31 January 2013

More on Andrew Wilson's Sylvia Plath Biography

Again, published today, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson (Simon & Schuster) is available for £20 in hardback; ISBN: 9780857205889.

Excerpts have appeared, or will appear in the following print sources:
First serial in Mail on Sunday (20th January/27th January);
Second serial Observer (3rd February);
Sunday Times Culture feature (10th February);
Radio Times (5th February); and
Stylist (30th January)

Look for upcoming print reviews in: Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Guardian, Independent on Sunday, Express, The Scotsman, Evening Standard, and New Statesman.

And on the radio: BBC2 “The Review Show” (8th February), BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week” (11th February), BBC Radio 4 “Today” (5th February).

Look for Andrew to appear at the following events and location: Cambridge WordFest, Cumbria Words by the Water, Charleston Literary Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Dartington Ways with Words. Please check with venue for date, time, and other relevant information.

Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted Published Today

Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson is officially published today in the United Kingdom by Simon & Schuster. Congratulations Andrew!

The biography should be available in traditional book stores (if you can find one) and via Amazon.co.uk.

Mad Girl's Love Song
will be published in the US (Scribner) on next Tuesday, 5 February. It is available at Amazon.com

29 January 2013

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath Published Today

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson is officially published today by St. Martin's Press (New York). Congratulations Carl! You can buy the book in hardback or in a Kindle edition from Amazon.com. And if there are any real bookstores left, in them too, I imagine. Wow, I haven't seen a real bookstore in a while. That's kind of sad.

25 January 2013

Guest Post: In defence of (Sylvia Plath) biography

The following guest post is by Cath Morgan and is in response to Hadley Freeman's recent Guardian article "Sylvia Plath: 50 years later and the same bitter arguments rage on."

In defence of (Plath) biography
Cath Morgan

There's a lot of Plath moralising about at the moment – no doubt as a consequence of the articles emerging at the 50th anniversary of her death/publication of The Bell Jar. The Plath story makes it hard to avoid moralising and here is a prime example, arguing that ultimately readers should not engage with Plath's life and stick to the poetry:

Mark the anniversary of Plath's death by reading her work: the rest, to borrow a phrase that Plath, Ted and Frieda Hughes all employed for their voyeurs, is for "the peanut-crunching crowd".

Some reasons why I think the 'sticking to the poetry' argument as offered in this piece is untenable.

1. Plath led an interesting life. Plath was an extraordinary person and in many ways, atypical of men and women in her time. She packed a lot into 30 years in terms of her education, her employment history, her travelling and her interactions with other people, often of cultural or historical significance themselves. Marriage and personal relationships aside, Plath's life story is worth reading about. As are the lives of other poets and writers: in this article, the author contrasts Plath with other people who killed themselves – Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray and Virginia Woolf – but were well-established authors (which she suggests affects our view of Plath). How would she be able to make this point if she did not know this i.e. had acquired some biographical information about them?

2. On the other hand, extraordinary people spend part of their lives doing ordinary things. The biography of an individual provides insights into broader social and cultural history. Through the description of quotidian activities such as dressing, cooking, going to work, socialising, vacations, we learn about the norms, values, beliefs, practices and lifestyles of a different era. Passages in biographies and Plath's diaries about her cooking are fascinating and her account of clothes shopping in 1962 in Letters Home is a powerful evocation of mid-century styles (and her interpretation of them). If someone wanted to know how people (in the West) lived in the 1950s/60s, what they did and believed and thought and felt, I would recommend reading a Plath biography.

3. The author of this piece infers that marriages are private and should not be speculated about or intruded on. Relationships are private. Marriages are at least in part, public. They are constituted through a legal contract certified by the state and formed through a public ceremonial ritual. Get married and to a degree, you invite the public into your relationship.

4. The author staunchly defends Ted and Frieda Hughes's right to privacy in this article. The problem is, though, their actions in publishing Plath and releasing their own work into the public domain contradict their claims about intrusion into their lives and the life of Plath. The Plath industry isn't just a cash cow for literary critics and biographers – it is how members of Plath's own family have in part made their living and supported their own creative endeavours and as such I think this makes for a very difficult situation where they are dependent upon some degree of intrusion into their privacy but frustrated by the challenge of containing it or establishing its terms. Furthermore, both Ted and Frieda Hughes have published poetry which includes intimate details about their own lives and the lives of families and acquaintances. Birthday Letters and Capriccio are prime examples, but Ted Hughes had produced poetry prior to this which referenced the experiences of people he knew (e.g. his parents). Frieda Hughes meanwhile, possibly recognising a market for poetic memoir has published a volume of autobiographical poetry – 45 – which is arguably more confessional and revealing than anything Plath ever submitted for publication, in which Hughes amongst other things divulges:

  • She had the urge to kill herself using a knife at the age of 8 and had more suicidal ideation connected to razor blades at the age of 16.
  • Her dad remarried and she had a difficult relationship with her stepmother and felt rejected by her. She also made Frieda do the washing up and other chores that her brother was excused from and wouldn't allow her to go to her step grandfather's funeral.
  • As a child, an arsonist set fire to their house in Yorkshire and stole some of her belongings. People also stole property from their home in Devon.
  • She developed an eating disorder, lost lots of weight and three teeth which were damaged by vomiting. Also, she had dyslexia, hypoglycaemic blackouts, M.E., grade 2 cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, a uterine cyst, endometriosis and Crohn's Disease. She had a tonsillectomy, hysterectomy and an operation on a twisted colon.
  • In her late teens, she had a bad haircut, hung out with bikers and carried a knife.
  • She started smoking at 17 and smoked 80 cigarettes a day until she quit at 33.
  • She severely injured her legs in a serious car-crash, cut her foot open in Angola and tore a shoulder muscle in Australia.
  • She was married to a chauvinistic farmworker for three years and was a victim of domestic violence. This was followed by a relationship with a man who cheated her and others out of money and left her to deal with the consequences of his financial misdeeds. She got married for a second time to an estate agent, though she didn't want to and regretted it, left her husband and moved to Australia, where she divorced him and married for a third time.
  • Her father died and she was estranged from her stepmother by what she perceived as a betrayal of her father's wishes for his estate and she then wrote some allegorical poetry about it.

