Friday, 15 October 2010

Sylvia Plath archives at University College Dublin

I took a trip to Dublin yesterday to view the Archive Catalogue at University College, Dublin. These archives have a collection from Jack and Maire Sweeney. Jack was a curator of various important poetry rooms throughout his career, particularly the poetry room at Harvard (where he insisted on making a recording of Ted Hughes and later, at Ted's prompting, Sylvia). His wife was a prominent folklorist who was educated in UCD. They seemed to be a very active and social couple, as the archives held on them at UCD contain letters, cards, poetry excerpts from a variety of well known writers such as Thomas Kinsella, Marianne Moore, Phillip Larkin and of course, Sylvia Plath. Many of these letters and cards are notes of thanks for a nice weekend had at their Irish home in Corofin, or thanks for their critiques of various work these writers had sent them.

On a personal level, visiting UCD was the first time I had gone specifically to look at archives pertaining to Sylvia Plath. I was filled with a sense of excitement - to be able to look at her handwriting, to see if she drew in the margins of her correspondences, even. The staff at the archives in UCD were so helpful and kind, the whole area they have for using the archives is really great. Good use of space, great facilities and archivists who want to help you find what you need. I had half expected to be handed a huge box of dusty papers and spend hours sifting through documents, but with the help of the staff at the archives centre, I was able to read what I wanted in quick smart time!

In answer to my original wondering - Sylvia Plath doodled! Any letters she had sent the Sweeneys in the collection had all been typed up, much to my dismay. However she did sign the letters in her beautiful round writing style. She did not have round tails on her letter "y", rather it just went down in a straight point with no curl. That was all I could assess from the letter correspondence. But imagine my suprise when I came upon a Christmas card she had sent in the winter of 1960. After the "Wishing you warm Christmas greetings" inlay message, Sylvia had written "From Sylvia, Ted and Frieda" and in the gap between the inlay message and Plath's own text were three little doodles of stars!

How wonderful it was for me to see those little drawings. In that one glance at those drawings, Sylvia Plath became so much more human to me. Not just the genius I'm completely intimidated by, or the interesting biographical figure, or the muse of the Manic Street Preachers.. It made me think of her, as an actual human being, writing her Christmas cards; putting humour and a bit of personality into the card by including those small drawings. It was a very humbling experience to see that.

Aside from the Christmas card and two type-written letters written by Plath to the Sweeneys (one letter thanking them for their hospitality and another arranging when to meet Jack Sweeney in order to have her poetry recorded); the rest of the archival material were letters that merely discussed her. Chilling, was the letter sent to the Sweeney family notifying them of her death, describing her funeral, detailling what Ted was doing in the wake of it all. Sometimes studying Sylvia Plath is so tremendously sad. But then I think of how people fixate on the these gossipy aspects of her life and it gives me conviction - I will not allow my study to be trivialised by the easy option of sticking to the mere biographical facts. I want to do the Sylvia Plath who drew little stars on her cards justice - focus on the literature and what that says. Focus on the ink that's on the paper, rather than speculation.


Carl Rollyson said...

Can you tell me how long the Plath archive has been at the university? I'm wondering if previous biographers has access to it.

The Plath Diaries said...

According to the UCD archives website the bulk of the collection was transferred in 1988, so I would imagine any Plath biographer from that date onwards have had access to the materials. If you click the link in my blog post, that will take you to the main UCD archival page, which might answer any other questions you have!


So exciting! Really enjoyed reading that. I wish you well on your Phd journey.

The Plath Diaries said...

Thank you so much Nuala! :)