01 December 2013

Sylvia Plath Collections: Peter Davison papers at Yale

There are 20 letters from Sylvia Plath to Peter Davison and other staff members of The Atlantic Monthly in the Peter Davison papers, held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut (PDF Finding Aid). The letters are in Box 7, in a folder labeled "Plath, Sylvia." Additionally, there are letters from Ted Hughes, and one from Aurelia Plath to Davison, dated 31 July 1982. Sincere, deep thanks need to be expressed to David Trinidad for pointing out this collection to us.

The letters are largely related to submissions of Plath's, but a few of them to Davison are more personal, newsy letters. Below is an inventory of the letters by date along with a synopsis of the letter. Unless otherwise stated, the letters are from Sylvia Plath.

12 February 1955, to Atlantic Monthly: Plath questions the five month wait for her submission of seven poems from 29 September 1954 ("Never Try To Know More Than You Should," "Verbal Calisthentics [sic]," "The Dispossessed," "Insolent Storm Strikes At The Skull," "Ennui," "Suspend This Day," and "Circus in Three Rings"); and submits six new poems ("Temper of Time," "Epitaph in Three Parts," "Dirge," "Rondeau Redoublé," "Danse Macabre", and "Prologue to Spring").

20 April 1955, to Edward Weeks: Plath sends in her revision of "Circus in Three Rings" under the title "Lion Tamer" but suggests that Editor Edward Weeks reconsider the original poem. She also submits five newer poems ("Lament," "The Lover and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea," "Epitaph in Three Parts," "Winter Words," and "The Princess and the Goblin") in hopes that they prove more consistent than what she had submitted previously. Plath mentioned that several of these new poems were judged winners in the recent Glascock Poetry Content and named-dropped the judges: Marianne Moore, John Ciardi and Wallace Fowlie. She calls particular attention to "Lament" and "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea". Plath's use of the Jedi Mind Trick here (the first documented instance of an American poet using The Force in history) worked, and Weeks took the original "Circus in Three Rings".

6 July 1955, to Edward Weeks: Plath expresses pleasure at having the original "Circus in Three RIngs" accepted, submits a re-worked "The Princess and the Goblins" along with a selection of new and shorter poems (though some with longer titles!): "Black Pine Tree in Orange Light," "A Study in Sculptural Dimensions," "Ice Age," and "Moonsong at Morning."

17 April 1956, to Edward Weeks: Plath inundates The Atlantic with 11 new poems. The only named poems on the internal staff review sheet were "Pursuit" and "Pigeon Post". "Pursuit" was accepted by them and appeared in the January 1957 issue.

30 September 1956, to Peter Davison: Plath writes a 4 page typed, single-spaced letter to Peter Davison and introduces the concept of Ted Hughes to him. A very long letter, then, Plath among other topics asks for writing and publishing advice; gives a run-down of her activities; discusses Hughes' adult fables like "O'Kelly's Angels" and "The Callum Makers"; and she mentions seeking his professional advice, remembering her hellish month as guest managing editor at Mademoiselle and dealing with editors, writers, contact, and manuscripts, etc. In the last paragraph Plath drops the bomb that she will be marrying Hughes, though of course she was already married...

3 October 1956, to Edward Weeks: Comments on the acceptance of "Pursuit" and submits a sheaf of new poems: "The Dying Witch Addresses Her Young Apprentice", "November Graveyard", "Aerialist", "Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives", "Panegyric", "Firesong", "On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up A Dryad", "Complaint of the Crazed Queen", and "Ella Mason and Her Eleven Cats". Weeks also asked about her poem "Two Lovers" but that had appeared in the August 1955 Mademoiselle (she submitted it in April 1955…The Atlantic was notoriously slow then in responding. She updates him on her activities and mentions the chestnuts bursting from their pods, which is a subject she sketched and wrote about in other letters at this time.

23 October 1956, to Peter Davison: Encloses Ted Hughes' manuscript of children's fables and expresses concern that their dealing with God and religion will not be a turn off to a cautious publisher. Plath mentions Hughes' work for the BBC and that she is writing poems and stories each day. She mentions Poetry's recent acceptance of six of her poems, and states that she is a non man-imitating female lyric poet the likes of which the world has never seen: criticizing Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Dorothy Park and especially Kathleen Raine in the process. Mentions, too, the recent article and sketches accepted by the Christian Science Monitor of Benidorm, Spain with four of what she considered her best sketches of sardine boats, market place, castle hill, Spanish staircase

13 November 1956, to Edward Weeks: an uncharacteristically short letter submitting three stories: "That Widow Mangada", "The Black Bull", and "Afternoon in Hardcastle Crags." The letter is graffitied with editorial comments.