So both Plath, her husband and her daughter have written personally revealing poetry which they submitted for publication, yet according to the author of The Guardian article, they despise their readers as 'voyeurs'. Is it voyeurism if the subject of the gaze invited it?

5. Plath's letters and diaries and biography help us understand and enjoy her poetry. It stands on its own, but the details of her life, beliefs and feelings enhance interpretation. Plath was a masterful poet. She describes the poem in 'A Comparison' (from Johnny Panic & the Bible of Dreams) as follows: 'A door opens, a door shuts. In between you have had a glimpse….And there is really so little room! And so little time!' A poem is precise, concentrated, a 'closed fist', an insistent pattern, a door shutting with 'unanswerable finality'. Plath was true to her poetic remit: she was an extreme elisionist, a consummate contractor of words and digested imagery and metaphor to produce the 'pure' small world she refers to in 'A Comparison'. The poetic journey is cut to the bone in the finished article; the drafts of her poetry show something much longer and are often revealing about the choices made along the way – see the discussion of the drafts of 'Sheep in Fog' in Ted Hughes's Winter Pollen by way of an example. The biographical materials provide additional insight into the poetic process and 'glimpses' Plath offers us and show us how she turned her base metals (everyday life) into gold. We can therefore both read Plath's work in different (complementary) ways.

On a final note, could I implore journalists, biographers, bloggers, tweeters and writers of all hues to observe a moratorium on use of the expression 'peanut-crunchers' to describe those of us who read books and articles about Plath in addition to those by her. It is such a banal and overused cliché and does not deliver the crushing rhetorical blow that the person using it seems to assume. Perhaps we could update it to reflect more accurately the nature of a mob that mindlessly consumes tawdry spectacle in the 21st century. How about, nacho-muncher? Coke-swiller? Pick and mix-chomper? Or how about calling us what you really mean – a bunch of prurient c***s?

24 January 2013

Things to do with Carl Rollyson & Sylvia Plath

Carl Rollyson has been tirelessly promoting his forthcoming book American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath He is on Twitter, he has his own website, etc. American Isis was recently excerpted in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine; and, has been featured in magazine advertisements too, such as the current issue of Bask.

On Friday 25 January, Carl will be discussing his biography of Sylvia Plath at the 92Y Tribeca at 12 noon.

On Monday 28 January 2013, Carl Rollyson, author of American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, will be participating in a question and answer session with Sam Jordison of The Guardian and Guardian readers.

There are other events all over the United States for Carl and his new biography. See here for a list of them.

Then, finally, on Tuesday 29 January 2013, American Isis will finally be published! Congratulations.

22 January 2013

Roy Davids' Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Auction Catalogue Descriptions

The following is reproduced from the forthcoming Bonham's auction catalogue for The Roy Davids Collection: Part III. Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets. First Session (A-K) by permission of Roy Davids. It is published here for the first time, prior to the appearance of the catalogue. Please verify descriptions with the printed/online catalogue just in case any of the information changes.

Lot 372

[PLATH, SYLVIA 1932-1963)] and TED HUGHES (1930-1998)

THE COMPLETE WORKING PAPERS FOR THE FIRST VERSION OF TED HUGHES'S ESSAY ABOUT SYLVIA PLATH'S POEM, 'THE EVOLUTION OF SHEEP IN FOG,' comprising the autograph manuscript, revised typescript written in the form of a typed and autograph letter signed ('Ted') to Roy Davids as notes for a lecture, with autograph revisions and comments (' This is very hugger mugger - but it covers, with a specific example, the points we talked about at the weekend'; 'Puppet lecturer begins to speak'; 'I thought I was being brief'; 'if you manage to get over the main drift of this, it would be a good vindication of the craze to collect manuscripts. Unless it proved to be aversion therapy. I've a fear it might'), revised and unrevised photocopies (with suggestions by Roy Davids for changes in light of an unrealised publishing project, and Ted Hughes's own extensive comments and revisions including two pages of new text), typescripts at various stages, drafts of Roy Davids's intended foreword; with typescripts on some versos of Hughes's poem 'On the Reservation' and drafts for a foreword by Hughes to a projected collection of poems celebrating the opening of Sam Wanamaker's Globe Theatre, some 60 pages in Ted Hughes's handwriting or typescript pages annotated by him (including two pages relating to his foreword), plus drafts of Roy Davids's foreword, and various photocopies, loose, [Court Green, North Tawton], 25 February 1988


In the version printed in Winter Pollen, 1994, Ted Hughes supplied the following headnote to the final version: 'Written for Roy Davids, of Sotheby's Manuscripts Department, to be given as an illustrated lecture to the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, on 25 February 1988.'

To The Epic Poise, Roy Davids, as 'The Onlie Begetter', contributed a short piece about this essay: "'I'll try to send you something you may be able to use."' This throwaway remark by Ted Hughes concluded a discussion I had opened about poetical drafts during one of our summer afternoon drives through the Devon lanes. I had hoped at most for a few scraps that I might use in a lecture I was preparing for the forthcoming book collectors' weekend at Dove Cottage. Instead Ted hijacked the whole idea, made it entirely his own, and in less than a week produced this major, sparklingly written, critical essay, leaving me in (I must admit) the not unenviable role of attendant lord at the conception of a remarkable tour de force.'

