28 December 2009

Sylvia Plath 2009 - Year in Review

By and large, the biggest - and saddest - news this year was the death of Nicholas Hughes by suicide in March. Plath said it best, "A smile fell in the grass."

In January, London was treated to Robert Shaw's production of Plath's "Three Women". The play was on at Edinburgh in August and I'm still hopeful the company can come west to Boston or New York. While the play received mostly positive reviews, from the standpoint of bring Plath's words to a greater audience it was a huge success. Also in January, the website ladylazarus.tv was launched by Florian and Sonja Flur. The website has been updated so please check back to it! The Flur's visited Boston in March and we met up so that I could show them the Plath sites. It was a very memorable day - certainly one of the best of the year - and they were very gracious guests.

In April we voted "Three Women" to be our favorite poem in the 2009 Sylvia Plath Poetry tournament. This was fun and the discussion of the poems was very lively. Around the same time, Laurie started her Sylvia and Ted Collection blog. The photographs and stories are wonderful, as is the blogger!

May brought with it Owen Sheers' Poets Guide to Britain which had an episode on Sylvia Plath and "Wuthering Heights". The documentary focused on her Yorkshire poems and was well received. Visible primarily to residents in the United Kindgom, it left the rest of us green as the countryside with envy. (Though I was lucky enough to see the episode due to contributing images to it.) This series was so wonderful in part as the episodes were so focused and it brought poetry alive in many respects. Sheila Hamilton and I both reviewed "Wuthering Heights" for the blog. Hamilton | Me.

There were three exhibits this year; one at the University of North Carolina which featured a couple of Plath books - and two in Massachusetts. Karen Kukil's unconquerable "Unconquered by Flames: The Literary Lights at Yaddo" focused on Plath's pivotal time at Yaddo in 1959. The exhibit was larger than Plath, but I only had time to see the Plath cases (see my review here). My small exhibit on Plath holdings by the Woodberry Poetry Room coincided a reading by Catherine Bowman in November.

The year in books was a mix of good and bad, and, thankfully in small measures, the atrocious. For those with the means, some rare Plath books and manuscripts sold at auction in July. The manuscripts went to the Lilly Library where they continue to add to their formidable Plath holdings. The rare book, a signed & inscribed first edition of The Colossus went to Peter Harrington, a rare book dealer in London. What recession? Peter Harrington brought this book with them to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair in November. It was ironic that it was brought back to the city where Plath was born and close-by to Wellesley, where she was taught by Crockett.

Faber brought out new editions of The Bell Jar and Selected Poems in May in part to celebrate their 80th anniversary. Harper's brought out their limited Olive Edition of The Bell Jar in November.

Of the books that were about Plath, there were six. There were Harold Bloom's unmemorable Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (New York: Chelsea House Publishers) and Connie Ann Kirk's reprinted biography Sylvia Plath: A Biography. (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books). Elena Ciobanu's very good and original Sylvia Plath's Poetry: The Metamorphosis of the Poetic Self (Iasi, Romania: Casa Edtoriala Demiurg) came out later in the year. Ellen Miller's Releasing Philosophy, Thinking Art: A Phenomenological Study of Sylvia Plath's Poetry (Aurora, Colo: Davies Group, Publishers) came out in the spring. I wasn't able to read it; the writing being so intelligent as to soar completely over my level of comprehension. However, Luke Ferretter did review it in Plath Profiles 2, which came out to favorable sentiments in August. Too recent to be reviewed is Lisa Narbeshuber's Confessing Cultures: Politics and the Self in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Victoria, B.C.: ELS Editions). I look forward to getting this shortly and reviewing it in 2010. In other genre's, Catherine Bowman's poetry collection The Plath Cabinet was published in March and Grace Medlar's novel The Lost Papers of Sylvia Plath came out in June. Frieda Hughes released her new collected The Book of Mirrors, too.

