24 February 2013

Sylvia Plath's Teen-Age Triumph

On 24 February 1951, Sylvia Plath wrote a postcard home to her mother from Haven House at Smith College about seeing a cartoon about her posted on the community bulletin board in College Hall. She wrote:

... A senior said to me at lunch, 'Congrats for being up on the College Hall Bulletin Board again.' (Smith girls in the news, you know.) So, full of curiosity, I hurried over. [...] I stood for a full five minutes laughing. It was one of those cartoon and personality write-ups titled 'Teen Triumphs.' There was a sketch of a girl s'posed to be me--writing, also a cow [...] All this effusive stuff appeared in the Peoria, Illinois, Star on January 23. Beats me where they got the sea stuff. I just laughed and laughed." (Letters Home, 66-67, please note the date assigned in Letters Home, 25 February 1951, is the postmark date. The letter is dated by Plath  "Saturday", which was the 24th that year.)

The text from the cartoon reads:
BORN TO WRITE
Sylvia Plath, 17, really works at writing. To get atmosphere for a story about a farm she took a job as a farm hand. Now, she's working on a sea story.
And I'll get a job on a boat.

A national magazine has published two of her brain children! -- The real test of being a writer.
The little Wellesley, Mass., blonde has won a full scholarship to Smith College.

This cartoon (pictured below) was by Stookie Allen; a collection of his cartoons was published in 1955 under the title Keen Teens. I examined a copy at the Library of Congress recently and was disappointed that the Plath cartoon did not make it.


Plath had a copy of this cartoon in her publications scrapbook (Lilly Library, Plath Mss II, Box 15, page 8). Along with this is a card from Margot MacDonald from Seventeen. The copy in Plath's scrapbook seems to be a proof of the cartoon, as it has "RELEASE TUESDAY, JANUARY 23, 1951" at the top. Based on this connection to Seventeen, and some of the information in the book Keen Teens, I believe Stookie Allen found out about Plath from an employee on the magazine: maybe even from Margot MacDonald herself. The national magazine that had "published two of her brain children" was certainly Seventeen as in their August and November 1950 issues, they published her story "And Summer Will Not Come Again" and her poem "Ode to a Bitten Plum."

The cartoon itself was published on page A-9 of that January 23, 1951 issue of the Peoria Star. It may be that this was the first "article" about Plath's work! Many thanks must go to Cindy Wright (Reference Services) and Deb Bier (Reference Librarian) at the Peoria Public Library for supplying me with a scan of the cartoon from their microfilm holdings.

22 February 2013

Exhibit & Lecture: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar at 50

Ongoing is the 13th Annual Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Library Exhibition, Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar. The exhibit closes on 10 March 2013.

Have you yet seen the excellent, illustrated exhibit website?

If you are free next Wednesday, 27 February, come to Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island, to hear Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Rare Books at Smith College, give the Keynote Address to the exhibit. Karen's talk, "The Bell Jar at 50", is absolutely brilliant and will take place in Global Heritage Hall, Room G01.  See you there!

Wait... what? Still need more temptation? Here are some of the featured items:

  • First edition of The Bell Jar published by Heinemann in England under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas (1963)
  • First American edition of The Bell Jar published by Harper & Row (1971)
  • Facsimile of Sylvia Plath's holograph outline for The Bell Jar (1961)
  • Royal manual typewriter owned by Sylvia Plath, 1950's
  • Original typescript of "Dirge," annotated by Alfred Young Fisher, [1955]
  • Original typescript of "Mad Girl’s Love Song", 1959
  • Correspondence between Sylvia Plath and her publishers.
  • Articles from the Boston Herald regarding Sylvia Plath's attempted suicide, 1953.
  • [Study of a Woman], gouache and ink, [cs. 1950-1952]
  • Reviews from various sources upon the publication of The Bell Jar, 1963.
  • Death Certificate of Sylvia Plath, certified copy from the General Register Office, Somerset House, London
  • Correspondence between Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, and Olwyn Hughes, sister of Ted Hughes, regarding the potential publication of The Bell Jar in the United States, 1968.