It seemed true then, and seems so still, to be one of the best pieces Ted Hughes ever wrote on Plath's work and genius and also the best commentary on the nature and significance of drafts. 'No one else has written so eloquently or so perceptively on the importance of drafts, and why rather than being discarded they command respect as more that the "incidental adjunct to the poem [indeed] they are a complementary revelation, and a log-book of its real meanings. [Here, also,] they have revealed the nature and scope of the psychological crisis that gives the poem its weird life, sonority, its power to affect us. In other words, they are, as the final poem is not, an open window into the poet's motivation and struggle at a moment of decisive psychological change.." Ted's essay, is, moreover, one of the most penetrating exposures of the poetic impulse and the processes by which poems come or are dragged into being...Lastly, the essay is a wonderful demonstration of Ted's own genius and vision, the subtlety of his responses, the depth of his understanding, the generosity of his sympathies and of the thrill and powerful richness of his prose.'

Close study of these drafts and the final versions here will reveal differences between all of them, for instance in the autograph draft the passage: 'This fascinating process which tells us about Plath's inspiration, about her inner world, about her poetic struggle, & about the great wealth of experience behind the odd images...', became in his typed version dated 25 February 'The drafts show what a struggle she put up, with her practised technique. Finally she allowed it to go in like a police force, imposing those last three lines, to produce a state of affairs that suited her conscious wishes, and established order, even though it was to last only two months...' In the final version this passage reads: The drafts show what a struggle she put up, with her tried and tested technique. Finally, when the unwanted newcomer had almost taken over, she allowed the Ariel squad to go in as a police force, imposing the three final lines -- like martial law.'

See following lot.

REFERENCES: Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen, 1994; Roy Davids, 'Ted Hughes's "Sylvia Plath: The Evolution of 'Sheep in Fog'" - The Onlie Begetter,' The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes, edited by Nick Gammage, 1999.

Lot 373

PLATH, SYLVIA (1932-1963, American poet)

THE COMPLETE WORKING PAPERS FOR HER KEY POEM 'SHEEP IN FOG', c. 75 lines in her handwriting, comprising autograph and typescript drafts and a typed completed version (15 lines), all but the first two separately dated and most of the typescripts with her name and address typed by her in the top right-hand corner, with extensive autograph deletions and revisions preserving numerous reconsidered readings; on three of the versos are typescripts, two with autograph revisions [from 'A Poem for Three Voices'], the other from a short story (character: Alison), the drafts for 'Sheep in Fog': 7 pages, large quarto, 23 Fitzroy Road, London NW1, 2 December 1962 and 'Revised 28 January 1963'


...The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them...

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.


Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's husband, poetical soul-mate, and in many respects her mentor, thought 'Sheep in Fog' was 'one of her most beautiful poems'. He wrote a brilliant and penetrating essay about the full evolution of the poem (see the previous lot), reproducing a number of the drafts in it. Only a summary of one part of it can be given here; his much fuller examination retracing the course of composition in detail and commenting on the processes of poetical composition in general is supplied herewith in photocopy.

'Because we have all the manuscripts, all dated, of all her late poems, we can trace the course of the two amazing surges of inspiration that produced them'. The first surge began in August 1962 and ended on 2 December with 'Sheep in Fog', these poems reflecting her 'positive resolution' and positive mental state (for her) at that time. After that she wrote nothing for two months. On 28 January 1963 she revised the last poem of the first surge, 'Sheep in Fog', giving it a new negative conclusion (the penultimate draft in this lot): it 'amounts to a full perfect realization of the calamitous change of mood, the sinister change of inspiration, between the two groups of poems'. The 'hope of rebirth has disappeared, to be replaced by resignation' (Kendall). On the same day Plath wrote three new poems, and by the time she died, two weeks later, she had written twelve more new poems. 'Sheep in Fog' was found with the poems of that second surge.

The last four lines of the poem written on 2 December 1962 'are nothing like as ominous as the three she replaced them with' on 28 January 1963 - ('Revised Jan 28, 1963') - (quoted above). Leaning 'strongly towards the positive' (for her), they had read:

...Patriarchs till now immobile
In heavenly wools
Row off as stones or clouds with the faces of babies.

In the earlier version 'the final three-line image is still trying to stay in the Ariel world of hope and triumphant outcome,' but the first version of the ending, to Hughes, already reflected a change of mood, one that 'refuses to be coerced' ('she suppresses the intruder') and therefore was in a degree 'mechanical and unconvincing'. He also illustrates his point (revealing the subtlety, delicacy, fragility and progressive nature of his subject and of her psychological state) by noting that she changed 'Like a dead man left out' in the first autograph draft herein to 'A flower left out' in the second autograph draft both written on the same day, thereby revealing her struggle against a growing negativity of mood in December 1962. On 28 January she accepted that the first ending was 'not quite right...[and] taking up the poem again she removes the false ending'. 'Sheep in Fog' therefore 'belongs to both groups: the last poem of the first group, in its first version [December 1962], and the first poem of the last group, in its final version [January 1963]'.

Because Plath kept all the drafts of this poem and dated them, and because she went through such a traumatic change of psychological mood during the course of writing, and because that change of mood ended in her taking her own life only two weeks later, these working papers are a unique and extraordinary witness to the evolution of a poem. The drafts reveal, Hughes concluded, 'the nature and scope of the psychological crisis that gives the poem its weird life, sonority, its power to affect us. In other words, they are, as the final poem is not, an open window into the poet's motivation and struggle at a moment of decisive psychological change.' In many ways these working papers are the supreme example of poetical drafts.

Sylvia Plath's poetical papers are at Smith College and at the Lilly Library, Indiana.

PROVENANCE: Ted Hughes; Nicholas Hughes - when Sylvia Plath's literary archive was sold to her old college, Smith, Ted Hughes kept back the manuscripts of only two poems, one for each of the children; this one was Nicholas's. It is understood that the one Frieda inherited is now in an institutional library.