Plath was the subject as usual in numerous articles, the best - naturally my bias shines through - printed in Plath Profiles 2. And, Plath scholarship received atrocious attention in Alix Strauss' Death Becomes Them. I don't want to give her book too much attention, but it must be pointed out again for its overall, inspired awfulness.


This blog had close to 40,000 visits in the last year. Wow! Thank you! For those keeping track that is 15,000 more than in 2008. My other website for Sylvia Plath grew this year with the introduction of a thumbnail page for the covers of periodicals that printed works by Sylvia Plath. I'm still looking for more of these and more book covers, so if you have any that aren't on the site, please send me jpgs! Other changes were made, mostly small ones here at there to improve the text and/or its thoroughness.

The article Gail Crowther and I wrote, These Ghostly Archives, was certainly a highlight for me. Collaboration can be tricky and complicated, but this experience was truly a fine one and one in which she and I hope will advance certain aspects of Plath scholarship in the months and years to come.

A look ahead

In November, I was awarded a Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship by Indiana University to assist me in working on two or three Plath projects: continuing work on an updated bibliography, an article for Plath Profiles 3, continuing to re-build Plath's library on LibraryThing, and something else. Sorry, must be a little vague. Time permitting, I hope to update the blog each evening discussing the materials with which I worked that day and passing on anything that might be either interesting or fun or both, and things that might lead to discussion. From previous visits to the archive, I know that, for example, Letters Home was pretty heavily edited. Much stink was raise at the heavily edited Journals, but not as much seems to have been raised about the letters. They hold most, if not all, of the original letters as well as the original manuscript, which according to the finding aid, "Differs substantially from printed version." Working in the archives never produces the same the same finds because each visit we bring a different focus and different knowledge. Bring it on.

Thanks must be given to all of the readers of this blog, as well as to those who have commented or sent me emails. I continue to learn new things, in part, because of the support each of you gives me. I'll stop there because I don't want to tear up...I have a reputation to protect...

Happy Old Year/Happy New Year.

24 December 2009


I've been making Otto Plath cookies for years now. It started by accident several years ago with some friends. This is my 2009 Otto Plath cookie sugar cookie. Notice the amputated left leg, with residual evidence of gangrene, represented by green sugar sprinkles. (It was at this point my wife stopped talking to me.) The surgeon (at 2 a.m.) was a little sloppy and didn't clean up all the blood (red sprinkles). Notice the cleft in the chin instead of the foot. Notice, too, the doubling here by the cookie and its shadow. The sun makes a model of him, "A man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw." The cookie is on the cooling rack and it is screwed because I ate it just afterwards. And I loved it. Don't you give me that Meinkampf look!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, whatever you celebrate.

20 December 2009

Links, reviews, etc. - week ending 19 December 2009

Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But Plathing is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

For In Other Words, the blog of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Judith Fitzgerald writes about "News of Hughes", a story about a recent Sotheby's auction of correspondence between Ted Hughes and scholar Nick Gammage (editor of The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes), as well as almost 400 rare and first editions. The little collection sold for £39,650 ($68,400).

It should be pointed out that Olivia Cole at the Evening Standard wrote about this first in "How Ted Hughes let his imagination sparkle through letters to a fan."

Whilst randomly searching "Sylvia Plath" on Google, I found this reading guide to The Bell Jar published by Faber.

Whilst randomly searching "Sylvia Plath" on blogs, I found this post by Amica Carmilla about an artist called Justin Fitzpatrick. Those artists out there might find these paintings very intersting. I think some of them are very interesting and thought-provoking. From a visit to Justin's website, I gather these (or some of these) are on at an exhibit called, Long Nights: A Group Exhibition, Open from Thursday 11th of December to Sunday the 25th of January, at William Angel Gallery, 1 Barry Parade, Peckham Rye, East Dulwich, London SE22 0JA.

17 December 2009

Writing and Reading Life

Having read so much drivel about Plath this year, I decided to turn back the clock a bit...

