08 December 2014

Signal to Noise: Reading Ted Hughes papers at the British Library

The following is a guest post by the poet and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes scholar Christine Walde. Thank you, Christine!

As a poet, librarian and researcher, I have been fortunate to visit Plath's archive at the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College and at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Each site, owing to the scope and extent of their collections, has their own depth and complexity. And each time, whether I have expected it or not, each visit has bore new discoveries and revelations, both surprising and serendipitous.

It's not uncommon that a special kind of magic happens in the archive. What makes Plath's archive unique — with its drafts and diaries and letters and essays and art and ephemera— is that it is, quite literally, a hive, a site of noise, made all the more audible by her silence in death.

I admit to being seduced by this opposition of volumes. Reading poetry often involves the decoding of noise and silence, sifting through the information that is available to make meaning. In her 2011 essay "Noise that stays noise," Cole Swenson likens the first reading of a poem as noise — an experience of confusion or nonunderstanding — that works in concert with the information contained in the text. This state of suspension as the reader tries to decipher the information, attempting to find ground in the topography of its syntax, is a complex negotiation. When one visits the archive, a similar sensation embodies the visitor, conflating time and space. Looking to words to make sense of the moment, the researcher in the archive is a reader of poetry, suspended in history, between prolonged states of both being and becoming.

What makes Plath's archive all the more magical, then, is the presence of Ted Hughes; whose silence is just as complicit as Plath's, but for different reasons. Plath researchers exposed to Hughes' writing on the verso of Plath's manuscripts become uneasily accustomed to his presence: the chaotic black strokes of his handwriting underlying scores of her neatly typewritten pages. Together, Plath and Hughes orchestrate a unique sound in the archive: one that, like their individual poetry, is nothing less than extraordinary.

The last time I went to the UK was in 2008, and when I was there, I visited Primrose Hill, to see the neighbourhood where Plath and Hughes lived. It was a kind of pilgrimage: visiting addresses on Chalcot Square and Fitzroy Road, while wandering up to the top of Primrose Hill park, looking out over London. This May, I had the opportunity to go back to the UK, and decided this time I would visit the British Library, where I knew some of Plath's papers were held. What I didn't realize was that they were part of Ted Hughes' archive at the British Library, a labyrinthine collection of immense complexity.

Initially, I had a hard time trying to make sense of what it was that I was supposed to be doing at the British Library. I was on holiday with my husband. It was a gorgeous sunny day in May. What was I doing in a library? Something was wrong with me. And yet, when the folders came, I sat down dutifully at a desk and began sifting through them, carefully reading each piece of paper, trying to decode a new information, a new poetry.

At the recommendation of a friend and Plath scholar, I was looking into a collection of papers (MS 88918/129/2) that Hughes kept after Plath's death; a diary that was mentioned by Jonathan Bate in The Guardian, and not " organised and systematic like Plath's, but ... thousands of pages of memorandum books, loose leaves and pocket notebooks." (Bate, "How the actions of the Ted Hughes estate will change my biography," The Guardian, Wednesday, April 2, 2014)

As I held Hughes' papers in my hands —what Bate identified as being the real record of Hughes' inner life— I was astounded. On every page, Hughes was writing back to himself, in desperate urgency, to order the events of Plath's death within a way he could understand. Just like the researcher in the archive, Hughes was attempting to make sense of what happened; except that he was performing it within his own archive, in his own papers, conversing with the past — and not just to himself, but to an invisible audience that attends him in a future he can't possibly foretell.

After working previously with Plath's archive, and with other special collections, I thought I was somewhat immune to the experience of working in the archive, that I could somehow be safe, untouched by what I read. As I continued to read the diary, transcribing it as I went through it, I thought I knew the story of what happened to Plath and Hughes. I was wrong. As I sat in the reading room of the British Library, I found myself pulled into Hughes' writings, simultaneously angry and sympathetic to him; scared, confused, confounded, and awed.

In another part of the folder, Hughes talks about the last time he saw Plath, and the letter that she had written to him; a last farewell love letter to him, which Plath burned in an ashtray. I had read Hughes' poem "Last Letter": this was obviously the experience to which he was referring. But to read about the original moment, in Hughes' hand, was very moving. As a series of papers, they speak to Hughes' restless need to document events as he perceived them — and indeed, to the absence of Plath's diary from this time, which he famously destroyed.

I dangerously assumed that I would know what perceptions or emotions I would experience, and I underestimated how affected I could be by Hughes' papers. In many ways, his diary at the British Library is more than a recollection, but a way to summon the events of those hours and days leading up to Plath's death, and in his own life, as a kind of necromancy, an experience which profoundly affected me.

From the very beginning of her life, Sylvia Plath was, by her mother's hand, archived into a great existence. Every drawing, poem, essay, and photograph was collected, curated, and eventually, through Aurelia Plath's obsessive dedication to the memory of her daughter, classified and described within multiple libraries and archives. To this end, I've often thought that Plath's archive, as an entity, in all of its locations and as an entirety, is the last great modernist collection of pre-digital, analogue culture, which accurately memorializes the literary output of a remarkable 20th century writer. To this end, there's something pre-determined in Plath's archive, a self-conscious logic which manifests itself in an audience; or as a kind of theatre.

