21 April 2012

Sylvia Plath's "Desert Song"

In the Sylvia Plath Collection at Mortimer Rare Book Room, there is a typescript of a poem entitled "Desert Song." Plath dated this poem April 21, 1955 and submitted it to her creative writing professor Alfred Young Fisher as part of the course requirement. "Desert Song" remains unpublished to this day, but the poem is about, well, it is a sex poem - or lack thereof in the metaphor of an arid desert in want of saturation. The course for which this poem was submitted was a special study course in creative writing which Plath most certainly earned based on her academic credentials, her success in publishing her creative writing in both local and national periodicals, and the promise of her future in the field of poetry and creative writing.

On the verso of this typescript, in Plath's hand and in pencil, she cryptically made note of a date (29 April), a page number (30) and a newspaper title (Union). It is evident from the typescript being dated 1955 that Plath was referring to 29th April of that year; and the Union must be the Springfield Union, one of the newspapers out of Springfield, Mass. Familiarity with her biography allows one to remember that around this time Plath was quite busy: winning awards as the school year ended, preparing to graduate summa cum laude, receiving a Fulbright to Cambridge, and competing in the Kathryn Irene Glascock Poetry Competition at Mt. Holyoke.

For her poetry class with Fisher, Plath produced a number of poems that are both dated and undated.

Dated poems Plath submitted in that spring semester of 1955 were:

"Harlequin Love Song" on 20 January;
"Danse Macabre" on 10 February;
"The Princess and the Goblins" on 3 March;
"Sonnet to a Shade" on 10 March;
"To a Jilted Lover" on 17 March;
"On the Futility of a Lexicon" on 24 March;
"Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea" 14 April; and
"Desert Song" 21 April

Undated poems (and by undated, what I mean is that we know these were written circa 1955, but what is not known is the specific date the poem was written) submitted were:

"Apology for an April Satyr"; "Black Pine Tree in Orange Light"; "Complaint"; "The Dream"; "Elegy" [submitted between 1952 and 1955]; "Epitaph in Three Parts"; "Ice Age" (I); "Insolent Storm Strikes at the Skull"; "Lament" (Variant title "Dirge"); "Million Dollar Month"; "Moonsong at Morning"; "New England Winter Without Snow"; "Notes on Zarathustra's Prologue"; "Notes to a Neophyte"; "On Looking Into the Eyes of a Demon Lover"; "Prologue to Spring"; "Rondeau"; "Second Winter"; "Song for a Revolutionary Love"; "Song for a Thaw"; "Song of Eve"; "Sonnet for a Green-Eyed Sailor"; "Sonnet to Satan"; "A Sorcerer Bids Farewell to Seem"; "Temper of Time"; "Terminal"; "Triolet Frivole"; "Wayfaring at the Whitney: A Study in Sculptural Dimensions"; "White Girl Between Yellow Curtains"; and "Winter Words."

Plath submitted the poems in batches, so only the top poem in each batch would be dated. But, what a prolific spring! It would be interesting to try to determine which poems belonged to which batch, but that might not be knowable.

Getting back to "Desert Song." We ask the question: did Plath get it back the following Thursday, on 28 April? It is unlikely for on "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea," which she submitted on the 14th, Fisher noted, "No meeting next week on Thursday 28 April." He would have given back the batch of poems with "Two Lovers" on the 21st: the day she submitted her next batch headed by "Desert Song."

In some ways this little annotation by Plath takes on a life of its own. It is not the only time Plath used whatever sheet of paper she had handy to jot down a note. How did Plath get the "Desert Song" and the other poems back? Did Fisher leave them in her mailbox? Did they meet somewhere? Does it even matter? And then there is that annotation in Plath's hand on the verso of "Desert Song"... Where was she on the 29th? At a coffee shop? In a common room on somewhere campus? Was she reviewing this poem? Others? Or did she write this at a later date?

Using the microfilm of this newspaper at the Boston Public Library, I found the article to which this annotation referenced: an article covering the results of of the Glascock poetry contest. The article title was "Senior at Smith, Wesleyan Junior Poetry Winners." The article includes this hardly flattering picture under the caption "Compete in Poets' Contest." (Another photograph from the same competition is much more kind.) It should be noted that not all editions of this issue of the Springfield Union-News ran this story. News of the results of the Glascock Poetry Competition reached other Massachusetts newspapers including The Christian Science Monitor and The Townsman (Wellesley).

Nothing in the article is new or anything, but it has never been listed in a Plath bibliography; it does not appear to be in her archives. What other clues exist in Plath's manuscripts that might uncover other articles we can conclude she read? And, for the record and for what it is worth, the majority of those poems created in 1955 for that poetry class remain unpublished. For those interested in reading them, copies of the poems are held by Smith College, and in addition some (or all) may also be held by the Lilly Library.


Anonymous said...

How intriguing. Thanks for this tidbit, and the photo links.

Is it possible for you to post a transcription of "Desert Song"?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Anonymous,

Unfortunately I am not able to as doing so would constitute publishing it and one would need the estate of SP's permission.

I am, though, glad that you found the post intriguing. Not to pontificate, but the archive is full of such wonders, such clues. In the great scheme of things this is hardly a mind-blowing discovery, but it is interesting to think that SP learned of the article, wrote down some information on the nearest sheet of paper she had at hand...I wonder too if she was able to find the article.



Anonymous said...

Interesting that in the second picture Plath seems to be the only one *not* looking at Marianne Moore. She is sitting slightly apart, a little disengaged from the conversation.

MM is the author of that fabulous reaction to Plath's poetry when SP sent her some poems a few years later: "Don't be so grisly!" Just great advice ;-)


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

The subject of Plath in photographs ought to be a PP essay--she has such a range from glamour, pin-up girl, to looking frumpy.

"He tells me how badly I photograph"

Thank you for this. One of those titles of an unpublished poem has actually helped me in my work. I will be writing Smith for a copy!

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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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.