Linda Wagner Martin's Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (Macmillan Press, 1999; 2nd. ed. rev. and expanded, 2003) is a gem. What struck me in 1999 when it first came out was the fact that it discussed unpublished materials, be they letters, poems, prose, or other. Discouraged by the number of mediocre books I've read recently about Plath (particularly poems about Plath), I thought I'd give a critical work a read, just to reestablish a connection with good writing about Plath. A good critic can convince the reader that their approach to the subject is the right way, despite any amount of knowledge one may possess about the said subject. Wagner-Martin does this. In the Preface, she states that Plath's life was "genuinely a literary life. There was no other aim for Sylvia Plath..." It is with this in mind that Wagner-Martin writes one of the best critical books on Plath.

The themes in Plath's poetry and prose that Wagner-Martin examines include "Plath's Hospital Writing", "Plath's Poems about Women", as well as "Recalling the Bell Jar" and "Lifting the Bell Jar", amongst others. Each chapter is clearly written and easy to read, full of wonderful, original analysis and shows the constant connections and a continual narrative, in Plath's body of work. Wagner-Martin draws much of her information and analysis from her own experience in working on Plath, as well as the working papers for her 1987 biography, and includes interview transcriptions and correspondence with Plath's friends and family members. It shows the value of good archival research, looking at drafts of poems and their deleted or otherwise unused lines and unfinished ideas.

Wagner-Martin writes, "We care about Sylvia Plath because of her poems, and her progress toward her last poems is one of modern literature's most exciting narratives." A finer way to express why we read Plath and why her poetry and prose matters cannot be stated. By examing Plath's earlier writing, and considering some of the writers she was reading, Wagner-Martin's claim that "Sylvia Plath trained all her life for her art" is easily supported.

The second, revised and expanded edition, published in 2003, includes a thirteenth chapter that looks particularly at Birthday Letters. Wagner-Martin explains that the first edition was already in production when Birthday Letters was published, making it impossible to add commentary about it at that time. While given just cursory criticism and examining just a few poems, the chapter takes a little bit away from the books focus: Plath's literary life. This is unintentional, especially given Wagner-Martin's criticism of Hughes having published the collection in a fashion that she feels usurps "the authority of Plath's narrative" and "literally [takes] the words out of Plath's mouth."

Wagner-Martin closes the second edition with what I consider to be a challenge to Plath's Estate and her readers. She says that, as a major poet, Plath "deserves to be swept along in a steady stream of appreciative criticism, scholarly accuracy and newly loyal readers." I couldn't agree more. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life is a valuable contribution to Plath scholarship by an ardent scholar and admirer of the poet.

13 December 2009

Sylvia Plath's Passport and Travel Documents

or, Liar Liar Pants on Fire

Sylvia Plath arrived in Southampton, England on the Queen Elizabeth on 20 September 1955 from New York via Cherbourg, France. After her marriage to Ted Hughes on 16 June 1956, she traveled to Spain via France for a long honeymoon before returning to England in late August 1956. She spent the month of September 1956 in Heptonstall and Yorkshire. While getting to know her in-laws, she played host to her college friend Elinor Friedman Klein. At the end of September she returned to Cambridge. This is the exceedingly short version of Plath's biography from 1955-1957.

This post will address a couple of details printed in Paul Alexander's biography Rough Magic. The first is that of Kenneth Pitchford's claim that he met Plath on board the Queen Elizabeth in September 1956. The second, related to this, is Pitchford's (and Alexander's) conclusion that Plath was on that ship returning to England after having had an abortion. Neither of these has ever sat well with me, so you'll have to excuse the lengths to which I have gone to straighten the story out for my own peace of mind.

In Rough Magic, Paul Alexander interviewed Kenneth Pitchford, a man he called a "reliable eyewitness". (Rough Magic, 197) Pitchford, on a Fulbright and his way to study at Oxford, claims that he met Plath on this voyage in September 1956. Pitchford arrived in Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth on 17 September 1956, approximately 363 days after Plath (1956 was a leap year). Alexander's narrative before Pitchford's story appears to solidly place Plath in England throughout September. In fact, he relates Plath's activities from the 4th, 10th, 18th, and 21st. Alexander then breaks from his biography of Plath giving Pitchford coverage he never should have received. It was the mention of one word in a journal entry by Plath--abortion--that led both Pitchford and Alexander to speculate that Plath was returning to England from America after possibly having an abortion.