By contrast, Hughes' papers are vast, sprawling, deeply interior: a black lake with no bottom. Drafts of poems, readings of books, pages upon pages, are worked and reworked endlessly; leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit to fully explore whatever subject or topic he turned his hand, including himself. If Plath's archive is a site of noise, then Hughes' papers are a signal to that noise: validating, or interfering, with the signal they transmit.

What made reading these entries in the British Library all the more unbearable was that Hughes obviously wanted, somehow, in some way, to reconcile with Plath, but her anger and sadness —in being quite literally, broken by him and his heartlessness in his infidelity— also had no bottom, and was permanent, which only death could quell.

Later that day, I met my husband at Camden Town and we walked along the Lock to Primrose Hill, to visit Plath and Hughes' neighbourhood, as I had done in 2008. Coming up unto the street from the water was different from what I had previously remembered and nothing looked the same. When we got to Fitzroy Road, it felt strange to stand beside my husband, staring at the house where Plath died, someone who we had both never known, where now someone else obviously lived. He seemed so nonplussed about it all. The neighbourhood streets were eerily empty, and grey; filled with that flat, silvery white light of London. I felt a little bit lost and was still shaken from my time at the library: I hadn't properly identified my thoughts or feelings and was awash in raw emotion. We walked to the Chalk Farm tube station in silence.

In my notes from the experience, I wrote: "I did not take enough care to protect myself from the psychic energy of Hughes' papers, not knowing how deeply they could affect me." But what was I supposed to do? Refuse that power? The reality was that I had I felt similarly affected in Plath's archive. And when you are confronted in isolation by the hand of a stranger confessing their innermost thoughts, fears or desires, you cannot help but be affected.

Nothing prepares you for what you will find in the archive, or what you will encounter within yourself within it. This is the gift of doing archival research, of working with special collections. In working with original documents, you are lead to a way of seeing a new kind of reality, some other way of being. That is why research in the archive is so important: it moves us from our rational centres of intellect towards the unknown and the unexplainable, a noise that, like poetry, informs who we are as human beings.

Christine Walde's research interests range broadly within literature, libraries and archives, and intersect with her interdisciplinary work as a poet, artist and librarian. In addition to her work within the library, she has been published in a variety of print and online journals in both Canada and the US, including appearances in Branch, Carousel, The Fiddlehead, Lemonhound, The Malahat Review, The Rusty Toque, Plath Profiles and Vallum. In 2011, Baseline Press published the chapbook The Black Car, based on her research with Sylvia Plath's archives at Smith College and Indiana University, which culminated in the recent completion of a full-length poetry manuscript, Cloud Country, exploring Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' camping trip to Canada in 1959. She lives in Victoria, BC.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Wonderful piece! I think all of us doing the archival work of Plath, Hughes, or both, falls under that spell of psychic energy. It would be interesting to learn if other archives affect readers in the same kind of way that Plath and Hughes' affect us.

The Plath Diaries said...

A beautiful piece, Christine. I for one appreciated the volume of references to silence you make throughout this post!

I definitely agree with you in your comments about the value of archival research - the physical act of holding papers, clippings, artworks, letters etc in your own hand. It does de-centre and when you leave the archives, you find your intellectual centre to be re-positioned. I found this very much with the Plath archives at Smith and at the Lily Library as well.

To offer a cynical suggestion that picks up on your remarks about Hughes's "performing" in his archives.. Do you think his personal papers are perhaps influenced by the knowledge that some day these documents would be sold? To what extent does Hughes conjure a persona for the benefit of researchers who would come to these papers? Hughes did destroy Plath's words in an aggressive act of silencing - who is to say he did not display the same attitude towards his own personal writings? I feel that Hughes always believed he did not owe us peanut-crunchers any explanation of his life, his relationship with Plath, his editing choices, etc. It would strike me as out of character of him to shatter these well-held silences: especially posthumously. I read Birthday Letters as an act of performance rather than confession and feel I would approach Hughes's archives in a similar way. You felt so many different responses to Hughes's archives - I can't help but wonder if he manufactured it so!

Really enjoyed reading this, hope all is well with you!

Christine Walde said...

Thanks Julia and Maeve for your congratulations and thoughtful comments. So nice to hear from you both!

Julia, when I was doing my MLIS I did an independent research study on the users of Sylvia Plath's archive. Perhaps I'll post that to academia.edu to share with others -- it's quite an extensive, qualitative study. I'm sure you would find it interesting since it alludes to that Derridean sense of "archival fever" people often succumb to in the archive.

Maeve, I thought of you many times when I was in the British Library and while I was writing this piece, since silence, and noise, and the relationship between them, is so much closer than people understand or perceive. And yes, I completely believe Hughes thought about the posterity of his papers -- Plath, too -- and that is reflected in the performative nature of their poetry and their archival papers.

I like your suggestion of Hughes "manufacturing" these responses for researchers like myself in the archive; very interesting, indeed, given the nature of desire/consent/access to the materials and their hidden nature. However, I do think there is something private (alright, yes, "confessional") about these papers. They feel raw -- I don't know how else to describe it. Though perhaps this feeling is manufactured, too!?

Hope all is well with you, too!

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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.