From the archives: A Year’s Turning

As well as poetry and novel manuscripts, furniture, sketches, paintings, and domestic items, the archives at Smith College hold personal pieces from Sylvia Plath’s life that spring up from the cardboard folders unexpectedly. What is quite moving about these finds is often how small they are and how well they have been looked after. The petal of a rose is pressed and preserved in an envelope. A lipstick kiss is blotted on a piece of paper, not even smeared.

One of my favourite pieces, and timely for December, is a handmade Christmas gift tag that Plath made for Ted Hughes. Using her pet-name, Ponter, Plath provides ‘a riddle in three tries’ to the present wrapped inside. The residue of the tape she used to attach it to the gift is still visible, with a slightly brown and crumbly texture. The tag itself looks as though it has been cut from a larger sheet of wrapping paper featuring black and cream swirly scrolls. It has a fold down the middle that is starting to wear in the crease. I do not know which year Plath made this.

It is a playful piece and a fitting way to end a year’s look at archival pieces. Peter K. Steinberg and I opened our book These Ghostly Archives with the sentence, ‘Archives are magical places.’

And really, they are.

riddleriddle verso

From the archives: Messages from beyond

Often archives are places where professional items are discovered; something that can be unearthed and used to further knowledge or share information or even explain a prior silence. But occasionally when I’ve been working in archives, I have had deeply personal encounters that are just as powerful in their own way as finding something previously overlooked like a new poem or letter.

When I was sixteen years old, I read my first biography of Sylvia Plath by Linda Wagner-Martin. One moment in the book struck my teenage self and stayed with me, though I could not really say what it was about this story that affected me so. Wagner Martin recounts that in November 1962 when Plath has been flat hunting in London with hopes to escape a winter in Devon, she finds by chance a place in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, that is available for rent. It just so happens it is in a house once occupied by W.B.Yeats. Excited at the prospect of living in such a place, Plath applies for the flat and returns to Devon.  Here, one evening in her living room, for fun, she asks W.B. Yeats for a message from beyond. Randomly opening her copy of his Collected Plays she points to a passage which read “Go then, get food and drink, whatever is wanted to give you strength and courage. Gather your people together here, bring them all in. We have a great thing to do, I have to begin – I want to tell it to the whole world. Bring them in, bring them in, I will make the house ready.”

At sixteen years old this struck me as quite eerie. It was all so uncanny; the chance encounter of finding the house, even thinking of asking for a message, and then getting one so pertinent. The odd coincidence was felt by Plath too who wrote to her friend Ruth Fainlight on 20 November ‘I was scared to death but very excited.’ It was however a small feature in Wagner Martin’s account that really struck me. Plath underlined these words in her book and annotated them with ‘Nov. 13, 1962 The prophecy – true?’ The not-knowingness of Plath when she wrote this confounded my teenage self as I realised how messy time could be, and how melancholic. Such an inscription filled with hope, confused my sixteen year old brain, because I was reading it knowing exactly how it all ended, written by somebody who had no idea at all.

The story stayed with me.

In 2011 when I was spending a week in Smith College Archives, I found myself alone in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. It was a completely silent and still afternoon. Facing the shelves holding Plath’s personal library, I saw her copy of The Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. If I had known it was there, I had forgotten, so the shock of it was quite physical. Pulling it from the shelf, I knew exactly what I was going to see for the first time when I flipped open to page 347. It was Plath’s annotation and in that moment there was a poignant convergence of my teenage years, the passing of time, the stories that stay with us, and of course, Sylvia Plath.

Here it is.

yeats_prophecy

From the archives: When absence speaks louder than presence

James Joyce claimed that absence is the highest form of presence. When you encounter an empty space in the Sylvia Plath archives, the temptation is to fill it with speculation. But sometimes an absence can force a different perspective, as though a loss of some sort needs to be filled. It is hard to leave a visible vacancy alone.

