19 November 2012

Lost Sylvia Plath Poem Stunned Us in 1998: Or did it?

Unbelievable. Simply the only word I can think of to describe November 19 & 20, 1998. How did we miss it? How did we not know? The (Sylvia Plath) world was still reeling from the publication of Birthday Letters and the then quite recent passing of Ted Hughes.

Just three articles (per Lexis-Nexis Academic) ran on this particular story and appeared in The Guardian, The Evening Standard, and The Irish Times. The headlines were provocative to say the least...The Guardian article, authored by Rory Carroll, used "Discovery of Plath's Forgotten Teenage Poems Dismays Friends." The Evening Standard tried out "Early Plath Platitudes Dismay Poetry World." And, The Irish Times said "Plath Find Sheds Light on Sexuality."

The first paragraph of Carroll's article reads, "The literary world was stunned last night after the discovery of three forgotten Sylvia Plath poems revealed both sexual disgust and technical immaturity, providing an embarrassing footnote to her legacy as one of the century's greatest poets." What a terrifically awful sentence! Everything about it...This is, or rather was, an instance where new "news" was kind of old news. And was the literary world literally stunned? Three articles? Does that count for a stunning? The poems referred to in this article were published originally in 1975 as Trois Poemes Inedits, so they can actually be hardly considered "new." However, what is so amazing is that Rick Gekoski, a bookseller, simply found a copy of the book - with the original manuscript of one of the poems - on a shelf in a New York bookshop!

I am not sure how the literary world was really stunned by the news considering that so few newspapers seemingly picked up on the story! Certainly in the Plath world it was not noticed: at the time the then very active Sylvia Plath Forum did not have any posts on it. Stunning!

One of the poems was printed in the above-mentioned Guardian article, and Gekoski, said, "I don't think anyone would rate it as a great poem, but it has a raw power. It's at a pitch and intensity in its treatment of sexuality that I haven't seen in any of her other poems. Anyone who wrote this was capable of great poetry." On the quality of a poem that must be considered juvenilia, Al Alvarez commented, "It just shows that from tiny acorns mighty oaks grow." Amazingly, the poem printed in the article is different (longer by four lines at the beginning) from that published in Trois Poemes Inedits.

Regarding the poem as printed in the Guardian, the poem begins with four lines that were not a part of the poem as it appears in Trois Poemes Inedits! These four missing lines are: "I lean outward toward the sky / And should fumble in if I / Were not held here cleverly / By the threads of my identity". Then it comes in harmony with the Trois Poemes Inedits version: "The sweet sickish female odor..." The poem in Trois Poemes Inedits and the one in The Guardian also differ by the line breaks, capitalization, etc. Why these four lines were excised from the limited edition is a curious omission.

100 copies of the book Trois Poemes Inedits were printed by J J Dufour in Paris, 1975. Three of the one hundred were "especial." Each of these three included the original manuscript of one of the poems printed. There is at least one copy of Trois Poemes Inedits for sale via James Cummins Bookseller in New York City. If interested, please contact the seller through his website. Aside from some copies which are undoubtedly in private hands, WorldCat lists only one in a library. That copy, held by the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one of the 97 that are not "especial." I wrote a bit about Trois Poemes Inedits in November 2010 after seeing a proof copy of it for sale at the Boston Book Fair. In that post I mentioned that Smith College has one of the three "especial" copies. What I failed to say then is the title of the poem in manuscript in their copy, which is numbered 3 in the book, is "A time of clear white understanding." Not sure where numbers one and two are, but I would love to see them.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I'm assuming the whole poem (or a version of it) is not available to read online anywhere?

Peter K Steinberg said...

No, probably not. I can't recall if it was actually included in the Lexis Nexis results... But, I know someone that has a copy of the Guardian article who might email it to you in about 5 minutes.


magiciansgirl said...

Peter, I remember reading about this at the time; not sure why I never mentioned it. But I definitely remember the line about the poems dismaying her friends (whatever that was supposed to mean!) Kim

Anna said...

Oh, I wish I also knew that SOMEONE that has a copy of the article who would be willing to email it to me... would be so wonderful ;)

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