REFERENCES: Ted Hughes, 'Sylvia Plath: The Evolution of 'Sheep in Fog', Winter Pollen, 1994; Roy Davids, 'Ted Hughes's "Sylvia Plath: The Evolution of 'Sheep in Fog' - The Onlie Begetter', The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes, edited by Nick Gammage, 1999; Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts, 1979; Tim Kendall, Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study, 2001.

Lot 374

PLATH, SYLVIA 1932-1963) and TED HUGHES (1930-1998)

AUTOGRAPH REVISED POETICAL DRAFTS BY EACH OF THEM ON THE SAME SHEET OF PAPER, ALSO WITH A TYPED POEM BY SYLVIA PLATH, 2 pages, quarto, small brown stain at head, address typed by Plath at head 'Sylvia Plath / 3 Chalcot Square / London N.W.1, England', [1961]


(i) PLATH (SYLVIA) Autograph draft of what was to be the second stanza of her two-stanza poem 'I am Vertical', with autograph revisions and deletions preserving reconsidered readings, 11 lines, top half of a quarto page

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars
The trees and flowers have been breathing their cool odors out
They bloom in my window-square with the first birdsong...

...It is more natural to me, lying down
Then the sky & I are in open conversation
I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees will have time for me, & the flowers love me.

There are a number of differences between the version here and that in the published text.

(ii) PLATH (SYLVIA) Typescript of her poem entitled 'Night Thoughts' but published under the title 'Barren Women', 10 lines, top third of the verso of the above

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,
Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas.
In my courtyard a fountain leaps and sinks back into itself,
Nun-hearted and blind to the world. Marble lilies
Exhale their pallor like scent...

(iii) HUGHES (TED) Autograph draft entitled 'Endless', 14 lines, with autograph revisions, APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED - not in the Collected Poems, the remaining two-thirds of the sheet as the typed poem (ii) above

Is the milk-flow, but blood-brown
As from the bulging springs of a mass-grave
Out of Elgar
Gently breasted
Centre of England...

...O Thames I prefer you at night, when your waters go glisten
Like the drawn voice of an orioli alone,
A dark feminine agony.

AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPTS BY SYLVIA PLATH AND TED HUGHES ON THE SAME SHEET OF PAPER ARE RARE: none have appeared at auction. The two poems by Sylvia Plath are dated to 1961 in her Collected Poems.



Have you saved your money?

21 January 2013

Sylvia Plath's "Sheep in Fog" & Ted Hughes on the poem

"There's never been a poetry sale like it, and I'm sure there won't be another" (Roy Davids)

This is to let you know that I am selling my poetry collection, forty years in the making, in 526 lots at Bonhams in London on 10 April (A-K) and 8 May (L-Y) this year. The sale comprises both poetical manuscripts (about 450) and portraits of poets (about 170). There will be a two volume catalogue.

The highlights among the manuscripts include: T.S.Eliot, 'The Journey of the Magi'; Sylvia Plath, 'Sheep in Fog'; Auden, 'Stop all the clocks'; Keats, part of the draft of 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill'; Gerard Manley Hopkins, a draft of 'Binsey Poplars'; Ted Hughes, 'The Thought-Fox'; Rudyard Kipling, 'Recessional'; Robert Lowell, 'Fall 1961'; Siegfried Sassoon, poems from the First World War and the 1920s (including 50 unpublished poems); Christina Rossetti, 'Remember me when I have gone away'; Edward Thomas, 'Cock Crow'; Alexander Pope, part of 'The Pastorals'; S.T. Coleridge. 'The Dark Ladie'; Yeats. 'Are you content?'; A.E. Housman, draft of 'Epitaph on An Army of Mercenaries'; Tennyson, 'The Daisy', 'Break, break, break', 'To the Queen' and 'The Eagle'; Hardy, 'In Time of the Breaking of Nations', John Betjeman 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the the Cadogan Hotel'; Walt Whitman (section of Leaves of Grass).

Among other manuscripts are poems by Charlottë Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Walter Scott, Burns, Byron, Peacock, Wordsworth, Robert Frost, D.G. Rossetti, the Brownings, Clough, Cowper, Heaney, Larkin and John Crowe Ransom.

The portraits include an important contemporary pastel of Jonathan Swift; an unknown portrait of Landor; oil portraits of Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann Duffy and Edward Thomas; a massive bust of Matthew Arnold; fine photographs of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Tennyson, Kipling, Eliot, Auden, Betjeman, Whitman, Oscar Wilde, and Yeats.

Roy Davids

The contact at Bonhams is Simon Roberts.

20 January 2013

Excerpt from Carl Rollyson's Sylvia Plath Bio American Isis

Are you like me in that you are finding it hard to stay on top of all things Sylvia Plath of late? Well, there is more! The Boston Sunday Globe's Globe Magazine features an excerpt/adaptation of Carl Rollyson's forthcoming biography American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath (St. Martins, 29 January 2013). The article title "The Last Days of Sylvia Plath." suits the need for a dramatic eye-catching way to draw in its readers. And what they find is a quite well-written account of Sylvia Plath's life - though abbreviated to fit the format, mind you - from 9 July 1962 to 11 February 1963. Rollyson has a narrative writing style that is an easy flow of words, that tells a very good story, and completely captures his readers attention.

The article appears on pages 28-31 of the Globe Magazine. A reminder please that I am collecting as many of these articles as I can and compiling for you a bibliography of them on this page of the blog.

Remember, please, that the nature of this kind of serialization is that the content is highly edited from the way it will appear in the printed book. This is the case with the Rollyson excerpt in the Globe, and also with Andrew Wilson's from the Daily Mail, which I posted about last night.