Sylvia Plath’s 1962 Letts Calendar held at the Smith College archives has two missing pages, and the absence of these pages fascinates me. The first covers the dates 9-15 September, when Plath and Hughes engaged in a disastrous trip to Cleggan in Connemara, Ireland.  The second missing page covers 7-13 October when Ted Hughes returned to Court Green after the breakdown of their marriage to finally pack his possessions and leave for good. The pages of this calendar are held together by a sort of black, spiral spring-binding at the top of each page. Given this document is fifty-six years old, it is in remarkably pristine condition. There is no evidence whatsoever that two pages have been removed. No lingering trace of torn out paper in the spiral. It is simply as though they never existed at all.

october 1

We do not know who removed the pages, or why. What we do know is that the pages were used at some point. When I worked with this document, I was able to see vague imprints of the missing pages on each surface underneath. In particular the week of 7-13 October had at some stage quite violent strike-throughs of whatever was originally written on that page. It was not possible to decipher what it was. The pages either side of that date show standard domestic and business matters – baking shortbread, neighbours to afternoon tea, riding lessons on Ariel, learning German for beginners.

october 2

What happened during the missing week? Intertextual reading shows Hughes spent almost the entire week at Court Green; ‘Ted is in love, humming, packing, leaving this week.’ While all of this was going on around her, Plath not only wrote letters to her mother, to Ruth Beuscher, to Warren and Margaret Plath, but corresponded with Howard Moss at The New Yorker about the publication of ‘Elm’, and within the same week sent out two batches of poems, one set of which was the bee sequence. Also during this week, she wrote ‘Wintering’, ‘A Secret’, ‘The Applicant’, and ‘Daddy’.

Hughes finally left on Thursday 11 October (the day Plath wrote ‘The Applicant’) and she rounds off the missing week in the calendar on the final, silent, absent day with the lines ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’ In one of the most tumultuous and creatively productive weeks of her life, I am fascinated by this missing page. What did it contain that it had to be removed? Who removed it, and why? What had been so violently scribbled out and erased?

I suppose we will never know the answer to these questions. Yet I come back to one poem Plath wrote that week, ‘Wintering’, a poem that never fails to move me. Those final three stanzas. The missing calendar page for Tuesday 9 October blasts us with its absence. I see Plath in her study, long elm-plank desk on her red rug. A view across to the church and the gravestones, to the yew tree, her flower beds, and her peach tree. She surely must have been listening to part of her life being packed up, ready to leave. She asks if her brother and his wife will take her on holiday in the spring, she needs something to look forward to. She does not know what will happen or how she will recover. And then she writes the words that, for me, fill that missing page:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas

Succeed in banking their fires

To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

From the archives: ‘Ich, Ich, Ich, Ich,/ I could hardly speak.’

german in review

If you look at Sylvia Plath’s copy of German in Review held in the archives at Smith College, you will immediately notice a striking feature about it. The cover has been defaced with two stab marks and has been hit with such force that the indentations reach through to page 44 of the volume. Apart from this, the book is in rather good condition given its age and the distance it has travelled. On 2 October 1956 while living in Whitstead, Newnham College, Cambridge, Plath wrote to her mother in Wellesley, Massachusetts asking her to post this book across the Atlantic as once again she was going to try and learn German.

This ongoing, and frankly agonising, battle with the German language lasted for all of Plath’s life. While on the one hand she felt an affinity with what she called her ‘father-mother’ tongue, on the other she was simply unable to grasp the grammatical structure and sentence construction of the language. Her journals and letters are full of her torment. How much she wanted to learn and understand German while berating herself for being too ‘dense’ or ‘lazy.’ Page after page she urges herself to study and read, yet it seems one of the few areas in life that Plath simply could not comprehend.

letters index
Index from Plath’s Journals listing all of her attempts to learn German

These efforts even seemed to feature in her romantic life, with a 4 August 1954 letter to her boyfriend Gordon Lameyer saying, ‘thinking back, of how dear you were to agonize through all the german with me…’ More dramatically to her mother on 5 October 1954, she claims ‘I am going to learn German or perish in the process…’ Even in March 1962, less than two months after giving birth to her son, Nicholas, she is once again urging herself on and her latest efforts appear on her Letts wall calendar for German study and reading.

march 1962

This item, then, in Smith archives, the German in Review, violently stabbed twice on the cover raises all sorts of questions. Did it accidentally get damaged the many times it moved around the world between different apartments and houses?

