15 January 2020

The Indefatigable Sylvia Plath

On Thursday, 9 January 2020, I had the privilege to share the stage with a panel of Sylvia Plath scholars--Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick (organizer and presenter), Heather Clark (presenter), and Janet Badia (respondent)---at the MLA conference in Seattle. Our topic was "New Developments in Sylvia Plath Studies: Archives, Biography, and Feminism". The audience was small, but that did not have any bearing on our passion for our respective pieces.

After my talk, entitled "The Indefatigable Sylvia Plath", Heather presented "P(l)athography: Sylvia Plath and Her Biographers" which provided an overview of the role Plath biographies have played in pathologizing their subject. This was followed by Julie's "'Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children': Sylvia Plath's Representations of Assia Wevill", an investigation on Wevill's role as a muse in Sylvia Plath's poetry. Janet responded with an eloquent summation of our talks asking the question "Who is Sylvia Plath?". This was poignant, because the more we think we know, the more we must realize that we have not yet come close to pining down who Sylvia Plath is. (I follow Janet's use of the present tense here).

The below is the text of my talk which was vastly different from my proposal. Sorry. Not sorry. I planned originally to discuss my role in editing The Letters of Sylvia Plath but I struggled to effectively get a more-or-less, tried and true, 30-45 minute talk down to about 12 minutes and have it hold together.

The bold font is an indication to me to advance the PowerPoint slides. I have included, in most instances, very small jpgs of the slides. They are so small for copyright reasons, but I hope give a flavor what the audience and panelists saw. Some quoted text has also been redacted, also due to copyright. Thank you for your understanding. Some slides are full-size, though likely not the ones you really want to see. I have placed these slides in the text as close as possible to their relevance. And, I have decided to enhance it in parts to links that you may find useful and/or helpful.

The Indefatigable Sylvia Plath

Peter K. Steinberg, MLA Seattle, 9 January 2020

In working on the two-volumes of Sylvia Plath's letters, I had the privilege of full access to her archival papers which are dispersed among more than 50 libraries, archives, and private collections around the world. I was permitted to have photocopies and scans made of the materials, as well as to take photographs. Acquiring thousands of pages of paper and digital files enabled me to have at my fingertips unparalleled access to documents Plath created. This talk seeks to illustrate just how industrious Plath was.

Sylvia Plath was born on the 27th of October 1932 in Boston and died on the 11th of February 1963 in London. That is 11,064 days. At six weeks old, she began imitating vowel sounds; at six months, she could say "gully-gully" when offered a bottle. Mrs. Plath thought it was an attempt to say "goody-goody", which is what she typically said to her daughter at feeding time. At 15 months Plath recognized the mailman – a practice she would continue for all of her days waiting on acceptances, rejections, and payments for her work, as well as letters from the various people with whom she interacted.

 Plath started writing at an early age. Her first dated and saved poem that we know of is titled "Thoughts" and was written in 1937 when she was five years old. It reads: "[redacted]". It is a simple poem of two unrelated lines and it is certainly deeper in meaning, I am sure, than anything I can come with, even at my advanced age. The themes of her earliest finished poems were predominantly nature, the weather, fairies, friends, and her family. Her first published poem appeared in August 1941. She was nearly nine years old.

By 1945, Plath was making final, fair copies of her poems in a notebook and illustrating them. In her diary that year, Plath wrote on the 17th of August: "[redacted]". That notebook is held by the Morgan Library.

From 1937 to 1963, poetry was a constant endeavor for Plath. In her lifetime, she saw her poems appear more than 200 times in newspapers, journals, magazines, and books. Her 1955 poem "Prologue to Spring" was printed and reprinted seven times in newspapers, journals, and pamphlets. Her Collected Poems—which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982—did not even print all of the poems Plath wrote in her lifetime. It published 226 poems written between early 1956 and February 1963 with an additional 50 written from before 1956. There are two full poems, pieces of five poems, and a translation tucked away in the Notes section at the back. That is a total of about 284 poems. The volume failed to include many previously published pieces. Did you know she wrote at least 600 poems? Doing the math, 47% were in Collected Poems. This means that 53% of Plath's poems remain either uncollected or unpublished to general readers who do not have ready access to archives.