19 November 1956, from Ted Hughes to Emilie McLeod at Atlantic Monthly Press: Responds to McLeod's comments on his fables and discusses revisions and asks for guidance in do so.

Christmas card, 1956, to Peter Davison: Handwritten note in a card announcing that she and Ted Hughes were married and living and writing and applying for teaching jobs in the States.

21 January 1958, from Ted Hughes to Edward Weeks: Sending two stories for consideration: "Grand Songs, Great Songs" and "Rats".

25 March 1958, to Peter Davison (on Smith Memorandum): Confirms plans to see Davison in Cambridge, Mass., on the following Sunday and discusses the prospects for living in Boston. Expresses displeasure at teaching other people's work and that she wants time to concentrate on her writing.

22 April 1958, to Peter Davison: SP sends her recent poems for consideration including "The Disquieting Muses" and "Snakecharmer". Plath mentions that Ted Hughes will be sending some shortly. Plath makes reference to the murder of Lana Turner's lover which was making news at the time. Davison had sent them some books, she thanks them. A note on the letter indicates the titles of them: The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung and Corruption by Nicholas Mosley (1957). Plath said she really admired the Mosley novel and the setting of the novel, saying that she's interested in the visceral, the real over the abstract.

27 April 1958, from Ted Hughes to Peter Davison: Sending poems to Davison and hoping that even if The Atlantic does not like them that he does. The poems were "Crow Hill", "Nocturnal", Dick Straightup", "Reflections", "Dream of Horses", and "The Acrobats". He mentions that Plath is delighted that they like two of her poems and that they were speedy about returning the ones they did not. Hughes thanks Davison for coming to his recent reading, especially in inclement weather; and asks about the Poet's Theatre grant program.

7 September 1958, to Peter Davison: From 9 Willow Street, Plath comments about the rainstorm she is witnessing; invites him over to tea; mentions her first New Yorker acceptances; their current writing projects; and follows up on their outstanding submissions.

2 May 1959, to Emilie McLeod: sending The Bed Book with its two star characters Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue and mentions that Ted Hughes is working on Meet My Folks.

7 May 1959, to Edward Weeks: Plath submits eight poems set in Massachusetts, Spain, and England, mentioning only one by name "Alicante Lullaby". Some of the others that warranted comment include "The Other Two", "Green Rock, Winthrop Bay", and "The Eye-Mote".

30 May 1959, to Seymour Lawrence at Atlantic Monthly: Submitting two stories: "This Earth Our Hospital" ("The Daughters of Blossom Street") and "Above the Oxbow". She asks for a faster verdict, saying that the last rejection took them six months. You go girl!

11 June 1959, to Emilie McLeod: Plath writes that she finds her two characters in The Bed Book now to be rather annoying and thanks McLeod for her suggestions and that she's currently revising it. Tries to set up a meeting before McLeod travels to Palo Alto (California).

3 November 1959, from Ted Hughes to Emilie McLeod: Submitting "Meet My Folks" and letting them know that the version that he is sending will be published as is by Faber in England.

22 December 1959, from Ted Hughes to Emile McLeod: Discussing "Meet My Folks" and says he isn't willing to re-write it just for an American publisher/audience but seeks to publish it as it is, as it will appear by Faber.

13 April 1960, to Peter Davison: Arranges to meet for dinner in London circa 2 May 1960 when Peter and his wife Jane will be passing through. Talks about the birth of Frieda Rebecca Hughes; praises the British Medical System; and asks about any word on her submission of three stories ("A Prospect of Cornucopia", "The Fifty-Ninth Bear", and "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams") from the previous fall.

