always read them, slightly open-mouthed and going all ga-ga.

Anonymous said...

Good morning Peter!

How come a Collected Letters hasn't yet been published for Plath? Is it foreseen? It would be fascinating to be able to compare how Plath wrote home with how she addressed other correspondents for example. Plus some of these letters are simply not well known - the letter to Sally Rogers written from McLean was new to me, for instance...

Thanks for the updates! Lucky you, typing away on SP's typewriter. ~VC

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Very interesting!

Peter K Steinberg said...

~VC, I'm not sure if a book of Plath's letters is foreseen, though I'd definitely be eager to read it and like you say, compare the voices Plath used. In reading these letters and hearing them read, you do get a very different picture of Sylvia Plath. Further, one can understand what Aurelia Schober Plath was trying to do with Letters Home but the insularity of them just obviously became taxing.

The letter to Sally was a new acquisition - I think just last year - so it's new to everyone! She hasn't really been identified, but ultimately she did not attend Smith.

pks

lukeslark said...

I long for Plath's drafts to be released to the public. The fact that she kept and dated everything from the emergence of the Ariel voice onward implies that she thought the process itself was of value, perhaps even at some point publishable. Where else can we follow the movements of her mind at their most mercurial and mysterious. I'm sure there's a market for such a book, especially in a luxury limited edition.

I appreciate your blog immensely; always some fascinating new piece of the Plath puzzle. By the way, in the 1962 interview Plath says 'burn' away the peripherals, not 'turn'.

Thanks again.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for your comment lukeslark; and thank you for pointing out the typo.

Have you seen the edition of Stings that came out in the 1980s with the essay by Susan van Dyne that reproduces facsimiles drafts of the poem? I think that's a wonderful little book; and the inclusion of the "Ariel" drafts in Ariel: The Restored Edition as well as a wonderful contribution to our ability to see in a mass produced fashion, Plath's creative process.

pks

Jess McCort said...

I just taught -Ariel- this morning and your reading of the handwriting/when the poem takes off makes total sense. Thanks for the insight!! Jess

Taylor said...

Peter,
Thank YOU for sharing your immense knowledge of Sylvia with us in class. Your addition, and this ridiculous (-ly awesome!) website, have been invaluable. I'd like to add, in response to VC and I suppose to you as well, that I believe a collection of her correspondences IS in the works - it being the very reason we were so lucky to partake in this class. Of course, how soon it is to becoming a reality is entirely a mystery to me... and I assume it is a ways off... but, still, it is in the works, nonetheless! Also, Peter, I'm curious to know how you became such an avid Sylvia Plath fan! And, in general, more on how you came to do this sort of work. Are you open to emails on the subject?

Thank you again for helping to make this archive experience one of the most rewarding things I've been fortunate enough to participate in while at Smith!

Sincerely,
Taylor Bayer

Peter K Steinberg said...

Taylor - yes, please email me (you can find the email on the "About Sylvia Plath Info Blog" page). I'm glad that you are finding the site useful!

pks

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