19 January 2013

Excerpt from Andrew Wilson's new Sylvia Plath Bio Mad Girl's Love Song

Well, just like "Lady Lazarus," the Mail has done it again...

That being said, please do yourself a favor and read Andrew Wilson's "Sylvia Plath in love: A mesmerising portrait of the tragic poet as a young, sexually uninhibited sun-loving party girl - told by the lovers she discarded for Ted Hughes" and revel in the story it tells. While you are at it, please also gasp at the amazing, rarely or never before published in color photographs of Sylvia Plath, largely from the Lameyer mss. at the Lilly Library, Indiana University.

Having read Wilson's manuscript, I can say that the coverage in this article fits the publisher of the article and hopefully will not shy people away from picking up his book, which is a careful, insightful, and absorbing biography of Sylvia Plath's first 23 years.

While we are thinking about Andrew Wilson and his book, the BBC's Radio 4 does a Book of the Week, in which the said book is serialized for the duration of a week. Andrew Wilson's 2013 biography Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted is the book selection for the week beginning Monday 11 February. Mad Girls Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted is published on 5 February 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

18 January 2013

Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Sigmund, Olwyn Hughes, The Bell Jar, The Guardian and The Mail on Sunday

In case you missed it, there were two interviews posted today on The Guardian's website on the topic of Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. The first interview was with Plath's good friend Elizabeth Sigmund; the second with the polar opposite, Olwyn Hughes.

1963 Heinemann edition
with dedication present
Both of these women had a particular relationship to Sylvia Plath and the nature of that relationship shines through quite blindingly. The story came about largely as the result of the Faber edition of Plath's novel, which was first published under Plath's name in 1966. In this edition, and subsequent paperback editions and reprints, the dedication "for Elizabeth and David" was not included (it was included in the 1971 Harper & Row American edition and so far as I know and have looked has never been absent. The missing dedication was the subject of a 1973 TLS article by Elizabeth, which prompted an apology by Faber's Charles Monteith and a rectification of the oversight (Monteith was the recipient, himself, of what would become a rare signed copy of Plath's first poetry collection, The Colossus, published by Heinemann in 1960) .

The interviews were part of The Guardian's Reading Group which is featuring and focusing on The Bell Jar this month, moderated by Sam Jordison. Olwyn Hughes fairly goes off on her late sister-in-law while also making incendiary comments about Elizabeth Sigmund. In the past, Olwyn Hughes has commented that Plath and Hughes had met - at most - a half dozen times. This might be hyperbole. But one thing to also consider is the number of times that Olwyn, herself, was in Plath's presence, which can't have been much more.

What it comes down to is the fact that Olwyn Hughes was tasked by her brother to be the keep of Plath's literary fame. However, in her role as literary executor she failed miserably to conduct herself professionally, dispassionately, and objectively. What it further boils down to is that as her friend, Elizabeth Sigmund has behaved respectfully and with much admiration. This goes beyond to which camp you belong. Indeed, the camp boundaries have been blurring in recent years which is wonderful. These articles/interviews serve primarily to get web hits, sell newspapers, and pick open the healing scabs of old wounds and steps away from what should be a celebration of Sylvia Plath's novel that leads to a celebration of her life. I perhaps now fear what is coming down the pike as we approach 11 February.

Something else to consider this weekend...

Are you, too, chomping and desperate to get your hands on Andrew Wilson's biography Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted? Well, we will get a bit of a taster this weekend as part of a two-week serialization in London's Mail on Sunday. Starting Sunday! And, I am told, at some point also The Observer will feature the book. Read on.

More on Wilson's book on Sunday...

17 January 2013

Guest Post: Review of Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy

The following is a guest post book review by Susan McMichael of Australia. Many, many thanks to Susan for writing this for us!

Review of Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy
by Susan McMichael

In the late '80s, I began collecting poetry anthologies in which Sylvia Plath was represented, looking at how she was perceived as a poet. 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' were often represented in the late 70s and early 80s, but as the 80s turned to the nineties, there were many more poems used and often ones which were not from Ariel.

Now that we now have Plath's Collected Poems, what is the point of anthologizing and selecting her when we can just read the entire oeuvre? For any poet, a good Selected should have a purpose, give a range of a poet's work and a good Selected, can take a keen or interested reader to further work: more poetry; stories; letters.

A good Selection always has my favourite poems in it....or reminds me of my favourite poem so that I can go to the Collected Poems and read it too.

Ted Hughes did a lot for Sylvia Plath's work: if in the eighties like many people I wondered what poems were lost, what was left out, I admired what he did for Plath's poetry by keeping her poetry in the public view and championing her as a poet. I have however, always been irritated by the 'Publisher's Notes', in the front of all of Plath's works, which have always tried to distance themselves from the choices that Hughes has made and by the nature of the third person notes, scream, I have left poems out!

Hughes' Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 1985) beginning three poems, 'Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper', 'Spinster' and 'Maudlin' locates Plath as nasty and anti-female and this book ends with 'Edge' and 'Words', which remind the reader of the biographical nature of Plath's poetry.

This edition doesn't show Plath's development as a writer as well, nor give as interesting a range of poems as I think is possible. It is too constrained with thinking: what can't I say, what can't I put in. It nonetheless gives a good example of Plath's technical ability.

Middlebrook's Poems (Knopf, 1998) suffers from the opposite problem: the book has 255 pages and as much as I love Plath's poetry, by the time I got to 'Three Women' I wanted to scream: 'Stop! I have the Collected'. I don't think this is the response you want in a reader and I'm sorry about this, because I think Middlebrook had good intentions with her selection.

Middlebrook gives a much better idea of Plath as a woman poet with a wider range of Plath's children and mother poems than the Hughes'. If this phrase seems out of date or not necessary these days, when Plath began her writing, her poems such as 'Stillborn', 'Candles' 'Zoo Keeper's Wife', 'Face Lift' and 'Morning Song' were all novel ways of writing when Plath's work was first published.

