The following is the text from a paper I presented on 12 March 2022 for the Sylvia Plath Society's "Sylvia Plath Across the Century" conference. I am grateful to Dr Dorka Tamás, Kitty Shaw, and Julie Irigaray for organizing and hosting this important conference. A recording of this talk is available on the Sylvia Plath Info YouTube page.
Sylvia Plath was a part of three Kathryn Irene Glascock Poetry Prize competitions. In April 1955, she was a participant. The archive at Mount Holyoke holds the two photographs of Plath with Marianne Moore and her fellow contestants on the left. The other images come from Plath’s scrapbook held by the Lilly Library. Another instance whereby piecing together aspects of Plath’s life and work spans the physical boundaries or building and states. Additionally, Mt Holyoke has typescripts of the poems she read including "April Aubade", "Danse Macabre", "Epitaph in Three Parts", "Lament", "Love is a Parallax", "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea", "Verbal Calisthenics", and "Winter Words".
Plath was deemed a co-winner by her co-judges Marianne Moore, John Ciardi, and Wallace Fowlie. The competition was written about in the Christian Science Monitor and included photographs and excerpts from the poems. The poem of Plath’s excerpted was “April Aubade.” The co-winner, William Key Whitman published a chapbook entitled The Dancing Galactic Bear in 1974. Plath met and befriended Lynne Lawner who became a correspondent over the next six years and published two books of poetry: Wedding Night of a Nun (1964) and Triangle Dream (1969). Lawner also later participated in the Spring of 1957.
In 1958, she was a member of the audience. She heard Janet Burroway, a later acquaintance in England, read and win. Plath intended to write in her journal about the event. On the 1st of May she wrote: “A scrambled page to profit from coffee-consciousness and moments before starting out for class: I shall try, later, to record that memorable Friday recording poems in Springfield with Lee Anderson, plus the Glascock Reading & party at Holyoke, with the cast of characters present” (376). A few days later she referred to it again, but wrote nothing specific other than that it was one of those “colored days & nights” (378). Judges in 1958 that year were poet Adrienne Rich, curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room John Sweeney, and poet and teacher Rolfe Humphries.
Various additional contestants flitted past Plath over the subsequent years including 1953 participant David N. Keightley; fellow 1955 contestant Donald Lehmkuhl (studying at University of Cambridge when Plath was on a Fulbright), 1957 winner Robert Ely Bagg (who was somehow at Pier 92 in New York City in June 1957 when Plath and Hughes arrived there from England), and two-time reader in 1957 and 1958 Michael Fried (at Oxford in 1960 when Hughes gave a reading there). Plath, Lawner, and Lehmkuhl each appeared in the very somewhat confusingly titled Best Poems of 1955: Borestone Mountain Poetry Awards 1956 which was published in 1957. Lawner won first prize for her poem "Wedding Night of a Nun"; Lehmkuhl second prize for his poem "Hart Crane"; and Plath got third prize for "Aubade."
However, the year when Plath was a judge in 1959 has received less attention than it perhaps deserves. In fact, many biographies ignore it completely. Paul Alexander in Rough Magic gives the event one nice sentence. There is nothing in Edward Butscher, Linda Wagner-Martin, Anne Stevenson, Ronald Hayman, Carl Rollyson, or Heather Clark.
Participants hopeful of competing in the Kathryn Irene Glascock Poetry Prize competition had to have their manuscripts to the committee by 15 March 1959. By the 8th of April, the line-up of young poets was settled.
They were in alphabetical order:
Carole Battista, Connecticut College, Class of 1959.
Katherine Greene, Vassar College, Class of 1959. Winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize at Vassar.
Alfred Matthew Lee, Yale University, Class of 1960. Was a professor of English and the humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.
Peter Livingston, Tufts University, Class of 1959; and a graduate from the School of Medicine, Class of 1963.
Augustus Y. Napier, Wesleyan University, Class of 1960. He is a HarperCollins author who wrote a pioneering book on family therapy entitled The Family Crucible.
Jon Roush, Amherst College, Class of 1959. He published The Shape of the Harp: Translations and Poems (Honors Thesis. No. 3. Amherst College, 1960).
Moira Thompson, Mount Holyoke College, Class of 1959.
The judges for the competition in April 1959 were John Crowe Ransom, Plath, and Marie Boroff, who was a colleague of Plath's in the Smith College English Department in the 1957-1958 school year. The prior year judge Humphries received an invitation to attend, in part possibly as he was local, teaching at Amherst College, as well as the Mount Holyoke College English department. Other invitees to the after-reading party included college students Susan Pogue, Elizabeth Speakman, Janice Saybolt, Sandra Igor, Marjorie Benedict, Karen Jensen, and Janice Cort.
Plath and the other judges were sent the schedule by Joseph Bottkol in a letter dated 10 April 1959. He asks how Plath will be arriving, telling her that perhaps they can be met at Springfield or Holyoke if they are not arriving by their own car. Plath and Hughes stayed in the Faculty Club and they were advised to check-in at the Book Shop Inn next door. Marie Borroff received a similar letter but Ransom, as the headlining judge, received some preferential treatment. He was driven from Amherst College where he taught and he got to stay in the "Guest Room" in Abbey Hall. He was accompanied from Abbey Hall to the Faculty Club for cocktails.