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."

14 February 2013

Sylvia Plath Biographer Carl Rollyson at Harvard Bookstore

Carl Rollyson, author of the recently published biography American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, will be at the Harvard Bookstore, 1256 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138 tomorrow, Friday 15 February 2013 at 7 PM to discuss his book. And sign them too. The event is free.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Another free event I would d like to remind you of is "The Bell Jar at 50", the exhibit and lecture (the 13th Annual Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Lecture) currently on at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island. Read more about the exhibit here (and also see some images of items from the exhibit); and you can recall (fondly) some installation photos here.  The exhibit runs until 10 March; but before that you should consider attending the keynote lecture to be given by Karen V. Kukil of Smith Collection on 27 February at 3:30.

11 February 2013

On the 50th Anniversary of the Death of Sylvia Plath













Thou shalt have an everlasting
Monday and stand in the moon.


This is the silence of astounded souls.



A smile fell in the grass.



Breath, that is the first thing. Something is breathing. My own breath? The breath of my mother? No, something else, something larger, farther, more serious, more weary.















10 February 2013

Ann Skea's 5th Chapter on Sylvia Plath, Ariel, & Tarot

Ann Skea has recently published her fifth chapter exploring the journey of Sylvia Plath's Ariel and the Tarot. This chapter looks as the remarkable poems "Ariel," "Death & Co.," "Magi," and "Lesbos." Skea's insights into these poems are quite interesting to read and well-written. It certainly is interesting to read about these poems from this angle. Ace work.

I think I like this, best: "Plath, whose whole concern in Ariel was to free the creative energies which inspired her, seems, in 'Death & Co.', to have intuited a poetic meaning to this card. 'Thalidomide', 'Barren Woman' and, in particular, her earlier poem 'Stillborn' (June/July 1960) offer a clue: Plath's poems are her babies, without inspiration she is barren; influenced by the wrong energies, they may be deformed; without spirit, they are dead."

07 February 2013

Sylvia Plath: Did you know...The Bell Jar in The Jailor

There are a couple of instances in Sylvia Plath's body of work where poems and prose share an inspiration, a scene, some memorable words, and even a title. Immediately what comes to mind is her "All the Dead Dears," which was both a short story and a poem. I like this crossing of genres very much.

One of the concerns Plath had with The Bell Jar is that she did not want it to be known as a poet's novel; that is a novel written by a poet. This in part informed her decision to publish it under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

However, contemporary readers of her work poetry may have found their way to the novel somehow, even though it was first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. In a poem like 1959's "Suicide Off Egg Rock," it would be nearly impossible not to draw a connection between poem and prose. "Suicide Off Egg Rock" appeared in her poetry collection The Colossus (Heinemann, 1960) and was read over the airwaves of the BBC, but the voice reading the poem was that of Marvin Kane (July 1961). How I would love to have heard Plath's own voice read those most memorable lines: "And his blood beating the old tattoo / I am, I am, I am"!! And, as we know, the old brag of Esther Greenwood's heart in The Bell Jar says, "I am, I am, I am."

In another instance - this time written in October 1962 from a her "Ariel" period- Plath briefly allows herself to work the words "bell jar" into a poem. Did you know... that in the second handwritten draft of "The Jailor," that in the last stanza Plath followed the line "That being free" with:

"Of the bell jar in which I am the dead white heron" (quoted in Kroll, Chapters of a Mythology, 1976, p. 57).

She tried another line right after this that also used "the bell jar" but as it remains unpublished I should not quote from it. Let's just say that under this bell jar she turned and turned (but in the line Plath used the present tense of "turned" and instead of and used an ampersand).

However, even before she worked in the image of a bell jar in "The Jailor," Plath does use the words "bell-jar" in a poem written circa 1960-1961. The poem appears in the notes section of her Collected Poems: "Queen Mary's Rose Garden." In this poem, this is what Plath writes:

Some ducks step down off their green-reeded shelf
And into the silver element of the pond.