In Middlebrook's selection we understand Plath's work in terms of structure and development much better- the Ariel poems didn't just come out of nowhere.

Having said that, I reiterate, there are far too many poems for a coherent Selected. The 'Bee' poems are good, but which of them represent Plath best? All of them are Middlebrook's choice...Why does Middlebrook, if she wants to portray Plath in a more positive light and to try and lose the suicidal-poet version of Plath, end with 'Edge'? She has all the poems that Plath wrote, published in the Collected Poems, from 1963…

The newest edition of Plath's selected poems, Poems is edited by the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. What I like best about this version, is that Duffy has chosen and thought about her subject: Duffy chooses 'Poems, Potatoes', because this poem represents various things about Plath's work: It is an early poem; it shows that Plath is aware of poetry as an art form; it shows poetry as work, it shows Plath as a craftsperson and, it's funny. It also shows how Plath works with form and helps the reader to see how Plath broke the form in the Ariel poems; it also took time to get there.

Plath's poetic development is shown well with the three sections. This avoids the sense that the Ariel poems came from nowhere. The first section begins with work from early 1956: 'Ode to Ted', and ends the section with the Colossus poem, 'Mushrooms'. The second begins with the 1960 poem 'You're' and ends with the 1962 poem 'Poppies in July'. The last section starts with the poignant 'For a Fatherless Son' and the final of the poem of the book is 'Child.' Thus, the new Selection doesn't shy away from biographical poems, like Ted Hughes' Selected (1985), nor is it overwhelmed by what to leave out, like the Diane Middlebrook book from 1998.

There are seventy five poems in this book; it's a solid selection. Duffy represents Plath's work well, stylistically and thematically. She has chosen poems that represent Plath in different and interesting ways. For example, Duffy gives us a sense of Plath as a poet concerned with children in a wide variety of ways.

The new choice represents Plath with an introduction. Unlike Hughes' brief note in the 1985 edition, Duffy discusses how Plath has been presented over a number of years and places her in context. She thinks about which poems will represent Plath best: choosing poems which show Plath's use of colour, a variety of themes, children and nature, the raging Ariel poems, funny poems like 'Fiesta Melons', Plath's different books, and stages.

The book itself is actually very beautiful: design of the book is interesting: thought has gone into the colour and jacket of the Duffy Selection. I was sorry that there is a typo on page 116 in 'Nick and the Candlestick' ('The last of Vittoriana' rather than 'The last of Victoriana'); however, as 'The Munich Mannequins' so aptly observes a few pages later: 'Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children'.

However, best of all I think, Duffy has thought about her subject and structured the poems. This includes some of Plath's poems from 1963: the last poem in this Selected is 'Child': 'Your clear eye is the one beautiful thing. / I want to fill it with color and ducks'.

'Child' is not a joyful poem; it is meditative, wondering, and fearful; ending with: 'this dark / Ceiling without a star.' It locates Plath a poet interested in social issues and people.

This book makes me want to go and reread my favourite Sylvia Plath poems: is it 'Mary's Song', which isn't in there? Or, is it one of the ones that is included? I'm not sure, but new readers of Plath's work will find in Duffy's selection a satisfying mix of fabulous poetry: they will discover a funny and tender and raging poet.

Readers who know Plath's work will be pleased to find an interesting mix of poems which remind them why they love Sylvia Plath's poetry and we all might well be tempted to go the shelf and find our favourite Plath poem...

Books reviewed:
Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy
London: Faber and Faber, 2012. ISBN: 9780571290437
Edition: Hardback; No. of pages: 160

Sylvia Plath's Selected Poems edited by Ted Hughes
London: Faber and Faber, 1985. ISBN: 9780571135868
Edition: Paperback; No. of pages: 96

Plath: Poems. Selected by Diane Wood Middlebrook.
New York: Knopf, Distributed by Random House, 1998. ISBN: 0375404643
Edition: Hardback; No. of pages: 255

14 January 2013

Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar Published 50 Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, 14 January 1963, The Bell Jar by Victoria Lucas (Sylvia Plath) was published. The creation of and publication history of the novel is one of the more fascinating aspects of Plath scholarship. The secretive nature in which it was written - undated, the exact start and completion date are still unknown as of right now- as well as the process by which Plath saw it accepted and published, change the way in which we might consider Plath as a business woman. In fact, the process by which she saw all of her work come to print is something like leaves me feeling envy and awe: certainly not the image of your 1970s neurotic Sylvia Plath.

Plath did tell some of her friends and colleagues that she was writing a novel, but was very reticent to divulge too many details. One of the earliest references - if not the earliest - appears in a letter to Ann and Leo Goodman dated 27 April 1961, in which Plath writes she is more than a third of the way through a novel on the subject of a college girls nervous breakdown. She mentions that whilst in discussion with a publisher for the American edition of The Colossus it suddenly came to her how the novel should be done. She admits that it is full of real people and that she'd have to publish under a pseudonym. Lastly she says she find the book funny and that she laughs a lot. Based on other letters, Plath was in contact with Judith Jones of Knopf in late March and early April 1961. She received a letter from Jones dated 29 March accepting The Colossus and responded to it on 5 April. So if we take Plath at her word we have a rough time frame from when she started writing the novel. On 19 August 1961, she wrote to her brother-and sister-in-law, Gerald and Joan Hughes that she was trying to finish the novel before the move to Court Green. She was hoping to publish it, she said, so that she could buy a carpet! She also fibbed to a lot of people about her book. The novel was definitely completed a few days after her letter to Gerald and Joan, for in her journal she wrote that she had finished her novel on 22 August 1961.

