22 October 2013

Sylvia Plath Collections: University of Virginia

In the blog post from 22 April 2010, I vastly understated the extent of the holdings at the University of Virginia that regard Sylvia Plath. Initially I thought the collection just contained the eight books formerly belonging to Sylvia Plath, among them her hallowed copy of the Saint Botolph's Review. However, I recently (recently being August 2010! Shameful to have been drafting and revising something for this long...) stumbled upon another title that they hold, the Guinness Poetry Award, 1960-1961: winning poems - which printed her poem "Insomniac" - and discovered that in all the University of Virginia (UVA) in fact holds several hundred items by or about Sylvia Plath. The Virgo catalog shows more than 260 records.

UVA acquired their "Sylvia Plath Collection" in July 1993; and it, along with the Plath collection held at the Wilson Library of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), makes these two mid-Atlantic states real archival powerhouses of printed-appearances of Plath. When UVA acquired the materials, they were described as a "Comprehensive collection of works by Sylvia Plath" that included approximately 170 periodicals with contributions by Plath and consisted of over 300 items. In fact in some regards these two repositories (UNC and UVA) may hold more than Smith College, Indiana University and Emory combined. The strengths seem to be in in printed appearances of Plath's works in books and periodicals.

Can I digress for a little bit? Please. OK, thanks. It is fascinating to consider these periodical publications --collected and housed in archives but also available to casual collectors generally for a reasonable price through either ABEbooks or eBay -- as they are documents Plath herself would have seen. We can wonder (at least, I do) how seeing her own work in print affected the work she would go on to produce: from the advertisements (see Marsha Bryant and Luke Ferretter on this) to the other creative writing. And did seeing her work in print and its "final" form aid her in the development of her poetry? In that, did her aim towards publication in a journal and what it would look like provide some assistance or motivation with drafting and working through her poems? She worked pretty closely with the editors at The New Yorker (more on this here) on several poems before they appeared in that magazine. And, in 1959 she published more frequently with the Christian Science Monitor -seventeen times- than any other publication in her career in a calendar year (you can count them here, or read about it here). How much, then, did fulfillment beget more creativity?

A little case study: "Mushrooms". Plath wrote "an exercise on mushrooms" on 13 November 1959; admitting in her Journal that she and Hughes both liked it, but that she had an "absolute lack of judgment when I've written something: whether it's trash or genius" (529). Well, this one is genius. "Mushrooms", likely the last poem Plath wrote in the United States, was written after she had fifteen pieces in the Christian Science Monitor. She was used to seeing her work in print and several of her earlier Yaddo poems had already been accepted and published by the Monitor, and two would also later appear in December. She was "used to this sort of thing", to borrow a line from the later poem "Edge" (Collected Poems 273). The practice and routine of seeing her work in print, I think, aided in the writing of "Mushrooms", and possibly all the Yaddo poems, which largely comprised The Colossus which she assembled around this time. Like many, Plath fed off the confidence that acceptance and publication gave her. It validated her decision to leave the security of teaching in favor of a full-time writer. Likewise and related, I think it is certainly the case that as Plath began recording her poetry consistently in 1958, she became far more concerned with the sounds of words and their rhythms as she wrote. In my opinion, "Mushrooms" is one of her finest sounding poems; it is linguistically most pleasing:
...Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes...
The s's, i's, ea's are all so subtle but are juxtaposed with the onomatopoeic hard m's and a's of the internally rhyming "hammers" and "rams". So delicious. There is also the repetition oo/ou (in the title "Mushrooms" and "Our toes, our noses", "Our hammers, our rams", etc.) here that Plath would later employ in "Daddy". Even the lines of each tercet crop up and down - the lines fluctuating in length like the height and width of a clump of fungi. Plath recorded "Mushrooms" on 18 January 1961 as part of the "Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership" program on the BBC. It was most recently included in the British Library's 2010 CD The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath as a postscript poem read after the interview with Ted Hughes and the BBC's Owen Leeming. In the recording Plath's voice perfectly captures the softness and subtlety of the poem and of the subject of the poem, which seemingly and suddenly appear in cool, autumn mornings in New England. "Mushrooms" no doubt were found all around Yaddo and the poem, like others written at this time, is a response to the natural environment she found herself in that Fall. Mushrooms themselves are ephemeral but the poem and Plath's voice are forever. Thus the digression ceases...

In addition to these items, both repositories hold formidable first and limited editions of Plath's works.

I heartily think that any Plath archival tour in America should consider including UVA and UNC. When searching UVA's online catalog Virgo, type in "Sylvia Plath Collection" to see the 260+ items. If you want to see slightly more, remove the quotation marks. The collection can be narrowed down using the facets on the left to isolate materials held, for example, by specific libraries (Special Collections, Alderman, etc.); Format; Publication Era, etc. Many ways to get at the stuff, catalogically speaking... Yes, I think I made that word up.

Among the wonders at UVA are the "Sylvia Plath ephemera collection," the books formerly belonging to Plath, the limited edition rarity A Winter Ship, Anne Sexton's manuscript of her poem "Sylvia's Death" (which is one of two items in their "Sylvia Plath Collection, 1965"), and more. Again, one can narrow down the selection by library by clicking some of the links on the left.

You can see more libraries that hold Plath materials on the Archival Materials page of my website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is. And, if periodical publications are your thing, you should visit this page. Or, if you fancy limited and first editions, click here.

All links accessed 4 September 2013.

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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." 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.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • 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.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.

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