21 July 2010

The Internet

It is well-known that Sylvia Plath died at the age of 31 (do the math: 63 - 32 = 31, right?). Her death came about, in part, because of unrealized feelings for her father, who was a member of the Nazi party and ardent supporter of Aldof Hilter. In fact, Otto Plath's "death" in 1940 was just simply a ruse to trick his children and family so that he could go train an army of bees for the Fuhrer back in his homeland.

Wait a minute. Seriously, what am I smokin'?

Reading the internet can be bad for your mind. (I can just imagine the Google searches now "Did Otto Plath train killer bees for Adolf Hilter?" NO! Wouldn't it be great if Google knew the answers to stupid questions and just came up with a page that said "No" or "As if"!) Doesn't it bother you when the facts are wrong? Ted Hughes argued that each of us owns the facts of our lives. But what about when you're gone? I certainly don't own the facts of Plath's life but I own a library of books that can be checked and re-checked to ensure that I present them to the best of my ability and knowledge. Unchecked or left in the hands of the sloppy researcher, the facts can be grossly mistaken and perpetuated like the "merciless churn" of "the hooves of the horses."

This post addresses a few instances which are running rampant on the Internet.

First. There is this quote, “For me, poetry is an evasion of the real job of writing prose.” 10 times out of 10 there is never any citation/source but yet it is attributed to Plath. The source for this quote is Ted Hughes' introduction to the short story and prose collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.

This quote, in actuality, is one of those he said she said things as if Hughes is remembering a conversation. It appears on the following pages (mind you, these are just the editions I've been able to check in local libraries).

Faber 1977: page 13
Faber 1979 (and subsequent editions): not in it; introduction much shorter and revised....
Harper's editions: page 3

Cite it! If anyone out there knows if this was in a letter or in some other documented source by Plath please let me/us know. It does not appear in her published Journals. There is always the possibility it was said either in conversation or in the missing journal (I just checked and it's not in there) or destroyed journal.

Second. The Plath recording made on 30 October 1962 with Peter Orr was for the British Council (and Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard). It was not made for the BBC. Some of the poems aired on the BBC after Plath's death, but the recording was not made for the Beeb. Now to be honest I'm guilty of thinking it was for the BBC, but I know better now. And this is why those poems read on 30 October, 1962, are not on the British Library/BBC Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath CD that I will never tire of plugging. Have I mentioned you can save 10% off your order by clicking the link on this blog? See top right of the sidebar.

Third. In one of the most wonderful, optimistic scenes in The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood readies herself for her exit interview from the hospital where she was "patched, retreaded, and approved for the road." (The Bell Jar, 1971:275) The quote in question as it appears on the Interweb (and probably dozens or hundreds of papers) is this, "I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am." No no no no no no no no no. The quote is actually "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am." (The Bell Jar, 1971: 274)

Thanks to Arlaina Tibensky, author of the forthcoming Bell Jar Summer (title may change) http://arlainatibensky.blogspot.com/ for bringing this bray/brag quoting discrepancy to my attention. She now has bragging rights, whilst those who have perpetuated the misquote can bray your heart out (and seriously, if your heart sounds like that, go see a doctor).

This post is of Annika, who wanted the snark.


Julia said...

Thanks for the important service of this great posting, Peter. You had corrected me a month or two ago, when I too was guilty of the second faux pas on your list, and I am forever grateful.

Dirt said...

I actually got into an online argument when correcting someone who has asked regarding Lady Lazarus and Daddy "when and how did Sylvia try and kill herself when she was 10, I cant find it anywhere"! When I explained it was Plath's mythologizing some of her history within the poem and nothing literal, I wasnt believed.


Peter K Steinberg said...

Dirt! Thanks for posting.

I'm all for a biographical reading of Plath but no so of such a literal reading. Plath did some interesting mythologizing dying there didn't she! I also think she looked at her move from Winthrop to Wellesley as a metaphorical death. The whole period from between the ages of 8 and 10 is crucial and in her poetry and fiction she uses and chooses one of these years (the number) to fit into the creative work. This is done in "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" as you say, but also in The Bell Jar and in "Ocean 1212-W."

Dirt said...


You mentioned the Orr interview, Plath states it clearly there regarding her feelings of the literal (confessional) when she says:

I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mini I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn't be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.

Plath wasn't a confessionalist, she utilized the personal in order to explore the political.


Al said...

The first paragraph of your post made me laugh out loud with its insanity, then I realized that there are actually some out there who believe and would believe such "theories" about Plath...

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you posting that quote from the British Council interview with Peter Orr. It is oft quoted and well known but highly undervalued with regard to her poetics- the philosophy with which she approached all her writing.

Al, I think a lot of people believe a lot worse!! I hesitated even posting that paragraph but it is at the very least illustrative. And it was meant to be outrageous, do I'm glad you laughed!!


Melanie Smith said...

Thanks Peter there is such weirdness on the net.

OOH Ferretter's book arrived today! Yay!

Peter K Steinberg said...


Raging with jealousy about the Ferretter.

Arlaina said...

You are a national treasure!
And I wrote you a kind of thank you note here...


Peter K Steinberg said...


What a way to wake up this morning! Very much your thank you note is appreciated. Did that sound like Yoda? I shouldn't blog on an empty stomach.


Anna said...

Dear Peter!

While collecting Sylvia Plath tattoos for my "i am tattoo"-week at my blog http://lovingsylvia.tumblr.com/ , I came across this interesting discussion regarding the bray/brag-thing!


Is there really a way to find out? Do you maybe own the Victoria Lucas copy or sth? So we can be 100% sure what is the right version?

Peter K Steinberg said...


I have examined a first edition at Smith College. It is "brag." Every library and bookstore I go into I check - because I'm that much of a nerd - and I have never seen a printed edition with the other word. I believe this is completely an internet-born quote.

Hope this helps.


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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.
  • 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.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (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, Volume 1, 1940-1956. 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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.