I do not think so.

When you handle it and turn the first forty or so pages, you can easily see the damage is deliberate. Somebody has taken a sharp object and punctured the cover and the opening pages.  Was it Plath? Did she finally release her frustration by stabbing her grammar book? And if so, when? Did she record doing this in her ‘missing’ journals? We simply do not know. But this archival object is disquieting. One can’t help but feel that there is a story attached to it that eludes us. It is unsettling and a little sad. And another silent archive story, waiting to be told.

From the archives: The Archival Stretch

This month’s ‘From the archives’ blog post is a guest piece from Peter K. Steinberg who shares some of the research methods he used while compiling the footnotes for The Letters of Sylvia Plath and he questions what actually is an archive? What can we class as an archival document?

The Archival Stretch

Peter K. Steinberg

One of the aspects most enticing about Sylvia Plath is her archive. Remembering my first visit to Smith College in May 1998, I saw for the first time that I knew nothing about the poet and writer. Happy I had been with Collected Poems, Letters Home, and the [abridged] Journals.[i] But that first visit opened new metaphorical doors. More realistically, it opened new works, new photographs, and so much more. But Smith is a small piece of the confusing puzzle with some pieces here and some pieces located quite a bit farther away.[ii]

However much we try to grasp what these traditional archives hold, we must also remember they are massively incomplete. Neither Plath nor, more alarmingly, her mother saved every scrap of paper generated. We know of absences. There are some infamous ones. For example, where is Plath’s note saying she was going for a long walk (or hike) from 24 August 1953? Where is the telegram Ted Hughes sent to Plath’s aunt Dorothy Benotti announcing her death? Perhaps still with the Plath family? Perhaps understandably not retained for the emotional pain they undoubtedly recall.

In These Ghostly Archives, Gail and I introduced our notion of the ‘living archive’. I will not go into that here, but certainly do encourage you to read about it there. With this post, however, I hope to stretch further, still, what we consider the Plath archive. In this instance I want to discuss the admittedly more tangential, ephemeral ‘things’ that Plath encountered. In my work as a co-editor of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, identifying text that warranted explanation as well as the writing of the footnotes fell nearly exclusively to me. I made use of so many of Plath’s own documents but these told me, and subsequently you, only so much. So as a matter of routine I would need to seek other materials such as magazines, books, newspapers, and more such as student, departmental, and corporate files in many archives to obtain as much contextual information I could for the footnotes. And it is this material that I think stretches the Sylvia Plath archive just a bit farther.

On 7 November 1955, Plath writes to her mother, ‘Also went out to dinner at the Union (the one place in Cambridge where women are not allowed unless escorted: the debate club) and saw a rather good repertory production of my favorite “I Am a Camera” (which you remember we saw with Mrs. Cantor and the Braggs, I think) which made me want to turn immediately to writing again’ (Letters, Volume 1: 1003). It was the first mention of I am a Camera but though written  in 1955, sent me back to 1953. I found a reference in Plath’s 1953 calendar where on 4 April it reads, ‘Chinatown – rice & sweet & sour pork / “I am a Camera” – Cantors Mrs Bragg’s’.

This still was not everything. For the footnotes I always tried to provide the locations of places Plath visited, largely, in part, because this information is interesting to me; and as an editor, I felt I had the obligation to take as much work off the readers’ shoulders. This instance required finding out both where Plath saw the performances: at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge (via Cambridge Review) and at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston (via Boston Globe).