The Glascock contest in 1959 started late in the afternoon on Friday the 17th of April. The schedule that day was as follows:
5:00 Cocktails in the Faculty Center
6:15 Dinner in Abbey Hall
8:00 Reading in New York Room in Mary Woolley Hall
9:30 Party afterward at the residence of Irish writer Denis Johnston and his second wife, Betty Chancellor, at 10 Jewett Lane.
The main dinner in Abbey Hall included a sixteen person guest list which consisted of the competitors, committee members, and judges (and Ted Hughes). Some of the additional people present were Joyce Horner, Joseph McGrath Bottkol, Janice Cort, Virginia West, and Ben Reid. Preparations for the event entailed the ordering of place cards, purchasing flowers (forsythia) from the Plant House for the New York Room and a small arrangement as centerpieces for the dinner tables.
The following day, Saturday the 18th, the schedule was lighter:
11:00 Reading by John Crowe Ransom
12:15 Lunch at the Book Shop Inn
Plath was seasoned to the procedures of the Glascock competition. As a participant in 1955, she experienced the dinner, the reading, the camaraderie, and interviews to name a few aspects. She also read some poems over the college radio station; would those recordings be extant! She was particularly taken with her breakfast in bed the morning after the reading which was followed by a forum on translations with the judges.
Plath, too, knew of the waiting period while the judges thought about the readings and made their decisions. A week after the contest, 25 April 1959, Plath wrote a two-and-a-half page, single-space letter discussing the young poets, voting for Roush to win first place. Her comments then went to, in order of ranking, Alfred Matthew Lee, Katherine Greene, and Carole Battista. She commented on, but did not specifically rank, Augustus Napier, Peter Livingston, and Moira Thompson.
Boroff sent in a single page of notes on Roush, Livingston, Lee, Greene, and Napier. But she does not seem to rank them and they are listed here in the order in which they were scanned when I requested copies. Ransom's rankings were as follows: Greene and Roush were given first and second place, respectively. Third place was an ambivalent tie between Napier, Livingston, Thompson, and Battista. Seventh place went to Lee.
The winner in the 1959 contest was Jon Roush, as was mentioned. Some years, such as Plath's 1955 contest, there was a tie. Some years there was honorable mention. And some years a second place was awarded, such as in 1951 when Donald Hall of Harvard University finished second to Robert Colleen of Tufts University. Starting in 1960, second place has been consistently awarded, and this may have been the unofficial start of the participation trophy phenomenon.
In May, Plath received a check for $15 for the expenses she incurred attending the contest.
Plath was both a participant and a judge in England for the Cheltenham Festival. These earlier experiences in the Glascock prepared her for that and I hope this paper has provided some context for Plath's involvement in poetry competitions.
I would like to back-track for just a few moments to talk a bit about Plath and Ransom. Ransom seems to have been a poet that Plath and Hughes read deeply and consistently---in fact, we know from keynote speaker Amanda Golden’s work on Plath’s teaching syllabus that Plath taught Ransom in the spring of 1958 to her first year students at Smith College. Yet, there is very little information from Plath on actually meeting the man. On being asked to judge alongside Ransom, Plath wrote to Lawner on 11 March 1959, "I don’t know whether to laugh or be silent" (Letters II 306).
However, Ransom’s influence on Plath was highlighted a couple of times in the early 1960s. The first appeared in Bernard Bergonzi’s review of The Colossus entitled “The Ransom Note” in which he says, “It is evident that she has learnt a good deal from such poets as John Crowe Ransom and Theodore Roethke: yet their influence is assimilated to Miss Plath’s highly personal tone and way of looking at the world.” And then by Kenneth Allot when he included her poems "Frog Autumn" and "Metaphors" in his Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse 1918–60 (2nd edition), published in 1962. In his introduction, Allott stated: "and I have claimed Sylvia Plath as English because she is married to an English poet and settled in this country, although she was born in Boston and the main literary influence on her work is John Crowe Ransom" (16).
This admission that Ransom was an influence came from Plath herself. In the biographical gloss included with her poems, Allott wrote that Plath’s two poems have a "pleasant flavor of John Crowe Ransom (whose poems, Sylvia Plath admits, she once had by heart). His presence is perhaps a shade too obtrusive in 'Spinster', which is nevertheless a good poem, but is usually present more remotely as an atmosphere in the attractively oblique way of looking at things and the refinement of the writing" (389). In her letter to Allott, Plath specifically referenced Ransom’s Selected Poems, a book now held by Smith College.
Please accept my sincere apologies for missing the opportunity to include the letters from Sylvia Plath cited in this paper in Volume II of The Letters of Sylvia Plath.
My thanks to Deborah Kloiber, College Archivist, Connecticut College, and Micah Broadnax and Debbie Richards at Mount Holyoke College.
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