11 February 2017

Numbering Sylvia Plath's Poems

At the time of Sylvia Plath's death on 11 February 1963, a vast amount of her papers --the majority perhaps-- were in her mother's house at 26 Elmwood Road in Wellesley. These papers now form Plath mss II at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington. Aurelia Plath would later gave nearly 250 items to Smith College in December 1983.

Have you ever worked with Plath's early poems at the Lilly Library (or at Smith or Emory, where there can be found also some copies)? The poems are in Box 7 (poems A-M) and Box 8 (poems N-Z). Additionally, many of Plath's early poems have recently appeared at auction and if you have taken the time to view the images online, you may have noticed small penciled-in numbers in the top right corner. Here are two examples from recent auctions:

From Sotheby's December 2014 auction: Numbered 3b

From Bonhams' March 2016 auction: Numbered 21/2
Tucked away in the back of Plath mss II, Box 15, Publications Scrapbook, are four folders which hold 109 items that include, per the finding aid, "80 envelopes and folders with notes by Aurelia S. Plath". When I was at the Lilly Library in March of 2015, I luxuriated in working with these folders and was able to make lots of notes on these notes. These envelopes and folders indicate how the collection (poems, letters, etc.) was housed before the Lilly Library took ownership in 1977.

There are not just notes by Aurelia Plath, there are also some of Plath's own papers. Among these are typed authorial notes for two unnamed poems that were part of a "Setting Assignment" and an acknowledgement receipt of her manuscript Two Lovers and a Beachcomber from the Yale University Press (dated 21 February 1957). And a host of other really interesting documents that, unfortunately, I did not get the chance to work with in full. I suppose some stones initially have to be left un-turned, and it makes a return visit to the Lilly not only likely, but essential.

There are five pieces of paper in folder 67 that catalogs many of Plath's early poems. A four page document records 117 poems (with some duplicates) and an additional sheet lists another 27. For the most part, those little penciled-in numbers sync to these pages.

The first set of four pages is headed "Poems Pre 1954"; the other page is titled "Poems -- Sylvia Plath -- some copies". Both appear to have been compiled by a person identified only by her/his initials "M.H.F." and were dated 2 February 1975 and 3 February 1975, respectively. These dates correspond nicely with the period discussed by Judith Kroll in the 2007 Foreword to her incomparable Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (see page xxiii, etc.).

Here are the poems and their numbers. The first document of 117 items is first. Many poems have check marks next to them (indicated in the list below with "[check]") and I believe this indicates the number of copies. So, no check most likely means one copy. One check means two copies, etc. This is reflected, probably, in the appearance of either a second number or a letter next to the numbers. So, for example, "Doomsday" below has four check marks. This should mean there are typescript copies numbered 11, 11/2, 11/3, and 11/4. In this case, the Lilly does actually hold four different typescripts of "Doomsday". Actually, there are six typescripts of "Doomsday" in box 7a: the aforementioned 11, 11/2, 11/2, and 11/4, as well as a copy numbered 51 and an unnumbered copy. At some point or other, many copies of other poems became separated -- these are the ones you may see now at auction.
Poems Pre 1954 2/2/75 M.H.F.
1 – Ice Age
2 – Circus in Three Rings
3 – Song
4 – Ennui
5 – "Suspend This Day"
6 – Dirge in Three Parts [check]
7 – Admonition [check] [check]
8 – Parallax [check]
9 – Verbal Calisthentics
10 – Paradox
11 – Doomsday [check] [check] [check] [check]
12 – Mad Girl's Love Song
         a Villanelle
13 – The Dispossessed [check] [check]
14 – Denouement [check]
15 – "Never Try to Know More Than you Should" [check] [check] [check]
16 – "Never Try to Trick Me With a Kiss" [check]
17 – Sonnet Doom of Exiles
18 – Van Winkle's Village
19 –A Peripatetic Sonnet
(by a peripatetic Smith girl)
20 – The Trial of Man
21 – Sonnet: Crossing the Equinox [check] [check]
22 – To a Dissembling Spring [check]
23 – Dialogue en Route (2 pages)
24 – Jilted [check] [check]
25 – Aquatic Nocturne
26 – Chef d'oeuvre
27 – Crime Doesn't Pay
28 – Desert Song
29 – Pan
30 – Sonnet to Satan

31 – Dirge for a Maiden Aunt [check]
32 – Cinderella [check] [check]
33 –Sonnet for a Green-eyed Sailor [check]
34 – Moonsong at Morning
35 – Advise for an Artificer [check] [check] [check]
36 – Notes to a Neophyte
37 – Black Pine Tree in an Orange Light
38 – Song of Eve
39 – Second Winter [check]
40 – To a Jilted Lover
41 – On Looking into the Eyes of a Demon Lover [check]
42 – Song for a Thaw
43 – On the Futility of a Lexicon
44 – Danse Macabre
45 – Ice Age [check]
46 – Sonnet to a Shade [check]
47 – White Girl Between Yellow Curtains
48 – The Dream
49 – Prologue to Spring [check]
50 – Winter Words (2 pages)
51 – Dirge (2 pages)
52 – Love is a Parallax (2 pages)
53 РRondeau Redoublé [check] [check]
54 – Temper of Time
55 – A Sorcerer Bids Farewell to Seem [check]
56 – Metamorphoses of the Moon
57 – Rondeau [check]
58 – Morning in the Hospital Solarium
59 – Item: Stolen, One Suitcase [check] [check]
60 – Insolent Storm Strikes at the Skull
61 – Circus in Three Rings [check] [check] [check] [check]
62 – Notes on Zarathustras Prologue
63 – The Complex Couch [check] [check]
64 – The Scullion's Dream [check]
65 – Triolet Frivole [check] [check]
66 – Bluebeard
67 – humpty-dumpty
68 – The Dead [check]

