18 February 2013

On the 50th Anniversary of Sylvia Plath's Death

While I prepared this post to go on the blog on February 11, I decided to hold it back not wanting either to clutter an already full day/week or feeling it necessary to speak about Plath when I was more interested in letting her "speak" to me, as it were. 

Sylvia Plath died 50 years ago on 11 February 1963. It was 50 years ago today, 18 February 1963, that her body was laid to rest in Heptonstall. Though we commemorate these anniversaries: there is never a time when we celebrate her death. It is always a celebration of Sylvia Plath's life and the products of her life: her creative and personal works: her poems, short stories, artwork, journalism, journals, letters, and anything else!

The recent 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar also ensured that Plath is very much present in the early part of this year. As might be expected, there has been a recent biographical focus given to Plath in books by Carl Rollyson (American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath) and Andrew Wilson (Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, and the forthcoming Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder). These serve as a reminder that her Sylvia Plath's life is interesting, important, and relevant. Any consideration of her work has to be mindful of her life: we would not have one without the other.

It seems some tributes to Plath include something of the personal about ones introduction to Plath, so here is my bit..My introduction to Sylvia Plath came in 1994 as a junior in college in an "Introduction to Poetry" course. We read "Metaphors", "Lady Lazarus", and "Daddy". The professor provided a brief biographical introduction, mentioning The Bell Jar and other important works, like Ariel. I was immediately struck by Plath's humor when my professor, in class, read Plath's description in the novel of the nude Buddy Willard. Though my professor was dismissive and un-encouraging of my new-found interest in Plath (that spark that flew off Arnold shook Plath flew off of Plath and struck me) based on my absolute absorption of "Lady Lazarus" (the first time a poem "spoke" to me... though I have to say I am not interested in eating men like air, or like anything else for that matter) and my respect for the other poems we read, I headed immediately to the library with the support of a classmate and great friend.

That began my interest in Sylvia Plath, which some thought would be just a phase. I think I have surpassed the phase designation! And there has not been a day since when I haven't thought about my introduction to her, the circumstances under which I was in that poetry course, and my decision to then major in English as opposed another interest (Pimpology). But, enough (explicitly) about me...

Sylvia Plath's life and death are tangled in a seemingly ceaseless round of controversy. We have been reading about this for the last six weeks essentially nonstop: "The engine is killing the track." Enough: this is not the time for that.

Plath's life remains interesting and instructive. The subject of newspaper article and books, Plath has proven to be an inspiration to people across several different creative genres and generations. The physical output of her life, now fastidiously available in numerous archives around the world as well as some materials, undoubtedly, still in private hands, has launched a thousand dissertations. And only about four websites! What is more, through her archives and through the publications Sylvia Plath lives on. As she wrote in her journal on August 30, 1951, "It is sad to be able only to mouth other poets. I want someone to mouth me" (92). Well, she got that which she desired.

The contribution Sylvia Plath made to literature is unshakable. I even find it hard to define: on some levels it is a personal connection one makes to Plath's words, on other levels, it is more cerebral. The controversy that surrounds her aside, Plath is a formidable poet who has somehow managed to attract readers and fans of varying backgrounds. She is not just a poet for poets, not just a writer for academics, and not just for casual readers. She is for everyone, and I think Sylvia Plath recognized this even when she was alive: that once a work is published it is out there consumption in any fashion and by anyone. This is of a higher level than the hackneyed and futile "ownership" debate. We all own our feelings and our connections with Plath's words; and if that therefore translates into a kind of ownership of Plath then it is a natural byproduct and not something to be so derided.

We celebrate Sylvia Plath's writings, and are inspired by her education. We buy the same editions of books that she read (or at least I have); we underline the same passages in books that she did, trying to figure out what it was about the text that she found interesting; we try to trace these inspiring words as they filter through her mind and through time to see if it reappears, somehow, in her poetry and prose. We make pilgrimages to the places in which she lived and wrote about and try to insert ourselves in that environment. We mourn for that which we do not have. Journals, letters to and from, lost short stories, poems and novels. Items stolen, lost, documents burned, etc. We mourn also because we can only imagine what these lost or missing documents might contribute to our understanding of Plath's life and creativity. We see in 1962 and 1963 her developing a critical resume in print and on the radio, and we see her satiric humor and self-deprecation blossoming in some of her late prose. We know she had plans for the spring and summer of 1963, plans ultimately that did not, or could not, save her.

The life of Sylvia Plath is constantly being re-evaluated and re-made. As new students are introduced to her each year, there comes the potential for that same spark of interest that struck many of you and me (holy sh-t!) 19 years ago to develop into something full-blown ("So many of us! / So many of us!"). This benefits our understanding of her poetry and other creative works, and can change way we think about those works: both the separate works' individuality and the way in which a connective narrative can be seen.

Today we must think about those still living that Sylvia Plath knew: particularly her brother Warren Plath and daughter Frieda Hughes. Likewise, of her friends Elizabeth Sigmund, A. Alvarez, Elinor Klein, and Phil McCurdy, to name a few. We remember, too, those that have since passed on: Aurelia Plath, Ted Hughes, Nicholas Hughes, Marcia Brown, and many others. Since 11 February 1963 when she died, and 18 February when her funeral took place, Sylvia Plath has barely had a moment to rest in peace and it seems unlikely that the controversy that developed surrounding her final months and her death will ever abate and level out into a place where the work can be at the forefront of academic and popular consciousness.

But, let's let me shut up (oh, the courage!) and let Plath have the last word today. From her short essay "Context":

"I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far—among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime."


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Farther than a lifetime, indeed.

Very nice memoriam, Peter.

It has been 33 years of loving her, for me. Interestingly, I found Plath the same age that I found the tarot: at sixteen. I only just realized that! Two of the greatest gifts of my life.

Melanie Smith said...

Thank you Peter. Scarily it was 1994 as well that I found Plath in my second year of university taking a course in American literature. Since then she has followed me into my teaching, collecting and and often everyday conversations.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, fresh tribute to Plath! Thanks, Peter------ Always inspiring to be remeinded of how others came into their own love affair with SP, and as with us all who fell, great to know we still feel the love


Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you all for your comments! Melanie, I love that we both found Plath at about the same time.


Anonymous said...

Hallo Peter, just discovered by reading an extract from here http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2013/01/20/the-last-days-sylvia-plath/Dlpv1hzF4OFO6gtxoGNG5I/story.html that Ted Hughes kept a diary! First time ever in all these plathian years i get to hear about a Ted Diary. You maybe happened to see it personally yet sofar? Is it really not possible to discover something more about the very last 2/3 days of life of Sylvia or he just hadnt annoted nothing else/more? I find it interesting to discover that he actually met her before dying (not really before dying ..but on the 3rd of feb. And she sent him away- maybe because he told her Assia was pregnant?-the dinner together was going ok then was ruined maybe by his bad new -and this was i think the very cause why she did kil herself. Other wise im sure if he hadnt told assia wasnt pregnat she would have been still alive. (olthough i ve always been very sure she actually didnt want to kil herself but only pretend/gamble with death another time and that that "suicide" was just a call for help (my opinion) because then why leaving then the note to call Dt.Horder then if she had meant really to kill herself? So now im really curious about the existence of this diary, and i would like to know more aboit it..and i guess it could be really preacious to us all maybe to discover a bit more and deep. Many many dear greetings from Italy and keep up the good plathian work, following you always virtually from here, lots of thanks, see u soon here+twitter for more.

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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.