Plath's prose is even more interesting. In 1979 Plath's estate published Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams which assembled 23 pieces of short fiction, 4 works of nonfiction, and some journal entries. Removing the journal entries, that's 27 prose works. Dozens of works she published were left out of that book, including the majority of stories she published in Seventeen magazine such as "And Summer Will Not Come Again", "Den of Lions", and "The Perfect Setup". "Den of Lions" won third prize in the magazine's short story contest, earning Plath a $100 prize. "The Perfect Setup" received honorable mention the following year.

Here is a breakdown of Plath's prose.

She wrote at least 76 short stories; at least 50 pieces of nonfiction; more than 50 press releases during her time at Smith College; as well as 8 book reviews. That's a total of at least 184 works of prose in various genres. Also, there are almost 30 extant prose fragments—works she created and probably completed but for which there are only smatterings of pages remaining. There are many works she wrote that simply do not appear to survive. Compared to what was in Johnny Panic, and including the recently published short story Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, just 15% of Plath's prose is widely available in bookstores and libraries.

Plath was a dedicated diarist who began keeping a log of her life in 1944, initially and dutifully recording her days with the greeting, "Dear Diary". However, once she was nearing the end of junior high school, she said "When the big moments come, one page is not enough." So until she got her first undated journal for Christmas 1946, Plath often had to shrink her handwriting down to get double the text on her ruled pages. Her published journals cover 1950 to 1962, but the period covering 1944 to 1949 is only to visitors to the Lilly Library.

Plath took an early interest in art and the visual representation of the things of this world. She studied art in school and even received private instruction in the summer of 1949. At Smith College she took courses in basic design, medieval art, and drawing and painting. In addition to her journals and letters, Plath graffitied her college notebooks and books in her personal library with scores of uncatalogued pieces. In all, Plath created hundreds of line drawings and sketches with pen and pencil, collages, and watercolors, pastels, woodcuts, charcoal, and paints.

I could easily talk for forty-five minutes on Plath's letters but I am compassionate and will spare you that grief. The two volumes of The Letters of Sylvia Plath publish more than 1,400 letters to about 150 recipients. But based on the references in her letters, diaries, and archives, Plath likely wrote at least 700 more letters to dozens of other people that are either lost, or destroyed, or being cruelly, nefariously, hoarded by private owners. In tracing her letters, I found them in archives between Jerusalem and Seattle. In transcribing them I sought to be as faithful as possible to get you—the readers—as close to the original letters as I could. In researching and writing the majority of the 4,300 or so footnotes, I endeavored to provide contextual and relevant information to further bring Plath's vigorous experiences to life. But all that work came with a cost.

Plath read or worked with more than 1,200 books which I have compiled and made accessible on LibrayThing.

Plath was the subject of more than 300 photographs.

There have been nearly 200 books about Plath published and more than 2500 articles written about her. She is regularly on Jeopardy! Her work has been translated into nearly 50 languages, as well as Braille.

Sylvia Plath wrote poems. A lot of them. She wrote prose persistently, experimenting in several different genres. She wrote letters incessantly. She kept diaries for about twenty years, and created several personal and publication-related scrapbooks. For the majority of the last 12 years of her life, Plath kept detailed wall, desk, and pocket calendars which record a tornadic A to Z of events in her life including: acceptances, assignments, auditions, baking, baths, books, cities visited, clothes bought, childbirth, concerts, conversations, courses, daffodils picked and sold, dances, dates, deadlines, doctor and dentist appointments, earnings, employments, encounters, exams, exercise, finances, gardening, hair washings, heartbreaks and a kaleidoscope of other emotions, hospitalizations, illnesses, instructions, interviews, laundry, lectures, letters written, marriage, martinis, meals, meteorological observations, movies, naps, papers, people, phone calls, piano playing, planes, plays, radio programs, rejections, reminders, schedules, scrapbooking, sex, showers (alone), showers (not alone), sightseeing, singing, submissions, sunbathing, therapy, tears, trains, visitors, and works created, to name but a few. Sylvia Plath was a sunrise, always. Sylvia Plath was indefatigable.

