Styling it out with Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is a cultural figure.

For any of us who study her, often we find ourselves moving beyond the poems and prose to explore the historical moment she inhabited and how that helps us situate her work. As a sociologist, I am fascinated how her upbringing and background, as well as her social standing influenced what she read, studied, watched, liked, and bought. Equally as a sociologist, I am fascinated by objects; by things. Things that leave their traces behind, like domestic relics, that have stories to tell.

Plath had a distinctive style. She appeared to love mixing the modern with the more traditional. Reading in her letters and journals how she chose to decorate her rooms, flats, and houses, takes us back to 1950s America, or 1960s London, specifically Camden High Street. Plath moved from student-inspired objects (wine bottles turned into lamps) through to solid, well-made pieces of furniture buying her carpets from Wilton and her table and chairs from Selfridges.

She loved to be surrounded by colour. Her bedroom wallpaper for 3 Chalcot Square, London, had a white background with budding and blooming red roses emerging from a cradle of green leaves. This wallpaper, chosen in 1960, features in her short story ‘Day of Success’ and her poem ‘Morning Song’.


Her kitchen wallpaper epitomised 1960s style, with cartoonish graphics of hot air balloons, penny farthings, a wheelbarrow, and some sort of odd chariot. Plath paired this with opposing walls painted a deep rose colour to give the kitchen a homely, cosy feel.

kitchen paper

By the time Plath moved to Devon in 1961 she was mixing more traditional pieces into her ancient thatched house, Court Green – solid wooden desks with wrought-iron drawer handles and a tea tray, that quickly became stained with ink. Her rugs and carpets, which she took months to choose, were what she called a traditional oriental style with medallions of colour in the centre and swirling leaves around the edges.

Yet by the time she moved back to 23 Fitzroy Road, London in 1962, her taste had turned more minimalist and modern again as she favoured Bowmans Furniture store on Camden High Street where she bought her carpets and a bureau. The store advertised itself as offering ‘traditional and modern’ pieces, so it is easy to see why it appealed to Plath. Her cheque book shows the purchases she made there, as well as at the Co-operative store on the same High Street and Selfridges in town. She chose pieces made from glass and bamboo and replaced her traditional rugs with rush matting.

The Co-op and Bowmans no longer exists, though Bowmans has on the front of the red brick building (now a Burger King, Poundland, and Waterstones), ghost signs back from when it was a furniture store advertising curtains, furniture, and drapery. Plath too is long gone from the streets of Camden, carefully choosing pieces for her flat, but the objects remain, preserved from that time years ago; intact, solid, holding onto their histories.

(Wallpaper photographs courtesy of Peter K. Steinberg; Bowmans advertisement, unknown; all other images, my own.)

The Unremembered Self


How does the self write about a self it no longer remembers; may never have remembered? How does the writing self produce the written I?

Imagine from the image two girls. They are on holiday with their parents at the seaside in Blackpool. Perhaps it was a hot summer; the swimming costumes suggest a day on the beach playing in sand. The smaller of the two girls has a mouth covered in sand. She has been eating it all day. It is odd that neither the parents nor the photographer cleaned her mouth. May be they thought it looked cute. For years afterwards and to the present day the photograph is presented as “this is the holiday when you ate sand all the time.” The photograph is proof that it happened. The photograph along with the parent’s memories are all that exist of that day, that time, that holiday. The small girl with sand around her mouth remembers nothing. She has been constructed and narrated by others. Yet this unremembered self is still a story resurrected from the rubble of other peoples’ memories. It is not a tidy or an accurate story, but then memory is neither of these things. In fact the story is unreliable on a number of levels. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the writing self here and now should be narrating an unremembered self. There would have been a time when I remembered. Maybe ten minutes after the photograph was taken I was back on the beach or walking the prom holding my mother’s hand thinking about having had my photograph taken. Maybe when my sister and I were posing I wondered what the finished photograph would look like. Maybe none of these things happened and I was still too young to perceive a world beyond my own control. Perhaps I had yet to realise that I was not the centre of everything. Almost certainly the photograph captures my pre-linguistic days since I refused to speak or grow much hair until after the age of four. How would I be able to distinguish a world abstract from myself without the language to construct it? How would anything have any meaning beyond experiential immediacy?

