Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Literary Pilgrimage

Today would have been Sylvia Plath's 78th birthday. I often think, had she lived, she would still be writing fantastic poetry and touring around the country, reading it, reaping all the accolades that have been bestowed upon her posthumously. There are so many great artists, entering their seventh decade of life on earth who are still producing and enjoying artistic creativity in a variety of ways.

What with it being Sylvia Plath's birthday, I am provided with a mirror opportunity - allowing me to document how I spent my birthday last March - where my friends and I undertook a pilgrimage to the village of Heptonstall, Yorkshire to visit her grave.

For any Plath fan hoping to undertake such a trip, I really would recommend it. The village of Heptonstall is very easy to get to, despite being in the middle of the English countryside. For my trip, I flew into Manchester city and my friends and I travelled by car. It took around one hour from Manchester city to arrive at the village. For those thinking about taking a trip but do not have the luxury of having a car (or a good friend to drive you!) although Heptonstall is not connected directly by train, the village of Hebden Bridge is the closest town to Heptonstall and approximately a 45 minute train journey from Manchester Picadilly. If you plan to come from London or Scotland, it should be relatively easy to plot your journey using the National Rail website.

Heptonstall itself is a tiny place (see picture below for evidence of the main street!). It has one street and residents only are permitted to park in the town. However, there are two designated car parks on the outskirts of the village and everything is within walking distance. If you have taken the train, Hebden Bridge is roughly three miles from Heptonstall and bus services run daily. The distance could be easily walked by the more outdoor-sy Plath fan and it also gives a great opportunity to see the landscapes that Plath was inspired by in writing 'The Colossus' and also to get an idea of what influenced Ted Hughes and where he came from. Personally I found the scenery to be quite beautiful, in an ugly way. The drive to the village is filled with moors and odd-shaped lakes as well as yellowed grass. However the village itself is much greener and hugely hilly. The hills in fact elicited quite a few exclamations of anger from my driving friend as to why I had dragged him to this particular part of England!

Once in Heptonstall, there are few amenities. So if you wish to bring flowers or a token, I would recommend purchasing it in Hebden Bridge or somewhere else beforehand. There is a small cafe that sells potted plants on the main street - fortunately there were some tulips for sale, which I purchased. Couldn't resist the poetic resonance. What may suprise visitors to the Plath grave site is that there are not any clear markers that Sylvia is buried in the graveyard. It is difficult to locate the grave, we finally found it because we knew what year she had died and followed the graves appropriately. There have been so many arguments over Plaths' grave: people chipping off the 'Hughes' surname, for example. So you can imagine my sadness upon finding the grave untended, dead flowers still lying on it.

Visiting the grave of Sylvia Plath raises a lot of questions - why is she buried here? Shouldn't someone be employed to at least tend to her grave? Shouldn't there at least be a sign signifying that one of the best writers of the twentieth century is buried here? There questions I feel, reflect an interesting trend in Plath analysis. Sifting through old newspaper clippings about Sylvia Plath as part of my PhD research, I found the majority of the articles are journalistic speculation mixed in with a few 'I was the secret lover of Ted Hughes' articles from gossipy tabloids.. It seems to me that the sensationalist free-for-all regarding the Plath legacy is part and parcel of overshadowing her actual work, and this is shown clearly in the state of her grave: people get invested in flimsy conversation pertaining to Plath but forget about the integral aspects - like her literary contribution. People find the time to scrape 'Hughes' from the gravestone but no-one picks off the dead flowers from a decidedly lonely grave of an American girl buried with no-one beside her in a distant country village which would, I believe, be a very dark and lonely place in the long winter nights.

That said, going to visit the grave of Sylvia Plath is worthwhile, for any fan. To be able to go there any pay respects and acknowledge that the words of Sylvia Plath affected you in your life, is important. I think it's important to the memory of Sylvia Plath as well. What was further, very interesting - we took a pub lunch in one of the two pubs in the village. The bartender (in his late 60s at least) who clearly knew that we were from out of town, quizzed us on why we were there. We replied that it was to visit the grave. He began to tell us about the day of her funeral, and all the people who attended, how sad a day it was. I thought it was amazing to get that kind of first-person account - allowing myself as a scholar to add it to the different accounts I have read so far about the surrounding facts on the day from correspondences and the like.

If you do plan to visit this area of England, the town of Hebden Bridge is a great place to stay over, which will allow you a lot of time to explore the surrounding area and take your time in viewing the grave and the village of Heptonstall. A list of various accommodations is provided here. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any more questions about getting there!

**On a side-note, a special Plath Profiles supplement was released today in honour of Sylvia's birthday. For more information, please head over to Sylvia Plath Info for a description on the new articles and a link to the Journal. I found the 'Hidden in Plain Sight: On Sylvia Plath's Missing Journals' by David Trinidad especially an interesting read.

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.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Last Letter in the New Statesman

I went out with friends for a few drinks last night and when I got home, I noticed my answering machine had four messages in the space of a few hours. I knew something was up - it seems that our girl Sylvia had been mentioned on the news last night! My friends and family had gotten so excited, they had to call me about it!

