15 July 2012

Putting Sylvia Plath's "Context" in Context

In February 1962, the London Magazine printed Sylvia Plath's poem "In Plaster," which she composed on March 18, 1961 - the same day as "Tulips." In addition to the poem, London Magazine printed twenty-six writers responses to a series of questions under the collective title "Context." We know Plath's response memorably begins, "The issues of our time which preoccupy me at the moment are the incalculable genetic effects of fallout and a documentary article on the terrifying, mad, omnipotent marriage of big business and the military in America-"Juggernaut, The Warfare State," by Fred J. Cook in a recent Nation."

But did you ever wonder to what specifically Plath was replying? See below:

The twenty-six responses were submitted by (in order of appearance in the issue): Robert Graves, George Seferis, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, Philip Larkin, Lawrence Durrell, Roy Fuller, Robert Conquest, Laurie Lee, Thomas Blackburn, Derek Walcott, Judith Wright, D. J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Charles Causley, Bernard Spencer, Vernon Watkins, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Edwin Brock, Hugo Williams, John Fuller, Julian Mitchell, Elizabeth Jennings, Anthony Thwaite, and Norman Nicholson. Thirteen of the poets had their photographs printed: Plath and Hughes did not. Hughes' own "Context," reprinted in Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, begins: "The poet's only hope is to be infinitely sensitive to what his gift is, and this in itself seems to be another gift that few poets possess."

Eighteen of those twenty-six contributors had poems in the issue as well. Perhaps the one readers might be most interested other than Plath's is Hughes' poem "Still Life." The eight writers that did not have a poem were: Robert Graves, George Seferis, Stephen Spender, Lawrence Durrell, Laurie Lee, John Fuller, Robert Conquest and Norman Nicholson.

Of course the best way to put Plath's "Context" in context is to read "Context" in context of the journal issue.

P.S.: Cook's article appeared in the October 28, 1961 issue of Nation. (For more on Plath's reading see Robin Peel's Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics, pages 72-73.)


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thanks for this! Ah, and more mentions of my good friend Lawrence Durrell. :-)

Peter K Steinberg said...

Julia: I knew the presence of Durrell would interest you.

Julio: Yes, It would have also been -circa this letter being written to her- when Plath was writing her responses to the London Magazine's query too.

Yes, while Plath exhibits a vocal, long-term interest in politics, perhaps Hughes had a different view of things & a different way of expressing his beliefs: at a minimum he certainly took up environmental causes, quite passionately. And I'm certain there were other things - political, worldly - about which his concerns were devout.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

You might have seen that Ted Hughes wrote in his Letters that the reason that he and Sylvia chose Devon as a location was because they were concerned about nuclear fallout. Remember too, that Frieda's first outing was a Ban the Bomb march.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Interesting! Yes, we have definitely seen a bit of Ted mis-remembering and perhaps correcting the past in his letters...

Carmen said...

Very interesting post, Peter! Is there anywhere one can read the whole response she gave?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Carmen - thank you for your comment. "Context" is printed in the collection of Plath's short stories and prose pieces called Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.


Peter K Steinberg said...

As a follow up, Plath IS NOT in the May 1957 London Magazine that Alan Sinfield claims in his book. That May 1957 issue of the London Magazine features 9 responses by the following contributing authors: Maurice Cranston, D. J. Enright, Roy Fuller, William Golding, Philip Larkin, John Osborne, Stephen Spender, John Wain, and Colin Wilson. Before wasting my money to buy a copy of this issue, I should have realized that 1957 was "too early" for Plath & the London Magazine, and certainly too early for them to be looking to her to respond to a special investigation of then current issues. Regardless, she was and considered herself to be a "political person."

Carmen said...

Thank you for the quick reply, Peter!

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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.