In November 1961, Plath won a $2,000 Saxton grant for a novel and simply parceled the novel into four parts and submitted them quarterly. Her publisher was complicit in delaying publication and deceiving the grant committee - originally scheduled for some time in 1962 - so that she could receive all her funds. However, at this same time, an employee of Heinemann wrote to Knopf on 29 November 1961 stating that Plath was writing a novel tentatively called The Bell Jar and that in all likelihood it would be published under a pseudonym. Someone at Knopf put in two exclamation points next to this!! Other people she fibbed too include her Knopf editor Judith Jones, telling her in December 1961 that she was hoping to finish her book by the end of the grant in November 1962. Of course by this point it was more than done! By 11 June 1962, Plath was feeling a little more honest, telling her former teacher and mentor Alfred Young Fisher that she had had her first novel accepted for publication. Famously, of course, Plath referred to The Bell Jar as a "pot-boiler" in letters to her brother (18 October 1962) and her mother (25 October and 14 December 1962).

Plath received her first copy of the printed, finished, final first edition of The Bell Jar around mid-December, when her new editor at Heinemann David Machin sent her the book. It took a circuitous route to her, leaving the London's offices of Heinemann on 12 December to Court Green. But, of course Plath by then taken up residence in London so the book and letter reached her a few days later after being forwarded (presumably) from the North Tawton post office. I've always wondered what Plath thought of the book jacket. I've always wondered if she read the book once she got it. Heinemann threw a small launch party for The Bell Jar on 14 January 1963: publication day. Among those present were Plath (duh), Ted Hughes, and the Macedo's. Again, because Plath was so secretive about the novel and its publication, not very much is known at all about the party. The only known comment on Plath about 14 January 1963 comes from Ted Hughes, who said she was "in resilient form."

I have to admit that there has been more attention paid to The Bell Jar in recent weeks than I thought there might be. But this is a good thing and now I find I want more. The Guardian is doing their part, especially by making it the Reading Group selection for the month. (See also here.) There is the seemingly necessary discussion of the novel and the biographical circumstances that informed aspects of it. As points of discussion this can be interesting, but it can also be tiresome. I have been thinking for a long time about how I'm going to remember and commemorate this novel, which was first published 11 years before I was born. I often think it bizarre how someone born so many years after the book was published, and someone whose gender is so wonderfully (and rightfully) criticized in the novel, can grow to love it so much and be so affected by it! But, there is a power to the writing. And a universality. There is poetry in the prose.

The wonderful Gail Crowther has been commemorating The Bell Jar by sending out some of her favorite lines (gems). They are

Day 1: "I remember Jody, my best and only girl-friend at college in my freshman year, making me scrambled eggs at her house one morning. They tasted unusual and when I asked her if she had put in anything extra, she said cheese and garlic salt. I asked who told her to do that, and she said nobody, she just thought it up. But then, she was practical and a sociology major."

Day 2: "Buddy Willard went to Yale, but now I thought of it, what was wrong with him was that he was stupid."

Day 3: "The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way."

Day 4: "Children made me sick."

Day 5: "To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream."

Day 6: "I never feel so much myself as when I'm in a hot bath".

Day 7: "How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe. somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again".

This inspired me to think about my favorite lines and scenes and I think I've narrowed it down to a few, listed below and in no particular order:

1."I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth."

2. "I opened my fingers a crack, like a child with a secret, and smiled at the silver globe cupped in my palm. If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of itself, and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one whole again."

3. "The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep."

Please don't hold me to these for like the waterline of tides, these very well could shift with my next reading! However, these are exemplary of Plath's writerly power. The imagery and metaphor in each are not just examples of good, engaging writing. It is perfect writing: a distinctive achievement. Not too much, not too little. Just absolutely right.

The Bell Jar is a book I first read in the winter of 1994. I got a copy of it for Christmas that year and read it in New Orleans over New Year's. From the first reading to my last - and I should add I read it at least twice a year - the novel never fails to impress me and present something new. Be it a connection to some of Plath's other prose, or even to her poetry, I consider the novel as a chapter in her creative writing and like looking at it as an integral part of the whole.

What is the best way to commemorate the anniversary of this novel? I think about the novel every day. I remember it. Part of this might stem, say, from working in Boston, quite near to some of the places mentioned in it. Over all, I cannot leave the novel alone and it will not let me push it out of my mind.

Part of this inability to leave it be has given rise to two essays. In 2001, two friends of mine and I discovered in a beautiful collaborative effort that Plath's short story "The Perfect Place" (typescript title: "The Lucky Stone") was published and that no bibliographer or scholar had ever made reference to it before. A little bit of its story was made public in my 2004 biography Sylvia Plath, and I expanded on both the short story and the novel in my first Plath Profiles essay "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar". In the essay I try to trace elements in the story, one of the last Plath wrote before she composed The Bell Jar; and about how certain scenes, characters and aspect of the story successfully led to achievements in the novel. Much of Plath's later works - be in prose, poetry, or even her book reviews and non-fiction writing - are routinely compared to her early writing, how the early writing is somehow practice for something finally achieved in a more perfect form. Is the essay convincing and successful, I cannot say. I hope so, though. Maybe one day this story "The Perfect Place" will be more widely available. But, more recently, after years of research, I published in Plath Profiles 5 the essay "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications. I consider The Bell Jar a gift. Not just a gift to me but a gift to anyone who reads it and anyone who is receptive to its messages. The "Textual Variations" essay is my return to gift to The Bell Jar. Unfortunately, it shows that posthumously Plath's estate and editors have subtly and not so subtly changed her text. The only edition Plath sanctioned was that 1963 Heinemann edition under the author's name Victoria Lucas. The text block remained the same in England (although the author's name changed) until 1996, when minor "fixes" were made. The paper ultimately argued that the editors need to restore The Bell Jar back to the original text, typographical errors and all. The universal success of Plath's unabridged Journals and Ariel: The Restored Edition exhibits that there is an interest, a market, and a need for her audience to be able to read her works as she intended. Do not let The Bell Jar escape this form of respectful correction.