My sister would interpret grunts and inform my parents what I wanted. Apparently I usually helped by pointing at certain objects to at least give the grunts some context. No doubt there was much grunting and pointing that holiday as the family of four walked along the prom at Blackpool. This was the town when it was still a highly sought after holiday destination for working class Northerners. In the mid-1970s amid instability and unemployment in my ex-mining hometown, families saved all year for a week in Blackpool. In the rows upon rows of guest houses and B&Bs with gongs that sounded for breakfast and plastic flowers in vases on the tables in the dining rooms, families took refuge from the routine of daily life for a week by the sea.

Of course, my writing self is already merging its own later memories of other holidays where my sister and I were allowed to sound the gong for dinner and the week I would eat nothing in front of strangers and had to be taken outside for breakfast facing the sea. This could have happened in Morecambe, another family holiday destination; my memory is too messy to tell the difference. There is no chronology, no strict narrative of what happened and which year we went there. That only came later when I kept a “holiday diary” but even reading that years later parts of myself are still unremembered.

Self-narration then, one’s own store of memories seem no more or less reliable than anyone else’s. If my mother can narrate my unremembered self who ate sand and grunted, why should this depiction be any less reliable than if I remembered it myself? Why would her interpretation of the little girl be any more or less of a construct than if the little girl herself could speak? As soon as we begin to narrate ourselves, as soon as we use language, perhaps we begin to tell a story, one of an infinite number of versions. Sometimes we change the narrative ourselves over the years, sometimes we perfect it to a story that we like or that makes us laugh or feel safe or nostalgic. But the self seems essentially a story, a created, fictional, unified whole that we like to shape and set neatly into a chronology. To be a series of unrelated vignettes and half-remembered anecdotes perhaps diminishes our sense of importance and stability. By creating continuity through self-narrativisation we can comfort ourselves that we really do exist with a past and a certain amount of future. There is assurance and familiarity.

Yet I only know that the little girl in the picture ate sand and grunted because I have been told stories about her. The girl in the picture is ‘me’ and yet could well be some one I have never met before. The unremembered self is the equivalent to the stranger in the street. Even the remembered self seems a fiction, a patchwork of false, unreliable narratives tentatively strung together to form a whole. Although the memories themselves may seem abstract, as if existing in a vacuum with little concept of order (both in the storage and the retrieval), they are nevertheless culturally and historically embedded.

Look closely at the photograph of the two small girls. The style is typical of photographers who set up their seaside booths for professional holiday photographs. The fake background, the style of the swimming costumes unmistakeably 1970s. There is something a little more timeless about the two girls whose faces would not be out of place in a Dickensian street scene. The smaller girl is not looking at the camera, but off to the right, perhaps at her parents. This is a pose she often repeats in family photographs, or sometimes the older sister is the object of the younger child’s gaze, as if the camera was not there at all, or did not matter.

Why was this photograph taken? Certainly as a memento of the holiday, possibly even to capture how the two girls looked after a day on the beach. In the 1970s, the sea front was littered with outdoor photography studios – sometimes with false backgrounds of blue skies, palm trees, and green sea as if mocking the slightly muddy sand and sluggish waves reflected across the road. Photographers would try to entice you to have a photograph taken. Sometimes, as in this picture, they would have a monkey that would sit on your shoulder and groom your hair. Sometimes the studios had cartoons of caricatured men and women with holes cut out where their heads should be. When you placed your own head through a hole you suddenly transformed into a large woman in a polka-dot swimsuit or a man in a string vest and baggy shorts.