Thank you.

It is a really brief overview of Plath's personal and creative writing life. But I feel it very well represents an energy, a drive, that is often overlooked, or even ignored, in considerations of her life.

A post panel drink and conversation was very nice. I bailed early but heard later that Julie, Heather, and Janet closed the joint down.


AS Berman said...

Hi Peter. I hesitate to ask such a banal question after all the well-thought out details you've included both in this post and on this blog, but do you know if there are any books in the works focusing on photographs of all of the ephemera related to Sylvia Plath (e.g., notes, marginalia, auction items, photographs of the poet)? I loved The Ghostly Archive because it began to scratch the surface in prose form (with a few wonderful photographs), but it really seems high time that there was some type of coffee table book dedicated to her. (Incidentally, love the second volume of the letters – I don't know how you managed to annotate this set so thoroughly but it's greatly appreciated.)

Mark Mabberley said...

Speaking as someone that owns the three volume 'Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti' and now reading that as much as 53% of Sylvia's poetry is uncollected, I wonder if there will one day be a 'Complete Poems of Sylvia Plath' and if, like the Rossetti volumes, it will be an 'a variorum edition'. It took nearly 100 years for Rossetti's poems to be collected, so perhaps I shouldn't hold my breath.
However, I imagine that some of Sylvia's poetry like some of her prose has not survived, especially if the verso was used for other writing by either Sylvia or Ted Hughes.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Mark! Most, if not all, of Plath's poetry is accessible through the various archives (primarily Indiana, Smith, and Emory). I know of some people who are endeavoring to get such a book as a Complete Poems out, but as you might imagine it's a very long term project. ~pks

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you, AS Berman, for your comment and your kind words on the Letters. I just tried to assist readers to the best of my abilities in identifying the things that Plath mentions. I wasn't perfect---couldn't ID everything---but I did give it my best effort. There are no plans that I know of for such a book but I think it would be a tremendous thing. There was a book of photos of Anne Sexton that came out some time ago that is beautiful. And a similar Plath one would be ace. If you haven't see Eye Rhymes I'd recommend checking that out as it's got great reproductions of a lot of Plath's artwork and many other archival items. It's out of print, but used copies should be available for reasonable prices. ~pks

AS Berman said...

Thank you for the tip about Eye Rhymes – I will definitely check that out, and yes, the Anne Sexton book you mention ("Anne Sexton: The Last Summer" by Arthur Furst) is a great template for such a work. - Aaron

Anna said...

Dear Peter,

Thank you for providing the text of your talk. I really love it! I had the pleasure to listen to you in Belfast and you know how much I was on cloud nine about it! ;) You are a wonderful speaker and you know how much I admire your knowledge!

Over 600 poems is an incredible numer! I totally agree what a wonderful book it would be to have all of them collected and accessible!
What also really saddens me is the fact that here is so little of Plath's prose out there for the reader without any access to the archives. I love Plath, the prose writer, and I always regret that the "Johnny Panic" volume receives so little love by the general reader. :(

Also, do you know if the other talks by Heather and Julie are accessible somewhere?


Peter K Steinberg said...

Hello Anna! Thank you for your great comments. I appreciate them very much. I do not think the other papers are online, sorry to say. So you're stuck having just mine. With so much attention on Plath's journals and letters since 2000, I think and hope we're entering an era were her creative works will be made more widely available. We've gotten snippets in the Restored Ariel and Drawings...but we do need the poems and more prose. ~pks

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