If you are interested in reading some more about The Bell Jar please visit the Prose Works page of my website, A celebration, this is. You can also read a chapter-by-chapter summary here. And, of course, you can look at its history in book covers here. You might also want to search for The Bell Jar on the page of works about Sylvia Plath, too, in case you want a wider variety of opinions on the novel. This blog has also made reference to The Bell Jar time and again, click here to see posts in which the novel was tagged.

Happy 50th Anniversary, The Bell Jar.

11 January 2013

Ann Skea's Updated Sylvia Plath Ariel and Tarot page

Scholar Ann Skea has recently added a number of new chapters to her "Sylvia Plath's Ariel and the Tarot" page.

New chapters 2, 3, and 4 are now on line and examine:

2 looks at "Thalidomide", "The Applicant", "Barren Woman", and "Lady Lazarus".

3 looks at "Tulips", "A Secret", and "The Jailer".

4 looks at "Elm", "The Night Dances", and "The Detective".

Additionally, and though they may be subject to change, chapter 5 and 6 and what is included in them is also presented.

New Page on Sylvia Plath

Above in the list of tabs going across the header area, I have have started a page for "50th Anniversary Articles on Sylvia Plath." This will be for articles on The Bell Jar, her death, as well as articles on the two forthcoming biographies by Carl Rollyson (American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath) and Andrew Wilson (Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted). I'll continue to add links to articles as they are published. Links only guaranteed to be valid at the time of posting.

10 January 2013

Teaching Sylvia Plath

Yesterday, I visited Smith College for a couple of reasons. One was to look at Sylvia Plath's copy of The Complete Plays and Poems of Shakespeare: A New Text (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1942.). The other reason was to bore to death, I mean, talk about my website (and blog and Twitter) on Sylvia Plath to a group of students taking part in a documentary editing course taught by the estimable Karen V. Kukil. Barbara Blumenthal took these pictures of the students before they each, in turn, fell asleep. Like dominoes. I audited this very course last year and it was a ton of fun.

PS: I do not believe any of the students actually fell asleep! They were all kind, attentive, and very gracious to listen to me.

08 January 2013

Update on Marianne Egeland's Claiming Sylvia Plath

Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure by Marianne Egeland (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) has reached the final stages in the publication process. Originally scheduled for release on 1 January, the book will now be fulfilled in about 6-8 weeks, I am told.

Egeland is the author of the 1997 Norwegian-language biography of Sylvia Plath and spoke on the topic of her new monograph at the Sylvia Plath Symposium at Oxford in 2007 in a paper titled "The Use and Abuse of a Poet: The Reception of Sylvia Plath." Egeland brings a strong voice to her subject in a book that might ruffles feathers. From the jacket, "Claiming Sylvia Plath is a critical and comprehensive reception study of what has been written about Plath from 1960 to 2010. Academic and popular interest in her seems incessant, verging on a public obsession."

So, like Janet Badia's 2011 Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers, Egeland's Claiming Sylvia Plath may focus less on Plath's own compositions and more on those who have read and shaped Plath's reputation. If you missed it, on 28 December I tweeted a sample of the book that I found online. Read it here!

05 January 2013

Independent on Sunday articles on Sylvia Plath

The Independent on Sunday has two fresh articles on Sylvia Plath in the 6 January 2013 paper. Suzy Feay writes on "Curse that lasted half a century: New biography casts fresh light on Sylvia Plath's legacy" and Lesley McDowell does a brief book review of The Bell Jar.

The Feay article is the better and longer of the two. If you can tolerate the re-cap of what's gone on in the last 50 years, you will get some some great information from Andrew Wilson, whose biography of Sylvia Plath's life before Ted Hughes, Mad Girl's Love Song, is being published in either late January/early February by Simon and Schuster. When I first learned of Andrew's project and met him I was instantly attracted to his project because it focuses on a largely overlooked period of Plath's life. His book is must-read material.

This is just the beginning, too.

03 January 2013

50th Anniversary Edition of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar Published Today

Faber's 50th anniversary edition of The Bell Jar is officially published today (though it was made available in December 2012). I typically encourage people to purchase directly from the publisher, however, if you are not (do not reside) in the United Kingdom, then you may not be able to order directly from the publisher. I tried to order it for delivery in the USA and was told they were unable to ship to my country because they do not have the rights to sell it here. Amazon.co.uk, however, can. Good luck.

On 1 January, Sam Jordison at The Guardian selected Plath's The Bell Jar as the January Reading Group selection. Read the fine article and its comments here.

01 January 2013

Reading Dates for Carl Rollyson's American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

Happy New Year.

Did you miss me as much as I missed you?

Carl Rollyson, author of the forthcoming biography American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath (St. Martin's Press, 2013), will be reading from his book in various US cities. The list so far includes: (updated 16 January 2013)

January 25, 2013: 92nd Street Y, Tribeca Lecture Hall, New York, New York: 12 Noon

February 6: Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Missouri

February 15: Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Massachusetts

February 28: The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

March 21: A Room of One's Own, Madison, Wisconsin

March 26: Boulder Book Store, Boulder, Colorado

March 27: Tattered Cover, Denver, Colorado

As it is winter, please check with book stores to verify dates and times as weather related delays are always a possibility. I plan to attend the Cambridge, Mass. reading. I will plan on 1 February and 1 March to re-post this information with new dates added if there are any. Should any events in January crop up, I will endeavor to give as much notice as I can.

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath has had four early reviews in Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, and Library Journal. Expect more reviews around the official publication date of 29 January 2013. The book will be available in a Kindle edition, as well as in regular hardback by You can watch a promotional trailer for the book here on YouTube.
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