15 September 2015

A bit of a professional: Sylvia Plath

The following is a guest blog post by Katie Mikulka, Smith College '16 (American Studies & Archives). Originally published on the National Portrait Gallery's blog, facetoface, on 10 August 2015, I am very pleased to re-post the piece here and hope that by doing so there builds excitement about the forthcoming 2017-2018 exhibit.
Sylvia Plath's Royal typewriter
Photograph courtesy of Smith College / Samuel Masinter.

Perhaps one of the best known American poets of the 20th century, Sylvia Plath has captivated generation after generation of readers. But even the most dedicated of Plath fans might not know that the poet's career got an early start, at the age of only eight! On this day, August 10, in 1941, Sylvia Plath's first published poem was printed in a local Boston newspaper. She continued to publish work throughout high school, in popular magazines such as Seventeen, and while a student at Smith College.

When asked in a 1962 radio interview how she first began writing poetry, Plath had this to say:
I don't know what started me, I just wrote it from the time was quite small. I guess I liked nursery rhymes and I guess I thought I could do the same thing. I wrote my first poem, my first published poem, when I was eight-and-a-half years old. It came out in The Boston Traveller and from then on, I suppose, I've been a bit of a professional. Interview with Peter Orr, 1962
Photographs and objects from Plath's early life will be on display in an upcoming exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. One Life: Sylvia Plath will trace Plath's biography through photographs, self-portraits, manuscripts, and other objects. The exhibition will also explore how Plath constructed her identity throughout her lifetime. In her journals, Plath considers her place in literary history, ranking herself alongside other famous female poets and describes her belief that she might one day become "The Poetess of America." When asked by the interviewer, Peter Orr, what exactly a young poet writes about, Plath had this to say:
Nature, I think: birds, bees, spring, fall, all those subjects which are absolute gifts to the person who doesn't have any interior experience to write about. I think the coming of spring, the stars overhead, the first snowfall and so on are gifts for a child, a young poet. Interview with Peter Orr, 1962
As Plath grew up, both as a person and a poet, she turned to her own life as inspiration and subject matter for her poetry, the "interior experience" that she describes. As the interview concludes, Plath's describes the pleasure to be found in writing poetry:
Oh, satisfaction! I don't think I could live without it. It's like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I'm writing one. Interview with Peter Orr, 1962
It seems that for Plath, living life and writing life were almost one in the same.

All quotations are taken from a 1962 interview with Peter Orr.
All links accessed 18 August & 10 September 2015.

You can read more on the exhibit in Dorothy Moss's 29 April 2015 blog post "Sylvia Plath: 'What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination.'" and in "A New 'Portrait of Plath': Alumna's Typewriter Among Items in Smithsonian Exhibit" from Smith College's Grecourt Gate from 26 August 2015.

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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.

Interviews