My parents must have paid what for us would have been quite a lot of money for the photograph. It must, therefore, have been important for them to record and capture that moment. I am tempted to think they were persuaded into it by a keen photographer, but equally I know my mother would not do anything she did not want to. So it was probably their decision to spend a lot of the money we didn’t have to capture their children at a particular moment on that particular holiday. A picture for the family album or may be for a short time the mantelpiece at home in the ‘front’ room, or the china cabinet where the best glasses were kept.

The two little girls in the photograph would have no idea that their holiday destination was less than two hours drive from their front door. As a child, Blackpool seemed to me as far away and exotic as Africa and Egypt. I romanticise the seaside working class holiday, of course. People who worked hard and saved all year for a week playing slot machines, building sand castles, and hiring stripy deck chairs. Nostalgia grieves for this time when neighbours from your hometown might be staying in the guesthouse next door, and people would say “it’s a small world” and it certainly is when you never travel more than two hours away from home. There is a longing for that sense of community and a ‘proper’ working class – a time before so many individuals became atomised consumers and Thatcher’s Britain gradually eroded away the working class identity. “There is no such thing as society” she said and the two little girls in the picture grew up under Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation, the destruction of the trade unions and grassroots movements, poll tax riots, a war in the Falklands, and increasing unemployment. “Get on a bike and get a job,” said Tebbit who never once saw my father’s face as he arrived home from yet another fruitless visit to the Job Centre. “Something will turn up,” my mother used to say.

Maybe it was those times that made holidays so special. A sunny day by the sea, all troubles temporarily forgotten, with two slightly grubby children and a photographer to capture the moment.

The self is unremembered but I know that it was happy.

The Sea of the Mind

How does a book begin? I suppose all writers have different ways of approaching a new project, just like all writers have different ways of working or researching or thinking. In the last month I’ve been embarking on a new book due to be published by Simon and Schuster in Spring 2021. It’s called Kicking at the Door of Fame and is a look at the social rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. It explores their stories and their lives and attempts to revise some of the lazy stereotypes that have become attached to both of them over the years. It looks at their friendship, mutual respect, and rivalry. It places them in their historical and cultural moment – and the legacy that endures.

The first stage for me in any new project involves writing and walking. My dog George is essential for this stage (actually he’s essential for every stage) but he’s enthusiastic for long walks while the initial thinking takes place. I live on the coast so I go to the beach twice a day. There is something about the sea, the sand, and the shingle that helps order my thoughts for the day. George swims while I think.

If it’s rainy and windy I grumble, but it still makes me feel better. Then I get home, make a pot of tea, and head to my writing shed. On cold days I have the heater and fairy pom-pom lights on; warm days I open the door onto a small paved area with a cherry tree and potted plants. My desk is big enough for a laptop, piles of books, and notebooks. My wifi stretches to the shed so I can email and organise archive visits, look at finding aid catalogues, and make lists. I eat a lot of crisps and George often lies with his head on my feet.

In these early days, often it looks as though I have done very little, since most of the work is going on internally. I just think and think. But any project I work on begins and ends with the sea. Plath spoke about the sea always being with her in some way, either physically or as a sea of consciousness, and this resonates. There’s something a little bit suffocating to me about not being by the sea. I love the smell of brine and mudflats. I love the sea-mist that rolls in while the buoys clank. I love the sound of seagulls and skylarks. The sand dunes are full of beach-roses, butterflies, caterpillars, and small purple flowers. Little whorly snails with stripy shells are hidden among the sea-grasses. The gorse is pungent and on hot days, it steams. The ponds jump with natterjack toads and tadpoles.

