Saturday, 8 October 2011

Reflections on today.

Today was quite a difficult day at the archives. Since last Tuesday, I had focused most of my energy on looking at Sylvia Plath's poems. I went through every single one, noting different versions, different selections of words and wondering why. Today I finished up the poems and spent the rest of my afternoon looking at correspondences written to Plath about her work from various publishers, etc. I also looked at a few general letters too.

To be honest, I had to quit my day early. The letters to Plath were very tough to read. At this point in time, I do feel like I "know" Sylvia. I have always loved her poetry, I like her personality very much. Some of the letters were funny. The Observer poetry critic Al Alvarez writes to her in 1962 with something along the lines of: "Dearest Sylvia, yes - for god's sake I will meet you to discuss your poetry!"... the letters really show Plath's dogged ambition and determination to have her work read, reviewed and respected.

Other letters were different however. Two in particular made me feel very upset and prompted me to take early leave of the archives. Her Heinemann editor wrote in February 1963 asking why she had failed to turn up for lunch on the day they had agreed. The reason being, she was dead. To see an original letter typed out like that, dated and in cold immovable ink really struck me. The next letter of communication was between the editor the Ted Hughes, with the editor offering to look at any poems Plath had left behind her in a view to publishing them.

A second letter that proved upsetting for me was one between Plath and her long-term friend and one-time doctor/psychoanalyst, Dr. Ruth Beuscher. Beuscher counselled Plath following her breakdown of 1953 and the two kept in touch from that time, with Plath seeking further counselling from her when living in Boston with Hughes in 1958/59. In this particular letter, Beuscher sends Plath loving support in the wake of Hughes's philandering ways, advising her to look after herself as point number-one.

Reading such personal papers is a reminder to me that Sylvia Plath was a real person, with real friends, real feelings and a real life. A lot of the time Sylvia Plath's literary output is snobbishly put-down because of the kind of 'cult' that surrounds her (this is eloquently discussed in Janet Badia's essay The Priestess and her Cult which can be read, in part, here) and a lot of the time also, people look at her work and try and determine why she decided to end her life. I have always believed that to try and "diagnose" Plath and her life is not only a redundant endeavour, but an insulting one too. It is true that Plath and her writings are tightly intertwined, but when I sat in that archive room today and looked at the actual words of concern from Dr. Beuscher and thought of Plath alone in England in the cold, with maybe one or two letters a week offering strength, I feel so terribly sad in a real way and not in a literary sense. Plath really moved back to London alone from Court Green. It really was cold. She really had no money and two dependent children. That's reality - books and writing are surplus to that fact.

On that surplus and academic level - the only place I have a right to be present in relation to Plath - I know that the best thing I can do for her work, which she dedicated herself to so intensely, is to study hard and just look at and interpret the words on the page. I suppose the point of this entry is to reflect on the fact that while I'm very lucky to be at these archives and viewing Plath's papers, some of the materials are difficult to read. There are so many humourous, light-hearted, passionate, interesting and intelligent papers at Smith that show Sylvia Plath's love for life and desire to live. I think that these and the beautiful legacy of words she left for us are what I want to focus on.


Morgane said...

This was really interesting for me to read. When you gave us the list of documents you would find in the archives, I wondered if you could find that sort of papers, about that part of her life... I'm sorry it was upsetting. Hope you feel better now Maeve !

Anonymous said...

The connection between work/literary history and personal history is a difficult one to negotiate. It is humanity that makes you feel down - and that isn't a bad thing at all!

For me, working on living writers, there are some similar concerns. I sometimes find it difficult to write about their work as if they have been dead for 300 years.

Barthes - you are no help.

Rebeccak said...

As horrible as it sounds... having those moments when you feel so sad from reading archival material is why I love this gig. I love feel so connected to someone from the past, that you can live their ups and downs with them.

I'm sorry it was a tough day though. I think we all have them. I had a really frustrating final week in London, where I sifted through loads of boxes of material that was totally irrelevant, but that I thought *might have something good. Oh well! Such is life! Thanks for commenting on my blog, I'm really pleased I found my way over here :)

Anonymous said...

Might be of interest-Frieda Hughes has an article in this month's British Vogue on Sylvia Plath's drawings which are showing at the Mayor Gallery until Dec 17.

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