12 November 2013

Sylvia Plath's "Evolution"

Recently I was browsing through ABEbooks.com and saw something that nearly stopped my heart: a poem by Sylvia Plath called "Evolution" that appeared in a periodical called Experiment Magazine. The bookseller description reads:
Chicago, 1950. Soft Cover. Book Condition: Very Good. First Edition. Very good in original wrappers with light wear. Early, perhaps the third, appearance of Plath in print. Uncommon and, to the best of our knowledge, unrecorded. Bookseller Inventory # b31364. $750.
I wrote to Clayton Fine Books of Shepherdstown, WV, who has a great collection of Sylvia Plath books available to begin with, and received a reply very quickly from Cameron Northouse (who co-authored Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide with Thomas P. Walsh in 1974, which at the time was the first full-length bibliography published on Plath). Northouse found the periodical in Maine: a very lucky find. And considering that it was a previously unrecorded publication of a poem that has been all but lost to history and that it is undoubtedly a very scarce object now: the $750 price tag does not seem too steep. Though it is about $740 more than I can afford. (FYI: Christmas is coming, I accept gifts.)

Roosevelt University's
archival copy of
Experiment Magazine
Experiment was published out of Roosevelt College in Chicago, Illinois. This particular issue is number 4 and came out in December 1950. You might be doing the math: Sylvia Plath + Chicago + 1950 = ? There are two possible answers, but one is I think clearly more likely than the other: Eddie Cohen.

My initial feeling was that "Eddie Cohen had this published unbeknownst to Plath". However, if I was betting myself then I lost as a little research uncovered some information about this. Plath sent this poem, along with two others ("Bitter Strawberries" and "Kitchen Interlude"), in late August or very early September 1950. "Bitter Strawberries" had been published already in the Christian Science Monitor on 11 August. Cohen remarked in his letter dated 2 September that he liked "Evolution" the best out of these three; and then in a letter written on 15 September, Cohen asks if he can submit it on her behalf to Experiment. Cohen's own piece "So Proudly We Hailed" appears in the issue just after Plath's poem, on page 9. Cohen's letters to Plath are held in Plath mss II at the Lilly Library. Neither "Kitchen Interlude" nor "Evolution" are listed in Plath's Collected Poems, in the section called "Uncollected Juvenilia: A complete list of poems composed before 1956" (pages 339-342 in the U.S. First edition).

Clayton Fine Books' description says that it is perhaps the third time Plath was in print. But it depends upon what you consider in print because according to Stephen Tabor's Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography (1988), this would have been at least Plath's 23rd publication (and even still, Tabor did not count her several published art works and other appearances, at least one of them anonymously, in his bibliography). Early: yes. Third: depends upon your criteria.

After having learned that Experiment was published through Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) I researched a bit on this and found that the Archives department at the college held some of these issues in their Pamphlet Collection. I wrote to Laura Mills, the University Archivist there, to see if this issue was one of the ones they held. The answer was yes, and she provided kindly jpg's of the poem and cover (see above left). It was amazing to see a previously unknown poem and to read it. The experience was precious and deeply emotional. It is, I think, a phenomenal poem.

"Evolution"reminded Eddie Cohen of an Abner Dean cartoon entitled "The people at the next table are all idiots" (see below) and he said the more he read it the more he liked it. However, I do not see anything in Dean's cartoon that remotely connects it to Plath's "Evolution".

Sylvia Plath's "Evolution" is one stanza, comprised of 33 lines. There is no consistent rhyme scheme and the lines are of varied syllable length. The poem begins with the speaker observing "Four blue reindeer on a yellow field" and are in the form of a square; the poem seems to me like the speaker is looking at a window-shop display, a diorama, or possibly a carousel as there is a "blur of feet and arms / Of people in another aisle" (8). She then lets her imagination wonder into the realm of fantasy, which reminds me of her brilliant short story "Sunday at the Mintons". Though clearly an early poem, based not only on its publication in 1950 but also the wording Plath uses, the poem does have certain elements of language and imagery that would later go into poems like "Whiteness I remember" and "Ariel" where the speaker's of those poems merge and blend with an animal (a horse) into one being. For example, she writes "I feel the warmth of him / Crawl through my knees ... / and we together" (8). In "Whiteness I Remember", the speaker sits with the "First horse under me ... / I hung on his neck" and in "Ariel", we have this matured image: "How one we grow... / I unpeel— ... / at one with the drive" (Collected Poems 102, 239). The poem has a erotic or sexual feel to it, which might be the thing that Eddie Cohen was most attracted to it -- which might be the reason Plath sent the poem in the first place -- for as we know he was smitten with Plath from the get-go.

Lastly, I think… In addition to the copy at Clayton Fine Books and the actual magazine at held by Roosevelt University, a third copy of “Evolution” is held in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College. The Mortimer Rare Book Room holds, however, only photocopies of the cover, Table of Contents, and poem. The copies were a 2 December 1998 gift of Martin G. Pomper (whose father, David, was editor-in-chief of the magazine).

(This has nothing to do with anything, but seeing as I mentioned "Whiteness I Remember" and "Ariel" above, I think it might be a timely to mention a very good new article published recently by Georg Noffke: "'That Gallop Was Practice': A Horse Ride as Practice Run for Things to Come in Sylvia Plath's 'Whiteness I Remember' and Ted Hughes's 'Sam'." English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies Volume 30, Issue 2, 2013: pp. 6-20.)


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Exciting! So we may write Smith College's Mortimer Rare Book room and order a copy of "Evolution"?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Yes. I imagine they would be happy to do that.


The Plath Diaries said...

So interesting Peter!! Eddie Cohen seems like he was a pretty cool guy. So nice to see Plath and his friendship 'documented' in this magazine!

Georg Nöffke said...

Peter, I was reading this with interest and then utter shock and wonder when you turned your attention to my article. Thank you so much for mentioning it! You're assiduity and up-to-date knowledge of all things Plath is something to be seen.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Georg, You're most welcome, it is my pleasure to promote your excellent work. There was a delay in posting it as I moderate comments after being/seeing an increase in spam over the summer. For this I apologize. Maeve, couldn't agree more. Eddie Cohen had a good finger on the pulse of what was eating at Plath during her undergraduate years. pks

Gabriela RC said...

Yes, Julia.

Last night I emailed Barbara Blumenthal, the rare book specialist at the Mortimer Rare Book Room, and received a PDF of the poem this morning.

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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.