7 November 1960: Submitting six poems: : "Leaving Early", "Candles", "Magi", "Love Letter", "Home Thoughts from London", and "Words for a Nursery"

30 September 1961, to Peter Davison: Talks about Court Green; submits a group of poems by Ted Hughes including "Wodwo"; and congratulates him on the birth of his son Angus, saying it was a great name. (Plath used the name "Angus" in a short story she wrote around this time called "Shadow Girl". See page 162 of Luke Ferretter's excellent Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study)

16 November 1962, to Peter Davison: Plath submits a massive batch of poems: "Fever 103," "Nick and the Candlestick," "Purdah," "A Birthday Present," The Jailor," "The Detective," "The Courage of Quietness [Shutting-Up]," "Lesbos," "Eavesdropper," and "Bees (5 parts)." The Atlantic Monthly accepted "The Arrival of the Bee Box" and "Wintering." Again, she asks for a speedy decision, mentioning that she's in need of money.

31 July 1982, from Aurelia Plath to Peter Davison: A long letter written after the announcement of Plath's Pulitzer for The Collected Poems, it discussions some of the aspects of Plath's posthumous life and publications and some of her memories of her daughter. A moving letter.

And of course, these summaries are relatively brief and do little justice to the originals.

Davison was in a relatively unique position from 1955, when he met Plath, onward. He was a temporary boyfriend of Plath, a man who was stone-cold used & ditched by Plath, her peer and editor, and after her death, a reviewer of her work, a poet who wrote poems about her, as well as an arbiter and judge of those writing about Plath. He held a position of authority in things Plath, but like Olwyn Hughes, he was in something of a position in which he likely did not belong. Being said scorned lover, it is something of a conflict of interest that he worked so closely with Edward Butcher, Anne Stevenson, and Olwyn Hughes: but these are things to discuss and debate possibly at another time.

In addition to these letters detailed above, the Plath materials in the Davison papers contains a typescript and proof of Plath's poem "A Winter Ship" (the proof bears Plath's signature indicating her approval of the typesetting), a lot of internal Atlantic commentary on the submissions by Plath and Hughes, and Atlantic staff letters to the poets. This represents a remarkable cache of materials and offers both sides of the submission/publication world. There are also articles on Plath, letters regarding Plath (fan letters and otherwise), writings by Davison, notes, phone messages, bookseller listings, materials relating to Edward Butscher's Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness and more.

You can see more libraries that hold Plath materials on the Archival Materials page of my website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is.

All links accessed 2 October 2013.


Sibéal said...

"and states that she is a non man-imitating female lyric poet the likes of which the world has never seen.."

Ha, brilliant!! I need to frame this letter.

Ugh, Peter Davison though... SP had the measure of him, "he fancies himself as a poet, as you know—but felt once he thought he’d shown off his power and glory, he would find it difficult or pointless to keep rejecting my good things, and so it has come to pass...". ;-)

The Plath Diaries said...

May have accidentally commented under a different Gmail account there! The P Davison criticism-comment was from me ;-)

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I think it is funny to read Davison's account of his relationship with her in The Fading Smile, because he presents himself as not appreciating her in the moment and pretty much dumping her, if I am remembering correctly.

I am always fascinated by the evolution of titles: how "Complaint of the Crazed Queen" became "The Mad Queen's Song" (per her day planner), and then finally, "The Queen's Complaint."

Peter, do you know if poems such as "The Princess and the Goblins," "A Study in Sculptural Dimensions", "Ice Age," "The Dying Witch[es/] Addresses Her Young Apprentice" and "Panegyric" became something else, or just faded into obscurity?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Julia, Thank you for your comment.

"The Princess and the Goblins" is in Collected Poems.

"A Study in Sculptural Dimensions" is actually "'Three Caryatids Without a Portico', by Hugo Robus. A Study in Sculptural Dimensions." Two version of "Three Caryatids" appears in Diane Middlebrook's essay in Eye Rhymes.

I know that Lilly holds typescripts of many of these poems including "The Dying Witch Addresses Her Young Apprentice" and "Ice Age" among them. (Sorry about the typo in my post for the title of that poem: "Witches" has been corrected to "Witch".) There are two versions of this; or, rather two different poems with this title. One we might call "Ice Age" and the other "Ice Age II", perhaps?

I'm truly wondering about "Panegyric" and would love to know more about it. A typescript may exist at Lilly, but Plath might also have changed the poem title, which will make tracking it down more difficult.


Anonymous said...

I always remember the discussion in Butcher's bio of Plath of the torment felt by Davison when she dropped him. Why though has that discussion been dropped? After all these decades, have positions changed and Sylvia become the aggrieved party in that "brief" (how "brief"?) relationship? Can someone enlighten me?

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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.