29 October 2013

Sylvia Plath Collections: Theodore Roethke papers

The Special Collections Division of the Allen Library at the University of Washington, Seattle, has a small cache of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes materials. These are held in the Theodore Roethke papers. Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) met Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in London at a party in London on 1 February 1961. She wrote about meeting him to her mother the following day, saying "I find he is my influence" (Letters Home 407).  Plath described him a bit, as well: "He's a big, blond, Swedish-looking man, much younger-seeming than his 52 years . . . Ted and I got on well with him and hope to see him again" (407). Plath's poems written at Yaddo were largely influenced by Roethke's "greenhouse poems" from his collection The Lost Son (Doubleday, 1948). Often Roethke's influence on Plath starts and stops with the likeness between her "Poem for a Birthday" sequence in The Colossus (Heinemann, 1960). However, perhaps Plath continued to receive inspiration from Roethke afterwards?

We interrupt this regularly scheduled Archive update to bring you a special Sylvia Plath: Did you know...

Did you know... Theodore Roethke's poem "The Far Field" appeared in the autumn 1962 Sewanee Review as well as the Times Literary Supplement issue on 21 December 1962. Those familiar with Plath will recognize the title of Roethke's poem as also being a line in the beautiful poem "Sheep in Fog."

Plath started "Sheep in Fog" on 2 December 1962 when she was still very much in Devon and familiar with its "substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances" ("Ariel", Ariel, 1965 36). Plath revised and finished "Sheep in Fog" over a month later on 28 January 1963. The time between start and finish saw Plath move to London, try to settle into her flat at 23 Fitzroy Road, and experience the publication of her novel The Bell Jar, among other things. Plath, a Sewanee Review and TLS poet in her own right, may have seen Roethke's poem when it first appeared in the Autumn issue of the Sewanee Review. Speculation like this may be far-fetched, but could Plath have been referring to this poem by Roethke? Plath was preparing to leave Devon, and all that Autumn had been riding a horse and experiencing the tor's, distances, and far fields offered by Dartmoor.

Now, back to the archive...

The Ted Hughes materials, in box 8, folder 4 of the Theodore Roethke papers, include two letters; two poems by Plath; and three poems by Hughes. Both letters can be dated roughly to December 1961. The first letter, typewritten, is from early in December 1961 and in it, Hughes discusses the practicalities of accepting - or rather turning down - a teaching position with Roethke at the University of Washington, saying that they need to establish a "tap-root" in Devon for about three years before they consider moving. The "tap-root" of course will immediately call to mind Plath's phenomenal poem "Elm" in which the speaking tree sympathetically declaims: "I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root" (Ariel 25). Hughes describes their house and property, and relates how tired of London both he and Plath were, saying that Plath is flourishing now and writing very well and that she listed Roethke as a reference for her recently submitted Guggenheim application. Hughes says he's enclosing one of Plath's newest poems and a couple of his. However, it appears he sent more: by Plath he sent "The Moon and the Yew Tree" and "The Surgeon at 2AM" and by himself "Pibroch," "Wodwo," and "The Burning of the Brothel." The second letter, handwritten, can be roughly dated to 27 December 1961. In this, Hughes refers to his previous note, saying that a teaching position is certainly not in the cards as they are just settling into a house, Plath's weeks away from producing a new child, so they are more or less "anchored" for a few years. Hughes asks Roethke to consider Peter Redgrove for the teaching position and describes Redgrove a bit.

Now, for Plath. Plath was a great admirer Theodore Roethke and sometimes an imitator of his poetry. In box 11, folder 4 of the Theodore Roethke papers, there is a letter from Plath to Roethke and a typescript poem. The typed letter is dated 13 April 1961 and addresses him affectionately as "TR." The letter accompanied a book, the 1960 Heinemann edition of The Colossus, the exact coy of which is for sale (see more about this book in this search). Plath asks Roethke for forgiveness for the last sequence of seven poems ("Poem for a Birthday"), which she admitted were written under the influence of his own poems, and mentions that she is in negotiations with Knopf for an American issue that will not include some of the sequence. Plath asks Roethke if he would be a reference for a Guggenheim Fellowship for her, and asks (reminds) Roethke to have his publisher send her a copy of I Am Said the Lamb (a book of poems by Roethke published in 1961 by Doubleday; WorldCat). Plath closed the letter with handwritten postscript saying that she was enclosing "Tulips". This is the typescript poem that is included with this letter. Plath inscribed the top of the typescript simply saying that this was for Theodore Roethke from her.

You can see more libraries that hold Plath materials on the Archival Materials page of my website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is. I would like to thank the estimable and fantastic Dr. Amanda Golden for letting me know about the Roethke papers and Chery Kinnick and Carla Rickerson at the University of Washington for their assistance.

All links accessed 25 September 2013.

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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.