Poems Pre 1954 3 2/2/75 M.H.F.
69 – Ballad Banale
70 – Mid-summer Mobile
71 – Carnival Nocturne [check]
72 – "Suspend This Day"
73 – Ennui [check]
74 – To the Boy Inscrutable as God
75 – Sonnet Doom of Exiles
76 – Dialogue en Route [check]
77 – Comment in "Dialogue en Route".
78 – Paradox [check]
79 – Ennui
80 – Van Winkle's Village [check] [check] [check] [check]
81 – The Dead [check] [check] [check] [check] [check] [check]
82 – Sonnet: The Suitcases Are Packed Again [check]
83 – Go Get the Goodly Squab [check] [check]
84 – The Trial of Man [check] [check]
85 – aquatic nocturne [check] [check] [check]
86 – Sonnet to a Dissembling Spring
87 – Sonnet: To Eve
88 – Sonnet: To Time [check]
89 – Dirge for Abigail
90 – The Bronze Boy [check] [check]
91 – City Wife [check]
92 – (Female) Autor(ess) [check]
93 – The Invalid
94 – I Am An American
95 – April 18
96 – Solo
97 – August Night
98 – Incident [check]
99 – Dirge for a Joker [check] [check]
100 – Ode on a bitten plum
101 – Sonnet
102 – Voices [check]
103 – The Grackles
104 – The Farewell
105 – The Stranger

106 – Fog
107 – Virus TV (We Don't Have a Set Either)
108 – Humoresque
109 – Family Reunion
110 – Portrait
111 – All I Can Tell You Is About The Fog
112 – housewife
113 – March 21
114 – we two have gone together (first line) (Marcia)
115 – Marcia (3 pages)
116 – she will be always (marcia)
117    Words of Advice To An English Prof
Now for the second document:
Poems – Sylvia Plath – some copies 2/2/75 M.H.F.
1 – Go Get the Goodly Squab ('53)
2 – The Complex Couch
3 – Morning in the Hospital Solarium [check]
4 – Epitaph in Three Parts
5 – Song for a Thaw
6 – Mid-summer Mobile
7 – Spring Sacrament [check] [check]
8 – Wayfaring at the Whitney – a Study in Sculptural Dimensions [check]
9 – Spring Song to a Housewife
10 – Complaint
11 – Prologue to Spring [check] [check]
12 – The Dream
13 – New England Winter Without Snow [check] [check] [check]
14 – Danse Macabre [check] [check]
15 – March 15 Muse
16 – Terminal [check]
17 – Triolet Frivole
18 – roundeau
19 – Winter Words [check] [check]
20 – Dirge [check]
21 – Notes on Zarathustra's Prologue [check] [check] [check]
22 – Complaint
23 – Elegy [check]
24 – Temper of Time [check] [check]
25 – Apparel for April [check] [check] [check] [check]
26 – Eve Describes Her Birthday Party [check] [check] [check]
27 – Harlequin Love Song [check] [check] [check] [check]
Peculiarly, a number of these poems are listed twice with two different numbers. I have not yet totally sorted out what this means -- if a second listing/number means either oversight or possible carelessness on the part of M.H.F. or perhaps another poem with the same title but with different content. In the second list, for example, the poem "Complaint" is numbered 10 and 22; yet the Lilly only has a typescript of the poem with the pencil notation of 10. The typescript for "Complaint", aka 10, is a poem Plath wrote on 6 February 1955 and bears a Lawrence House address in the top right. However, Plath wrote and published another poem called "Complaint" in March 1950 in her high school newspaper, The Bradford so it could be that a typescript of this earlier poem was numbered 22. And a poem like "Winter Words" appears on both lists, number 50 in the first one, and number 19 in the second. And, further some poems have numbers that do not appear on either of these lists, suggesting there was at least a third numbering scheme in the works. An example is Plath's poem "Bereft" which does not feature on these lists, but bares the penciled number 24 on the multiple copies held by the Lilly: 24, 24a, 24c, and a copy with no number. Where is 24b?

The numbers on the poems always had baffled me. Am I alone? And finding these lists tucked away as they are opens up some understanding as to Aurelia Plath's organizational processes. It must have been a terrific challenge to be a custodian of these papers and to view them objectively in light of the emotional pain of memories that each one may have carried.

All links accessed 18 October 2016.


suki said...

It sounds like someone needs to spend a long time comparing lists and poems. What an entertaining exercise....

Peter K Steinberg said...

Sue!!!!!!!!!!!! I couldn't agree more. I'm going to try to find the time to compile such a list. I just cannot see that the numbers actually mean something. I would have loved for them to signify something like chronological order, but that clearly is not the case. Yet another reason why I want a time machine. ~pks

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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.