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.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Hello from Smith College!

Greetings from Smith College on this beautiful autumn day (Mountain Day to be exact!). I landed in the USA two weeks ago and after a few days of pretending to be city cool in New York City, I made my way to Northampton, MA and started archival work at Smith College.

As I wrote in my previous post, Smith holds the majority of the adulthood papers on Sylvia Plath. Plath also attended Smith for undergraduate study and returned to teach here as a married woman with Ted Hughes. I wish to apologise for not updating this blog sooner (though I have been checking in with twitter) but to be quite honest, I have been having the time of my life here at Smith, with every minute taken up by interesting Sylvia Plath information, beautiful views and delicious cafe food. I have also left my camera lead at home in Ireland so it will be late October/early November before I can share pictures of my experience with you all. But the photographs will come!

The Plath archives at Smith are incredible. They are guarded over by a team of wonderful experts who have gone out of their way to accommodate me and any other visiting scholar who has come into the wonderful Mortimer Rare Book Room. Last week I had lunch with Karen V. Kukil - talking with her just brings everything about Plath to life. It really is so wonderful to have the chance to talk to such brilliant people. Sylvia's archives are divided up into different sections and I thought it might be a good idea to list them here, just so you all can understand the scale of available material at Smith.

  • Writings (includes poems, articles, novels, reviews, etc)
  • Correspondences
  • Personal papers (includes address books, calendars, financial materials, scrapbooks, etc)
  • School papers
  • Artwork
  • Ted Hughes (correspondence, writings, personal notes about S.P., etc)
  • Olwyn Hughes papers
  • Aurelia Plath papers
  • Otto Plath papers
  • Writings and artwork by others about Sylvia Plath
  • Articles about Sylvia Plath
  • Reviews
  • Audio visual materials
  • Photographs
  • Realia
  • Oversize materials (for example Plath's library)
As you can see from this extensive list, Smith really does hold an abundance of information about Plath. When I arrived last week, I spent a day familiarising myself with the archives set-up and browsing her artwork. From the next day, until now, I have methodically gone through each and every poem she has written, looking at the edits and revisions she makes to different pieces and wondering why. After that I want to look more closely at the various articles she wrote for different magazines and her personal correspondences and journals. Spending time at the archives has made me immediately more focused and enthused about my own dissertation, in fact I've had to take some afternoons away from the materials in order to focus myself and make amendments to my own plans of investigation.

The Plath poems are wonderful to look at. Trying to get inside her brain and unpick why she chose to remove certain words or add line breaks for example, is perplexing but fascinating work. To make things even more interesting, a good deal of Plath's poems are written on pink Smith College memo pages which definitely provides... illumination in the archive room!


Spending time at the archives so far has really made me re-connect with what I love the most about English Literature, and Sylvia Plath: the actual literature. Over the summer, I became so engrossed with critical theory and trying to align my argument with current critical thought, the beauty, strength and liberation Plath's poems give me kind of fell by the wayside. I feel very connected with Plath again, and am so glad!

Experiencing Northampton as a town has been a wonderful experience also. Walking the same streets that Plath walked, looking the place she used to live (photos of this will come!) and enjoying the wonderful learning environment that is leafy New England has so far, been an unforgettable experience. Everywhere you look, students are around. People in Starbucks talking about the courses they're taking, people sitting alone reading heavy academic books in cafes, discount-priced novels in every single shop... it really is kind of an academic dream here! And kind of like Stars Hollow from the "Gilmore Girls" if anyone ever watched that programme. In short, as much as I miss my family and friends, spending "fall" in this part of the world is just heavenly.

I hope to update a few more times during my stay here and will definitely post a huge picture update when I return to rainy, soggy Ireland :) If you want shorter, more sporadic updates and occasional grainy pictures, follow my twitter! I will finish this post with some beautiful images of Paradise Pond, a route I walked around just this evening.