01 June 2017

The Secret Is Out: Sylvia Plath's Hidden Poems

Well...so while I was away on holiday, news broke by Danuta Kean of the Guardian in her article "Unseen Sylvia Plath Poems Deciphered in Carbon Paper" and the report seems to have swept through social media. The story discusses something Gail and I wrote about in our recently published book These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath.

While we discuss the finding of two lost Sylvia Plath poems ("Megrims" and "To A Refractory Santa Claus") in the book, some of the "information" in the articles that followed Danuta's was so misleading that it warrants some comment here.

First of all: the book, on Sylvia Plath and not just The Bell Jar, is already out and can be purchased through Amazon.co.uk and Book Depository (free international shipping). It will officially be published in the United States in October but do not let this deter you from buying it now.

Second of all: the poems are not published in the book, though they are discussed. I do not think they necessarily lend a lot of information into Plath's relationship with Ted Hughes, but that is for each of us to decide.

Third of all: These Ghostly Archives has nothing to do with Kirsten Dunst and Dakota Fanning's adaptation of Plath's The Bell Jar. This is partly the fault of the publisher, Fonthill, as they decided to market our book with a bullet point about the film and this has lead some in the media to confuse the two very separate and unrelated projects. There was an attempt made to have the information about Dunst and Fanning removed from their press release but the request was ignored. As well, I explicitly asked them not to reproduce the photograph of me with the actresses, but this was also ignored.  This level of disrespect of alarming.

Here is some official information and I apologize if this is boring or unnecessary. It just seems kind of warranted.

I first saw the carbon on a research visit to the Lilly Library in January 2010 when I was at the Lilly Library on a Helm Fellowship working on another project (Sylvia Plath's library). I made a mental note of it.

At the end of my first day of research on a subsequent visit on 16 March 2015, I decided to revisit it and it was then that its contents and significance dawned on me. In the interim between 2010 and 2015, I accumulated a wealth of resources and information which included having transcribed all her pocket calendars. The confluence of that work and looking again at the carbon made the discovery possible. In a blog post about the research visit, I spilled the beans saying "I made an exciting discovery" but did not want to, at the time, be too forthcoming.

Zach Downey and Jody Mitchell at the Lilly Library supplied digital images of the carbon for me on 17 March 2015. Upon request, they sent more the following year on 15 February 2016. It was at that time that I finally started working on the carbon in Photoshop and I was astounded at what could be done with the program; what could be revealed and what, also, proved still more elusive and ghostly. I remain confident that someone and someday that more will be deciphered.

Some of the process or methodology, possibly the most important part other than the actual texts of the poems, is discussed in the book so I will not reiterate that here. But it was an eye-straining, painstaking process: at times frustrating and frequently enlightening.

It was really difficult to keep this find from you but it seemed to be an essential micro-story in the larger tales of our archival experiences that Gail and I discuss in the book. At this time, I am sure you all understand, it is not possible to print the poems or really to discuss their contents but am hopeful that one day they will be made available with as much of them provided as is possible.

Here are some the articles that I found that were published on it (a Google search for "To A Refractory Santa Claus" yield about 743 results!). However it must be stated that as of 1 June, only The Guardian and the BBC have actually reached out to Gail and me for interviews so anything else is a derivative and very often misrepresents something.

Chopin, Allison. "Unknown Sylvia Plath poems, lost play by Edith Wharton discovered by scholars." New York Daily News. May 27, 2017.

Donovan, Louise. "Two Unseen Sylvia Plath Poems Have Been Found And We're Very Excited." Elle UK. May 26, 2017.

Ferro, Shaunacy. "New Poetry by Sylvia Plath Discovered in Her Archives." Mental Floss. May 26, 2017.

Kean, Danuta. "Unseen Sylvia Plath Poems Deciphered in Carbon Paper." The Guardian. May 25, 2017.

Oulton, Emma. "Never-Before-Seen Sylvia Plath Poems Have Been Discovered In The Back Of A Notebook." Bustle. May 25, 2017.

Palit, Maya. "Two Unseen Poems of Sylvia Plath have Surfaced and We Just Can't Wait to Read Them." Lady Fingers. May 25, 2017.

Shanahan, Molly. "Two Secret Sylvia Plath Poems Have Been Discovered." Debrief. May 25, 2017.

Sylvia Plath's unpublished poems discovered. Times of India. May 26, 2017.

All links accessed. 29-31 May 2017.

P.S. On my holiday to New Zealand and Sydney, Australia, I took my copy of These Ghostly Archives with me and photographed it in various locations.

Atop Rangitoto Island, looking toward Auckland

On the Devil's Staircase, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand

At the Te Puia geyser, Rotorua, New Zealand

At the Sydney Opera House, Australia
And, lastly, editing the Letters of Sylvia Plath by the water...which I think is something of which Plath would approve!

On Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

Lake Taupo, New Zealand


PoetryJett said...

All very interesting, Peter . . . as always, thanks for posting. Also, good to know you are back home safely.

A Piece of Plathery said...

Thank you Peter for providing this information. What a fabulous experience and discovery. OMG when were you in Australia? Though I am so far from Sydney :)

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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.