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!
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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- 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 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.
- 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)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, 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. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- 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. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.