04 September 2010

Lady Lazarus; or, The Resurrection of Gravesite Debate

Vanessa Thorpe in Sunday's Observer publishes "Sylvia Plath fans call for a fitting memorial to the poet." Being that two of my good friends, Gail Crowther and Elizabeth Sigmund, were quoted in the article, I have to say outright I knew it was coming. I found both of their comments very sensitive and smart.

The article was supposed to be about Elizabeth's poem "Shep-en-Mut" which appeared in Gail and Elizabeth's paper "A Poem, A Friend", recently published in Plath Profiles 3. But the article took a turn for the dramatic, as they are want to do by the editors wanting to get more hits and sell more papers. Can't fault them there, honestly. But it is a little disappointing to have had some expectation that were dashed and shattered. This is probably my own fault for foolishly being optimistic that Gail and Elizabeth's paper would receive some press, and that this might then give Plath Profiles greater visibility and awareness through an increase in readers and contributions. That being the case, I do agree with the article that Plath's grave is relatively neglected by her family and, along with Gail and many others, I can and would give money to the Church or a fund for more considerate, consistent care. And, I would also encourage those making the pilgrimage not to leave stuff (i.e. crap), however well-intentioned it may be meant to be, on the grave. In addition to the family, it is our own responsibility to care for the grave. However modest the stone may be it is a memorial, it is a tribute.

In the fourth paragraph there is a pretty bad error that I hope will be corrected. The link to a "popular Plath website" is wrong. The link should take readers to Plath Profiles but as of now it sends them to my blog. I appreciate the link and therefore by association the sentiment that my blog is popular, but it is erroneous.

As with any summary or biography of Plath that spans one or two paragraphs, brevity seriously affects accuraccy and clarity. Particularly the third to last paragraph. For any readers new to Plath, courtesy of Thorpe's article, please read the online biography on my website, A celebration, this is. And, please read Plath Profiles.

All this being the case the message of the article is one I must back. The Observer was a supporting newspaper to Plath from 1959 so it is great that they still write about her; so I appreciate the coverage. For decades now the gravesite has been a contested, sensitive issue. Fortunately the name hacking stopped and while I suppose I understand the idea or rationale behind it, it is disrespectful to Plath's memory to do so. Likewise, it is simply disrespectful of her fans and readers to leave mementos which turn, sadly, into rubbish. Take pictures, they last longer.


Anonymous said...


I agree with you on not leaving crap on her grave. If I were to visit her grave I would like to leave flowers. I don't think that is disrespectful, harmful, or invasive. Thoughts?


Peter K Steinberg said...


Thank you for your comment. I agree 100%. Flowers are perfectly appropriate (and biodegradable). In the past, when in season, I've left tulips on the grave.

One thing I found most frustrating with the article is that I do not think either Gail or Elizabeth's comments are calling for the erection of monument or a memorial, but that the gravesite as it stands is both. It is just that the site is neglected. Am I alone in this interpretation? I quite like her grave and agree with some of the commentors on guardian.co.uk that the setting is beautiful and quiet.

In fact, the article takes on a life of its own - now that I read it for the 25th time - in the fourth paragraph, "Demands for a more appropriate memorial to Plath have been prompted by the discovery of a touching poem written by the poet's old friend Elizabeth Sigmund. The poem, published by Crowther on a popular Plath website last month, has become a rallying cry for faithful fans who want to make sure she is never forgotten."

I read and edited and encouraged Crowther & Sigmund's paper "A Poem, A Friend" from the beginning and I see nothing about it or the poem "Shep-en-Mut" or its "discovery" that could be possibly construed as a "rallying cry" for a "more appropriate memorial to Plath".

It seems a great disservice has been done to some very well-intentioned, wonderful people.


Kristina Zimbakova said...

Peter, you are 100 % right. I also read the news article a couple of times wondering whether I am somehow not getting the point or what... The sentence you underscored becomes absurd in the context given that I do not see anywhere how the journalist supports this claim, it just floats in the air.
I do not see any, not even an implicit 'urge' in their wonderful paper for erecting an appropriate memorial. I simply cannot find any connection with the news article claim. Well, journalists...

Kristina Zimbakova said...

And, I would also leave flowers, and for each new visit try to find and bring a species from the array she mentions in her poems, depending on the season...

Julia said...

Well-said, Peter. And I love that you left Tulips.

Some day, I intend to leave Poppies in October. :-)

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you Kristina and Julia! I'm glad I'm not the only one to not get the connection Thorpe is inventing. The comments on the article itself on the Guardian's website are mostly unhelpful and, to dig deeply, uneducated in the little nook that is Plath Scholarship.


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit shocked by some of the comments by readers below the Guardian article.

And what about the disparaging comments about G. Crowther - 'some PhD student' and the implied lowliness of this?!! Annoyed on her behalf as (i) I have a PhD and it was a lot of bloody hard work(ii) she is the author of several excellent and insightful pieces of writing on Plath.

The Guardian/Observer also are renowned for poor writing (spelling and factual errors) so it doesn't suprise me that they couldn't get things right.

I used to live in Hebden Bridge (the town in the valley below Heptonstall) and left flowers on Plath's grave a few times over the four years I lived there. It's a public place and I didn't otherwise make a mess or damage her grave or invade the privacy of her surviving family - so why not??!


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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.