In addition to his appearance in Rough Magic, Pitchford contributed to the Sylvia Plath Forum on 27 May 2003, giving more detail behind his claim that he met on the ship Plath in 1956. In sum, Pitchford says that Alexander compared Plath's passport with his. And, that after the comparison, they found identical customs stamps and dates for their entry into England. Alexander was now on board (pun!) with Pitchford and believed that Plath and his "reliable eyewitness" were on the same ship. The reason, probably, for the similarity or exactness of the stamps in their passports is that it is likely the same stamps were in use in 1955 and 1956. Concluding that they were on the same ship based on the stamps is exceedingly naïve, espeically when considering the following.

I have reviewed the UK incoming passenger lists available through Ancestry.com, looking both at Plath's records, Ted Hughes's, and Kenneth Pitchford's. My focus was specifically Pitchford's ship. Neither the name Sylvia Plath nor Sylvia Hughes appears as a passenger on the ship manifest for the Queen Elizabeth which arrived in Southampton on 17 September 1956. While Pitchford claims that Plath was allowed to ride anonymously and not as a listed Fulbright passenger, are we supposed to believe also that Plath travelled to and from England - on her own passport - and some how managed not to appear on the ship's manifest? How did Plath afford such a trip? The issue at this point is more with Pitchford for making up this story than with Alexander. But I also take issue also with Alexander for printing it. I have examined a copy of Plath's passport and have drawn some factual conclusions that I believe completely discredit Pitchford's statements and Alexander's seeming support of them (by publishing them in his biography).

A detailed examination of Plath's entrances and exits to countries reveals that Alexander's and Pitchford's analysis and conclusion is incorrect. Already I have mentioned that Plath arrived in England first on 20 September 1955 and that Pitchford arrived on 17 September 1956. When one enters the United Kingdom, as a student like Plath did, one is given a stamp giving the passport holder the permission to land in the country. Upon the condition of landing, the stamp states that the person shall not remain in the United Kingdom longer than a certain amount of time. In Plath's passport, the stamp indicates that she had to leave the country after "twelve months", or by 20 September 1956. Each time Plath re-entered England inside of this twelve month period, she received the same stamp but the immigration officer could not write "twelve months" again. Thus, the officer would write in 20 September 1956. Plath was tied to the date of 20 September. Similiarly, Pitchford would have been tied to the 17th. There are no dates in Plath's passport that match Pitchford's landing date of 17 September 1956.

All totaled, there are five of these "permitted to land" Immigration stamps in Plath's first passport. There is the initial stamp allowing her to stay in England for "twelve months" from 20 September 1955 with the added condition that she register with the police, three stamps saying she cannot stay in England beyond 20 September 1956, and a final stamp saying that she cannot stay in England beyond 20 September 1957. Each stamp corresponds either to a visit abroad that Plath made or to other official requirements as a Fulbright student.

Here is a breakdown of relevant dates in Plath's first passport.

Plath arrives in England on 20 September 1955. (Receives first Immigration stamp)

Plath registers with Cambridge City Police on 5 October 1955.

Plath leaves England on 20 December 1955 from Folkestone to travel in France, Monaco, and Italy and returns on 9 January 1956 via Newhaven. (Receives second Immigration stamp)

Plath leaves England on 24 March 1956 from Dover to travel to France, Germany, and Italy and returns on 13 April 1956 via London Airport. (Receives third Immigration stamp)

Plath leaves England on 22 June 1956 from London Airport to travel to France and Spain and returns on 29 August 1956 via Newhaven. (Receives fourth Immigration stamp)

Plath re-registers with immigration on 10 October 1956 which allows her to stay in England as a student until 20 September 1957. (Receives fifth Immigration stamp)
Plath re-registers with Cambridge City Police on 29 October 1956.

