18 February 2016

After Sylvia Plath

When Sylvia Plath died she left plans in suspension. On 11 February, she was supposed to meet her new editor at Heinemann David Machin for lunch. He sent a letter on 12 February asking "Did something go wrong about our lunch date yesterday…" It is one of the most haunting and chilling documents I have ever worked with and is held by the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College. The rest of this post looks at some of the events which we know Plath had planned and commitments in the works and how some of them turned out.

On 12 February 1963, an article ran in the Financial Times titled "Cheltenham Festival of Literature". In the short article, which appears to the left, it was announced that "Sylvia Plath, Edward Lucie-Smith, and Jon Silkin are the three judges appointed to select the prize-winners of the Guinness Poetry Competition organised and in conjunction with the Cheltenham Festival of Literature…" (22). The article was reprinted in the Irish Times on 13 February 1963.

Plath herself had won the Guinness Poetry Award in 1961 for her poem "Insomniac" and she served as a judge in 1962 (awarding the prize to Richard Murphy for his poem "The Cleggan Disaster", which kind of sums of Plath's own experience in Cleggan in September 1962). In 1963, the winner of the Guinness Poetry Award at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature was none other than Assia Wevill's gossip-confidante Nathaniel Tarn for his poems "The Cure" and "Fountains Abbey Under Snow". No judge replaced Plath. Second prize went to Irene Dayton for her poem "Faust's Devil Walks Into Time Beyond" and third prize was awarded to Terence Tiller for "What The Giant Thought". Silken and Lucie-Smith also saw that Patricia Beer's "Epitaph in a Country Church Yard" and Ken Smith's "Means" earned some money and recognition from Messrs. Arthur Guinness. There was sadly no mention of Plath in the the Festival program printed that year.

In her 4 February 1963 letter to her mother printed in Letters Home, Plath wrote about several things to which she was looking forward: her college friend Marcia Brown Plumer (later Stern) visiting England in late March. Also, she had the "chance for three weeks in May to be on the BBC Critics program . . . Each critic sees the same play, art show, book, radio broadcast each week and discusses it" (498).

Plath met with Philip French, producer in the Talks Department of the BBC, on Friday 25 January 1963 and had a letter from him on 1 February 1963 offering the contract to appear as the broadcasting critic. Plath signed the contract and returned it. According to documents in the BBC Written Archives Centre read by the inimitable Gail Crowther, Plath's appearances were to be recorded on 2, 9, and 16 May and broadcast on 5, 12, and 19 May. There is no possible way to know that what was eventually broadcast would have been the same content had Plath appeared on the programs. However, it might in interesting to see the eventual participants in the program and what actually was discussed.

The amazing BBC Genome resources provides a glimpse at the participants of these programs which has been supplemented by materials held by the BBC Written Archives Centre:

5 May
Chairman, Sir Gerald Barry
Broadcasting: Jacques Brunius: That Was the Week that Was on BBC Television
Book: Karl Miller: Henry James: The Middle Years by Leon Edel
Art: J. M. Richards: Exhibition of new work by Ben Nicholson at the New London Gallery, Old Bond Street
Film: A Alvarez: Woman of Summer directed by Franklin Shaffner at the Carlton Haymarket
Theatre: T. C. Worsley: Looking for the Action at the Prince Charles Theatre

12 May
Chairman, Sir Gerald Barry
Book: Karl Miller: Denton Welch, a selection from his published works, edited by Jocelyn Brooke
Art: J. M. Richards: New Zealand House in the Haymarket
Film: A. Alvarez: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane directed by Robert Aldrich at the Warner Theatre
Theatre: T. C. Worsley: Measure for Measure at the Old Vic
Broadcasting: Jacques Brunius: A Right Crusade by Henry Livings, shown on BBC Television

19 May
Chairman, J. W. Lambert
Art: J. M. Richards: Exhibition of Sculpture by Philippe Hiquily at the ICA Gallery
Film: A. Alvarez: Winter Light directed by Ingmar Bergman at the Berkeley and the International Film Theatre
Theatre: T. C. Worsley: All Square by Alan Melville at the Vaudeville Theatre
Broadcasting: Jacques Brunius: In Our Time: R.H. Tawney broadcast on the Home Service
Book: Richard Findlater: Portrait of a Jew by Albert Memmi translated from the French by Elisabeth Abbott

From October to December 1962, Plath was abuzz at the prospect of being asked by the Poetry Book Society in association with the Arts Council to produce an "American Poetry Night" at the Royal Court Theatre in the summer of 1963. The Festival of Poetry took place from 15-20 July 1963. Plath & Hughes participated in the 1961 Festival of Poetry at the Mermaid Theatre organized by John Wain in July 1961. The 1963 event was at the different venue and was organized by Patric Dickinson. According to the program for the event, a copy of which was kindly given to me in 2013 by Rosemary Clark when Gail Crowther and I gave a reading at Plymouth University, the American Poetry Night was held on 16 July 1963 and was presented by Eric Mottram, with assistance from John Hollander and Jonathan Williams. In addition to Hollander and Williams, the poets involved, as listed either in the program or in contemporary newspaper articles about the event, were Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, and Ronald Johnson; Guy Kingsley Poynter read from Paterson by William Carlos Williams. I do wonder which poets Plath would have invited? The evening was reviewed in the article "An Experiment with Poetry", The Times, 17 July 1963: 13. Ted Hughes participated and read during the Festival; it is unknown if any memorial words for Plath were said.

All links accessed 10 January 2016.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

So much left undone.

Very interesting article and perspective, Peter.

BridgetAnna said...

Julia, my sentiments exactly. What a tragedy. Nothing less than tragic.

boston12855 said...

I agree with Julia. It's all so heartbreaking. I remember one of her classmates from Wellesley High telling me one time, "I never think of Slyvia in the past tense. She remains in the present tense."

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.