Camera_Arts_CambridgeCamera_Wilbur_BostonCamera_Wilbur_Globe

 

The folder that I kept of this supporting documentation contains to 551 files. I still refer to them to this day even though the project is done. I am not a camera, but I am curious: do you consider these kinds of documents to be a part of the Plath archive? Or, is it a stretch?

Endnotes:

[i] Actually, that is a patently false statement as I was completely dissatisfied with Letters Home.

[ii] I try to keep an up-to-date list of Plath’s archives on my website. To this end, in September or October, I am going to publish a Google Spreadsheet called the ‘Sylvia Plath Archival Documents Hub’ that lists the location of all of Plath’s creative works (poetry and prose), letters, and photographs. The goal is to have, in one place, textual access to each retained document in those genres.  It will be flexible, and in time I hope to add more content to it. Documents like the journals are not in there as they are held in just a couple of places.

 

From the archives: The Noise of Time

All sorts of documents and artefacts exist in the Sylvia Plath archives; handwritten and typed manuscripts, novel drafts, personal items, clothing, drawings and sketches, furniture, music books, student notes, and journals. One particular type of archival item that is often overlooked is the photograph. Perhaps this is because studying somebody’s portrait invites a completely different type of gaze and provides a different type of knowledge. It is unlikely to reveal anything about Sylvia Plath’s development as a writer. Yet images can be – and are – active in the social process of understanding Plath in her broader historical moment and can act as visual shortcuts to understanding her cultural context.

Sometimes it can be the accidental details – fashion, location, and purpose of the image that reveal essential information. For a second we visually enter her social and cultural world and inhabit her having-been-there-ness. For this reason, I tend to ‘read’ portraits as fairly important documents, partly because they can offer us what Roland Barthes calls ‘historical grammar’ but also his belief that iconography is cultural. In other words, when Barthes explored how meaning gets into an image, he concluded that objects are often used as accepted inducers which promote an association of ideas. When I first encountered this argument from Barthes I struggled to grasp what he meant and how it linked to cultural knowledge. He believed that objects, or the posing of objects in a photograph, do not possess power, but rather possess meaning.

Using this as a theoretical framework to read portraits of Plath in the archives uncovered a new way of understanding her. And the first time I truly understood Barthes’ idea was when I saw the portrait of Plath and Hughes taken by David Bailey for Vogue magazine in 1961.

bailey portrait

This shot was taken inside their flat at 3 Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill. They are sitting side by side and behind Hughes is a bookcase (association of bookcase = intellectual, says Barthes). But then interestingly, Hughes is sitting holding a book in his lap (successful writer association) and Plath is holding…a teddy bear. How do we read the accepted inducers here? By this time Plath was a mother, but she was also a successful writer. Did motherhood somehow visually take over? Joint portraits taken of Plath and Hughes in Boston a couple of years earlier tell a different story – both are presented with books, papers.

spthboston

How do we read a photograph? According to Barthes ‘it depends on the reader’s knowledge just as though it were a matter of real language [langue], intelligible only if one has learned the signs.’ Of course we bring our own imagination, our own personal context to the reading of an image but equally captured within the four sides of a frame is a frozen moment – melancholic by its very preservation, and by implication, its inevitable passing away. Perhaps we respond to the accepted inducers and create our own association of ideas? And surely the purpose of the photograph is crucial – is it professional or personal? I am not sure I have answers to these questions, yet I do believe that the photograph is a powerful archival document.

Two of the major Sylvia Plath archives at Smith College and Lilly Library, Indiana University hold portraits of Plath – some professionally taken, others family snapshots.

In the same way a handwritten poetry manuscript with ink stains and smears and coffee cup circles allows Plath’s traces to flare out of an archive folder, so too does a portrait. The immediacy of the visual is perfectly described by Barthes; ‘A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze…’ Ultimately, this can be poignant but often, like all other archival artefacts, it can be about re-animation, the bringing back of the having-been.