Plath leaves England on 20 June 1957 from Southampton to travel to New York, receiving a stamp on 25 June 1957.

Plath embarked or re-entered from Southampton, Newhaven, London Airport, Folkestone, and Dover, in England. There are 16 stamps for France, Spain, Germany, and Italy; there might be one for Monaco, however, many of the stamps are difficult to read. Based on the above, I do feel confident that in reviewing the stamps in Plath's passport and the passenger manifests available on Ancestry.com, Plath was in England from 29 August 1956 until she departed on 20 June 1957. Furthermore, Pitchford's memory of Plath's last words, "Listen, some day I'll marry a poet like you and kill myself" is far too neat and convenient (similar to having "Edge" be the last poem Plath wrote). It inflates his own poetic reputation to that of Ted Hughes', which it just isn't.

Sylvia Plath's passport was issued on 29 June 1955 from Boston. She traveled under the name "Sylvia Plath" from her first trip to England in September 1955 until she reached Paris, when on 26 June 1956 at the American Embassy, she commenced traveling under the name Sylvia Hughes. Changing her name in her passport might have proved problematic to her status as a student, but fortunately it did not. Remember Plath wanted the marriage to be a secret, fearing her Fulbright would be revoked. As it turned out everything was fine and the authorities were quite supportive. Had Plath married someone from Oxford it is possible she would have been thrown out on her ass.

Although she traveled under the the name Sylvia Hughes upon her return to the United States on 25 June 1957, she did not receive a new passport, under this name, until September 8, 1959 (also issued in Boston). She traveled to England on this passport on the S.S. United States, arriving in Southampton on 14 December 1959. She made two trips to the Continent on this passport: to France in 1961 to eat all the Merwin's food and to Ireland in September 1962. The trip to Ireland was not one in which she received a stamp. Plath's first passport is held in the Plath collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University; her second passport is held at the Woodruff Library at Emory University.

As for the second part which this post addresses, the supposed abortion... Alexander momentarily critiques Pitchford's story commenting that Plath never discussed this potential pregnancy and abortion with either family or friends. We assume he finds this out of character. However, he brushes these concerns aside immediately and leaps to referencing a rather famous sentence from Plath's Journals, "Paris & Benidorm - to master these places and the people. Abortion. Suicide. Affairs. Cruelty. All those I know." (January 4, 1958, p.307)

Plath had ample experience in college with hospitals thanks to boyfriends such as Richard Norton and Myron "Mike" Lotz. Plath saw live births, cadavers, and a host of other medical things during her relationship with Norton. We know enough about Plath to trust that certain scenes in The Bell Jar actually happened though under the guise of fiction. In Chapter Six, Esther Greenwood recalls one such trip, wanting to see "some really interesting hospital sights." She saw fetuses in bottles in one a hallway that "died before they were born". In all she kept her calm in the face of "all the gruesome things." One of the closest examples of similiar imagery in her poetry appears in "A Life", which like The Bell Jar was written in 1961.

Throughout her life, the medical profession interested her, she says as much in her interview with Peter Orr from 30 October 1962, "
I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers." Her poetry is rife with medical imagery and terminology and because her mind was like a sponge, something she learned in 1951 or 1952 may well have been available to her as total recall, or near total recall, later on in life.

Plath and abortion came up as a discussion topic on the Sylvia Plath Forum about a year before Pitchford's post. On 5 June 2002, Kate Moses points out that "Plath makes a reference to 'Elly's abortion' on p.404." Amy C. Rea points out that abortion might also have figured in "Three Women" had she "known" about it in the same way that the first, second, and third voices "know" about their experiences with pregnancy and childbirth. See her post from 3 June 2002. Unless someone can find the lost manuscript of "Four Women"... Elsewhere in her poetry, plath uses each of the following words only once, "aborted" in "Totem", "abortions" in "Winter Trees", and "aborts" in "Thalidomide". All instances occur quite late in her poetry, between November 1962 and January 1963.