I see them start to cruise and dip for food
Under the bell-jar of a wonderland.
Hedged in and evidently inviolate
Though hundreds of Londoners know it like the palm of their hand.

It generally is not known when Plath wrote this poem, though its being part of the collection of papers at the Lilly Library does definitely date it to pre-November 1961. The poem on the other side of this draft is "Wuthering Heights," a poem that Plath wrote in September 1961.The draft of "Queen Mary's Rose Garden" at the Lilly is handwritten and crossed-out with a single-line slashed diagonally down the page in a fashion that in Plath's practice means it is cancelled and came first - that is was written before that which appears on the other side of the page.

04 February 2013

Sylvia Plath: Did you know...

While at the Lilly Library in October doing research before the Sylvia Plath 2012 Symposium, one of the folders in Plath Mss II that I wanted to look at contained Plath's letters from 1963. For the several times that I had been out there, I really had not spent much time at all with her correspondence, which is a great embarrassment and a regret, especially because I know the letters that were published in Letters Home are heavily edited and often do not bare any likeness to the original!

The letters are organized in rough chronological order... Rough because some researchers working with these papers lamentably get careless and as a result the letters can be out of order... Anyway, while working my way through those letters, I encountered, inevitably, the letter that Plath sent to her mother dated 4 February 1963 - 50 years ago today. It is the last letter included in Letters Home and other than hearsay -- that Plath wrote her mother a letter the night before she took her life -- it is the last known letter Plath wrote to her mother.

Did you know... Shockingly...distastefully...ashamedly...there is a piece of the letter missing?! A corner has been ripped off jaggedly. This came as a very great and distburbing surprise. I pulled up a copy of Letters Home on my computer and read what I could of the original against the published version. There were words in the published version that are now absent, which means that in circa 1974 the letter was intact...and that at some point in time between 1977 when the collection was sold to Indiana and my working with the letter, some immoral-thief had done his or her naughty deed.

It occurred to me after comparing the published version against its original what, in fact, was missing: Plath's signature. Plath's signature, presumably on the last letter (or the penultimate letter) she sent to her mother - which her mother received probably whilst her daughter was still alive - has been callously torn from the letter.

I will not type out what I am thinking and hoping happens to the person that did this. I'll just say, shame on you.

01 February 2013

13th Annual Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Lecture/Exhibition: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar

The 13th Annual Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Lecture/Exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. Karen V. Kukil, Associate Curator of Rare Books at the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, will present a keynote lecture, and co-ordinated the loan of about 59 Plath artifacts/manuscripts/facsimiles from the Sylvia Plath Collection, for the exhibition. Among other items in the exhibit are Plath's 1950-1953 journal, her Royal typewriter, photographs, letters, and typescripts.

Karen will present her lecture "The Bell Jar at 50" on 27 February 2013, at 3:30PM Global Heritage Hall, G01, Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island.

The exhibit, prepared by Christine S. Fagan, the Collection Development/Acquisitions Librarian at RWU, is free and open to the public and will run from 1 February to 10 March 2013. If you are anywhere near Bristol, do yourself a favor and visit the exhibit. If you are nowhere near Bristol: somehow please get there.

Along with Associate Curator of Rare Books Karen V. Kukil and Amanda Ferrara (Smith Class of 2013) and Christine Fagan, Heidi Benedict, and Liz Haines of Roger Williams University, I was honored to be a part of the exhibit installation crew, which is sponsored by The Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Library Fund and was able to take photographs of all the good people involved as it took shape. Below is a selection of these images, which have had to be reduced in size so as to not show too much...

Exhibit overview
Amanda hanging the exhibit
Please do not feed the animals.

Karen and Amanda

Karen

Christine, pleased with the progress

Amanda Ferrara will curate another version of this show at Smith College - titled "The Bell Jar Revisited" - which will be on display in the Book Arts Gallery, Neilson Library, 3 June-8 September 2013.
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