A Ted Hughes poem, reflecting on Sylvia Plath's suicide has been unearthed and is being published in the New Statesman. The article I have linked to in the New Statesman contains images of versions of the poem Hughes wrote. The poem itself, called 'Last Letter' (and three other versions of the piece) are archived in the Hughes Collection at the British Library. Here are some of the leaked quotes from 'Last Letter':

"What did happen that Sunday night?
Your last night?
Over what I remember of it."

"Then a voice like a selected weapon
or a carefully measured injection
coolly delivered its four words deep into my ear
your wife is dead."

This news story is receiving a lot of coverage in the UK media at the moment, being referenced on BBC1 and Channel 4 news, written about in The Independent, as well as being the most viewed article in the book section of The Guardian. The story has also made waves across the pond, being talked about in the blogosphere of the New York Times. I think this is a testament to not only the popularity of Plath and Hughes but also the emerging new information pertaining to them. As a student hoping to make an original contribution, it is discoveries like this that whet the appetite!

Monday, 4 October 2010

Some poetry and professionalisation on a Monday

I am now three weeks into my PhD and life has been hectic. On top of trying to adjust to a new way of life, studying again instead of a 9-5 administrative job; there have been a series of meet-and-greets and seminars that I've had to go to. Sometimes the amount of people you meet and new skills you are informed you need to acquire can get overwhelming, so I've made sure to take time to myself each day, take a walk or listen to a favourite music album (anything by Ryan Adams), just to make sure I keep a handle on all this new information!

It has been so amazing to spend hours poring over the work of Sylvia Plath again. I find myself going off in tangents, reading papers from a million different slants of outlook - from the influence of Plath on Irish Poetry (I kid you not) to analysis of the "Birthday Letters" collection by Ted Hughes. I think my favourite among that collection is 'Visit', a poem that details Ted Hughes drunkenly roving around the campus at Cambridge, throwing sods up at a window he thought belonged to Sylvia. Although I want to steer clear of romantic notions and biographical gossip in my readings of Sylvia Plath and the literature surrounding her, I did think that the poem was full of beautiful sentiment:

"..She fed snapshots
Of you and she did not know what
Inflammable celluloid into my silent
Insatiable future, my blind-man's-buff
Internal torch of search. With my friend,
After midnight, I stood in a garden
Lobbing soil-clods up at a dark window".

In my mind, that whole scene is clear, Hughes has described it so well. I really do think the inclusion of so many words that begin with and feature the letter s gives the verse a really sultry and earthy feel. As well as the hyphenation surrounding blind man's buff.. It's as if the sentences want to go on forever - they feel hazy with nostalgia. To be fair I am not the biggest Hughes fan in the world, I find his poetry very simplistic but certainly 'Visit' has grabbed my attention.

I do hope that my reading will start to become more honed as time goes along though - there is little point flitting from one subject area to another without organisation. I hope that is a skill that comes with time, though - being able to organise what area you are going to read up on for the day and sticking strictly to it.

In terms of Professionalising the PhD, what I have learned so far is that UK and Irish Universities expect a lot more from their students than just the qualification. It is really important - and I think this is something vital to take into consideration if you are thinking about doing a PhD - for the Universities to train their students in research methods, teaching and other skills like communication, computer literacy, organisation. In my opinion, training students up with these kinds of qualifications can only be beneficial in the grand scheme of things. With the Irish economy in serious trouble and the UK about to administer what I can only imagine to be huge cuts across the board, as students - no matter what discipline we are studying in, the problem is that it's a minute area of study. Upon emerging from a PhD, it's a case of being qualified for a tiny market of jobs, with certainly more applicants than jobs going. So, in heeding the advice of people like Bill Clinton, the only way we can hope to have an advantage in this day and age is to sound the battle cry and get the qualification. Know how to work powerpoint? Get a certificate to verify it. Organised a conference? Get a management certificate to prove it! I do think it's a great thing that Universities are showing such foresight into the seriously rocky employment arena that we will all enter into, much sooner than we think.

Also, in attending these seminars and in speaking to friends who have already completed their graduate study, the same book keeps getting referenced. I bought it recently and can see what all the hype is about. "How to get a PhD" by Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh is the publication in question. It deals with a great spectrum of would-be problems and challenges you may face when studying the the PhD and is written in a friendly way, so it's not a mass of do's and don'ts written in boring block format. I would highly recommend this book to those of you out there thinking of applying for a PhD in the coming future. It was about this time last year I started motivating myself in terms of my research interest and putting out feelers to various academics who had research interests in what I wanted to do for my PhD. Having this book and being able to read the chapters on "Getting into the system" would have been a great help to me - even in terms of something small like email etiquette. I really do recommend this publication.

Tomorrow I have an important meeting with my supervisor in order to help hammer out my thesis title properly. I aim to have the title cemented some time in the next week or so. I believe if I at least start out with a strong base, even if my readings along the way motivate me to alter the title again at some stage, having a strong starting point is very important. So today my short-term goal is to not get distracted by supplementary literature and just put pen to paper and revise, revise, revise!