23 April 2014

Sylvia Plath: Three Women, The Journals

A small note in the Journals of Sylvia Plath indicates that the 1962 journals that form Appendix 15 were "arranged thematically by the editor as SP did not indicate a specific order" (703). They date by and large to the period after the birth of Nicholas Farrar Hughes on 17 January 1962 and continue to early July 1962, just after Percy Key's funeral. In this space of time, Plath wrote her long dramatic poem for three voices "Three Women", and a host of other "Ariel"-voice poems such as "Elm", "Little Fugue", "The Rabbit Catcher" and "Berck-Plage" as well as beautiful poems like "Pheasant" and "Among the Narcissi". When reading these journals, you can see the cross-over between the capturing of private experience in her journals and the reshaping of it in the art of her poetry, particularly in "Among the Narcissi" and "Berck-Plage" which both feature Court Green cottage neighbor Percy Key's illness, death, and funeral. The same could be truly said for the June 1962 journal entries about bees and Charlie Pollard and her transformation from prose to poetry in the October 1962 bee sequence, where jokingly one could say Plath plagiarized herself!

But part of the reason for this post is "Three Women". We do not have an accurate date of composition for this lovely, long poem. The Collected Poems dates it broadly to "March 1962". Papers in the Cleverdon mss at the Lilly Library contain some information about its acceptance with the BBC for production. Her submissions list held at Smith indicates she sent it to the BBC in May 1962. In a document dated 11 May 1962, Cleverdon forwards the script to his colleagues expressing his recommendation that the Third Programme accept the piece. By 16 May, they have agreed to produce it and were coming up with fees, contracts, and the like, and Cleverdon notes that Plath's verse play was written at the BBC's "instigation" . In that the BBC commissioned Plath to write a verse play, but that the subject matter of said play was entirely up to Plath. "Three Women" aired first on 19 August 1962, and was repeated when Plath was in Ireland on 13 September 1962, as well.

The Times "Sound Broadcasting" for 13 September 1962


An obvious inspiration to "Three Women", other than Ingmar Bergman's 1958 film Brink of Life (also called So Close to Life and in the original Swedish Nära Livet), is Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood which Plath read in 1954 when her former managing editor at Mademoiselle sent her a tear-sheet of the poem from its first appearance in that magazine's issue of February 1954. Thomas, it is well-known, was a major influence on Plath's poems throughout the 1950s. But the writing of "Three Women" I think can be connected both to Under Milk Wood, to the work Ted Hughes was doing on radio plays with the BBC, and what Plath was doing in her North Tawton notes. Certainly it is a confluence of influence. Plath captures the time, the people, the decor, the sounds, and the atmosphere in a fashion that that makes these journals character sketches (and, we presume, notes toward another novel). But it occurs to me that with the success of "Three Women" (accepted almost immediately by the BBC) that Plath might also have been in the process of trying to out-Thomas Thomas. Even her notes captured in "The Inmate" (Appendix 10 in The Journals) serve as file of reconnaissance on people, histories, and the like, which of course Plath became interested in during her year in Boston when she was secretly copying case histories when she was employed at Massachusetts General Hospital (see "Hosptial Notes" in Appendix 14 of the Journals). So, it's a case here of working backwards, and then seeing a clear lined of development.

You may be asking: When did Plath see the Bergman film? In February 1961, the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead ran a special season of Bergman films that lasted three months. This was done after a similar and successful season of his films ran in 1960. The films showed in chronological order of production, and Plath wrote in a letter home dated 26 February 1961 that she and Ted Hughes had been going to see the Bergman films. So, Bergman was on her mind. Concurrently to the Bergman season at the Everyman, the Academy Cinema, then located on Oxford Street, began airing his So Close to Life from 24 February 1961. It appears to have run for just over one month as it stopped appearing in the film listings section of the newspaper I checked after 31 March 1961.

Film listing for 24 February 1961, The Times.

The other interesting aspect to these journals is that because they are "arranged thematically", we have thus lost some context to their original structure. Or, have we? I have been to Smith College more times than I can count over the last sixteen years, but never have worked with the originals of these entries. They are typewritten with autograph manuscript corrections here and there, on long, lined paper. Very densely written. On a trip to Smith on Monday, I worked with them for the first time and was relatively surprised to see that these typescript "Notes on Neighbors" (as Smith calls them) are in fact already organized by person. That is, Plath has them typed up according to the neighbor/townsperson. Which I think makes the note that they were arranged "thematically" by the editor problematic. Admittedly it has more to do with me than with anything Karen wrote! What Kukil meant, I think, is that the order in which they appear in the Journals (The Tyrer's, The Midwife, Mrs. Hamilton, Mr. & Mrs. Watkins, The Webbs, Nancy Axworthy & Miscellaneous Intelligence, Charlie Pollard, Major & Mrs. Billyeald, Mr. Ellis, and Rose and Percy Key) is what was arranged by the editor as over the years Plath's own original order has been lost beyond reconstruction. Regardless, though, we can use the dated entries -- along with her valuable Lett's Tablet Diary and letters -- to help inform Plath's daily activities. Of course these journal "Notes on Neighbors" are a small, separate slice of what her actual personal diaries might have contained. David Trinidad has written provocatively on the subject of Plath's "missing" journals in his 2010 essay "Hidden in Plain Sight: On Sylvia Plath's Missing Journals". This essay is "must read" material.

The concept of capturing details of people and places started in London during her time living in 3 Chalcot Square. For a significant period of time, Plath visited houses for sale and learned about the real estate market in the Primrose Hill "district" with the hope and intention of buying a place if one came up that was affordable and right for her family. In letters to her mother she captures very exacting detail about the interior design of these houses and flats in such as way as to make what she was doing in these journal notes a development of what she was writing home. It is tantalizing and taunting to read, from time to time in her letters, how she longs for quiet time and space to write in her diary about her life, pregnancies, or to capture the episodes from events attended and people that she was meeting.

All links accessed 9 January and 23 April 2014. Post slightly revised on 28 April and 3 May 2014.

PS: This has nothing to do with anything, however, Brink of Life, opened in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Telepix Theater on 16 June 1960, Plath's fourth wedding annivesary. The film was also showing in New York City in November and December 1959. It is only marginally conceivable, to me, that Plath and Hughes saw this before departing NYC for England on 9 December 1959.

4 comments :

suki said...

Thanks for this Peter. I love Three Women. I think it's one of Plath's best poems.
It's interesting what you say about the order. Like her Ariel poems, her writing doesn't come out of nowhere. She was meticulous, a writer all the time and used her daily life as part of her poetry, all the time.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thank you, Peter. I love your phrase, "confluence of influence."

I do disagree that it is only "marginally conceivable" Plath saw that Bergman film in NYC in 1959. As Bergman was a favorite director of both Plath and Hughes, I think they would have made a point to see it, in that age when movies were not as available as they are today. Also, their baby Frieda had not arrived, and their time was still their own.

The Journals' thematic arrangement is sometimes helpful to me, certainly in reading it for pleasure, but it can also be frustrating skipping around and trying to find the chronological continuations. I don't know of a way to do it better, without publishing the same book in a different arrangement. I suppose here is where digital, searchable copies really aid scholarship.

BridgetAnna said...

Great detective work! Thanks for the informative info and all the detective work, as I said, you put into this!

Keep it up, we live for your work!!

Bridget

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Bridget!!!

pks

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