‘Cameras in short were clocks for seeing…For me the noise of time is not sad.’ (Barthes)

Work cited

Roland Barthes (1977) Image Music Text Fontana Press: London.

From the Archives: Unexpected Stories

“The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow.” Jacques Derrida

Derrida is playful with time and the archives. Toying with the notion that there is ultimately something rather inscrutable about them, he suggests that searching for meaning is a task that we may never quite complete. This seems appropriate for the messy experience of working in an archive – moving between past, present, and future; knowledge gathering but equally raising more questions, leaving more gaps.

All the untold stories.

But whatever those gaps or silences may be, visiting a traditional archive is an intentional act. Often researchers have studied a finding aid beforehand and have a good idea what it is they want to work with. This intentionality brings a certain air of expectation with it. Sometimes it’s possible to guess or speculate about what might be there, but whatever the case, we know something will be there.

What is quite a different experience is when intentionality is removed and you are happily going about your business and bump into artefacts that you were not expecting to see. And Sylvia Plath pops up in some of the most curious places.

On a recent visit to the Ocean Liners exhibition at the V & A Museum in London, I was prepared to see items from the glamorous, and sometimes tragic, history of transatlantic travel. And there were lots of these. A dark flannel suit worn by Marlene Dietrich on one of her many crossings, a deckchair found floating in the ocean after the Titantic had gone down, and a diamond tiara rescued from a stricken liner. Closing the exhibition, bobbing on a virtual glassy square of black sea, was the largest surviving piece of the Titanic — a wooden door frame showing the point at which the ship had split in half.

I was of course aware that Plath had sailed across the Atlantic three times. Firstly in 1955 when she came to England to study on a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge University, then sailing back to America to teach at Smith College in 1957, before finally returning to England in late 1959. One of these crossings is described in meticulous detail here in Sylvia Plath and the SS United States  – the food, the weather, other passengers, filling hours reading and eating.  The ship was then the fastest transatlantic ocean liner – able to cover the distance from New York to Southampton in three and a half days. Now, the ship sits in a dry dock, stripped bare and rusting, with conservation groups struggling to raise money to restore it.

It was unexpected then as I was wandering around the V & A exhibition to encounter artefacts removed from the SS United States. A cocktail table, a lamp, a deckchair, glass screens, and an ostentatious wall sculpture. All of these items would have accompanied Plath as she crossed the Atlantic and each item brought the past firmly into the present. I talk about traces often, but that is because they seem to be everywhere. And I love the intangibility of them, how they play with imagination, and are steeped in told and untold stories.

The glass panels designed by Charles Gilbert, etched with coral reef scenes, were hung on the walls of the ballroom. No combustible materials were used on the SS United States, so fireproof products such as glass and metal were used instead. A cocktail table also found in the ballroom had a design based on the five-bladed propellers of the ship. The interior furniture of the liner was designed by an all-women firm owned by Dorothy Marckwald. table and screen 1

A wall sculpture gracing the first class grand staircase depicted an American symbol of the bald eagle, designed by Austin M. Purves, Jr. and was one of two hundred sculptures on board depicting a variety of plants and flowers from across all American states. A table lamp, more reminiscent of a black nautical lantern, threw out three-tiered layers of light and was another Dorothy Marckwald design.

An aluminium, plastic, and nylon deckchair provided a practical fold-away piece of furniture – though on Plath’s December 1959 crossing one suspects it did not get much use.

Deckchair 1

Finding unexpected artefacts linked to Plath in this way delightfully reanimates a specific cultural moment. These items bear traces of the past, alluding to forgotten stories and histories. Fragments from another time emerge in a different context allowing us to re-order and re-assign new associations, new meanings as well as new and unexpected stories.