So much of Plath's imagery comes from her own experiences - this doesn't make her confessional as such, just exceedingly resourceful. Her journals acted as a drafting board for her creative writing; they also, in 1959, captured very detailed notes of her "interviews" with Dr. Ruth Beuscher. One would think that this sort of experience may have been mentioned had it happened, especially given the difficulty she had in conceiving a child.

It is possible I haven't gone as far with this aspect of Pitchford's and Alexander's claims as I could have, but I generally feel uncomfortable about the subject. I do feel though that Plath's knowledge of abortion stems from earlier experiences with budding (pun!) doctor boyfriends and not from direct, personal experience.

I'd like the thank the archivists at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and the Woodruff Library at Emory for their assistance regarding Plath's passport. I'd also like to thank Gail Crowther for reading an earlier draft of this and suggesting a few things.

10 December 2009

Sylvia Plath & Ancestry.com

Many people are interested in genealogy. Ancestry.com is the place for this. They have an amazing amount of archival "stuff" available either to those that subscribe or have access through school or work or sign up for a trial.

In October, Ancestry.com announced via their blog, among other things, the availability of "Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad,1963-1974". This time period would include Sylvia Plath. And, to boot, they made it so easy as to include a link to Plath's report! No wait... come back... Before you click away, I just wanted to let you know that this post is a set-up! Unless something major happens between now and Sunday, check back late in that day for my next post, a long one, aided immensely by Ancestry.com's archive, the good people at the Lilly Library and Emory University, and money ("For money, Lord, the crowds are fierce!").

There are a couple of interesting anomalies with the information on the report. Such as Plath's birth date is one day off and the date of notification sent to Plath's aunt and uncle, Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Benotti. The report lists the date sent as 11 February 1963; however sources such as this and biographies that mentions it was sent the following day, the 12th, as the telegram/cable read "Sylvia died yesterday". Also her daughter Frieda's name is misspelled.

07 December 2009

Update on Narbeshuber's Confessing Cultures

Out just in time for the holidays is Lisa Narbeshuber's Confessing Cultures: Politics and the Self in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath (E L S Monograph Series).

Whilst Amazon says they are out of stock, and the book is not listed on ELS's website, I've heard the title has been published. You can order through Amazon above or through the publisher at els@uvic.ca.

For more information, please see my previous post from 21 August.

05 December 2009

Frieda Hughes' space

In today's Observer is "My Space: Frieda Hughes, poet and painter."

The article subtitle is "The daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on the Welsh home she shares with three dogs and an owl." This must be ironic as as in the article Hughes writes, "I hate forever being known as Sylvia Plath's daughter – I'm my own person."

03 December 2009

Ted Hughes in the News

This seems to be a week for Ted Hughes. In today's Times, Ben Macintyre writes "Ted Hughes was a prophet of climate change".

Also, someone put two readings of Sylvia Plath poems by Ted Hughes on YouTube. The clip features Hughes reading "Wuthering Heights" and "Crossing the Water". "Wuthering Heights" is likely from the British Library CD Ted Hughes: Poetry in the Making - The Spoken Word. Haven't yet sorted out the origin of "Crossing the Water". Thanks to Gail Crowther for pointing out the availability of this.

There is no stopping people from doing this kind of thing, but I'd encourage people to buy the CD or borrow it from the library.

01 December 2009

Two articles

Two articles to bring to your attention today.

The first is "Icons Among Us" by Caleb Daniloff in BU Today (or, yesterday, or 30th November 2009, depending on when you view). This is about Room 222 at Boston University, where Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, among others, attended Robert Lowell's poetry courses. Please note, I've found the link to be nomadic and slightly problematic. If it doesn't work please accept my apologies.

The second is from today's Evening Standard. Geordie Greig gives us "Time to give Ted Hughes his rightful place in Poets' Corner, say laureates."

A third article appeared in the 2 December 2009 issue of The Times: Fiona Hamilton's "Put Ted Hughes in Poets' Corner, writers urge Westminster Abbey."
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