After a day thinking and note-taking, I go back to the beach. Sometimes I watch the sun go down turning the sand orange. The moon comes out. The sky is always big. George and I sit on the stones. The tide comes and goes.

beach 5

Poet in the City Sylvia Plath: A Life Between the Lines

On 29 April I took part in an event celebrating the life and work of Sylvia Plath hosted by Poet in the City in conjunction with Faber. During the evening there were readings, talks, and discussion exploring ways in which Plath used her life in her work, as well as the significance of the recently published two volumes of Collected Letters edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. Erica Wagner chaired the evening, with a talk by the poet Mona Arshi about how Plath influenced her own development as a writer. Readings from Plath’s letters and poems were given by actor Anna Madeley. Below is a transcript of the talk I gave discussing ways in which Plath drew on her own experiences, such as the personal and domestic, to create poetry with a universal message.

All photography © Kevin Cummins 2019


A Life between the Lines: Sylvia Plath

© Gail Crowther 2019

On the 30 October, 1962, Peter Orr of the British Council asked Sylvia Plath:

ORR: Do your poems tend now to come out of books rather than out of your own life?

Plath replied urgently, and thoughtfully.

PLATH: No, no: I would not say that at all. I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.

Here in the last months of her life, Plath explained how her lived experience appeared in the lines of her work, the blurring of the personal with the political, the desire to be relevant and for her life to be understood outside of the limits of her own biography. As such Plath presents us with a complex tapestry of voices. Through her poems, letters, journals, short stories, articles, novel, and archival documents she unrolls and invites us into considering how her life and our lives fit into the universal. Read together, all genres of her work create an interconnected whole. We see a line from her journal appearing in The Bell Jar, a visit to her father’s grave recounted in a letter becomes transformed into a poem. The more you read Plath, the more you fall into an intricate labyrinth of words, places, events, and you cannot pull them apart. Furthermore she freezes these moments in time; her winter bees are perpetually flying towards the spring, Lady Lazarus is single-handedly taking on patriarchy, Ariel forever gallops towards the red eye of morning, and the poppies in July flicker and flicker and burn.

It is possible, however, to identify certain themes and categories in Plath’s work. We might say she writes about her childhood, or she writes about places and homes. Equally she explores relationships and her role as daughter, mother, wife. We see how her domestic trivialities become immortalised, or her psychological states come to represent something bigger than her merely feeling happy or sad or in love. Yet even these categories themselves are unstable because they seep into each other. Sometimes the only way to stop being overwhelmed is to fall into her work and identify single sources. A poem like ‘The Disquieting Muses’, sweeps up childhood themes as well as place and familial relationships and an impending sense of dread.

In her poem ‘Point Shirley’ the speaker describes encountering  the old house of her deceased grandmother; a house holding traces of the past from her childhood growing up by the sea and the shingle. Plath begins the poem by setting the scene in a particular geographical context – the title alone tells us that this is Point Shirley, the furthermost tip of the Winthrop peninsula in Massachusetts. She then conjures the ghost of her grandmother exploring loss, remembrance, forgetting, and a gentle sense of melancholy.

[Anna to read ‘Point Shirley’]

Memories, like relics, rear up from the past.  Ghostly washing freezes on a line, a spectral figure battles the nautical elements to keep a clean house against the onslaught of sea and sand. There are echoes of the past here but Plath moves beyond her own encounter to make us think about loss and what we too might leave behind, or what we too encounter when someone we love has gone forever. In ‘Point Shirley,’ one feels the ghostly washing will always be swinging on the line as the “stub-necked eiders” dive into the grey waves.

Within the last year, thanks to Faber, Frieda Hughes, and the editors, we have had access to all known letters written by Plath and this has opened up a new perspective on her creative process, how she used moments from her life, however small or insignificant, to inform her work. We suddenly have the privilege of seeing what her eyes took in and then what her poetical imagination did with that. After moving to Devon in 1961, letter after letter describes her homemaking, buying rugs, painting furniture, choosing red as the colour for her living room, buying a radio from a local electrician. We see from these letters how Plath transformed her domestic space into her work. Her poem ‘The Detective’ depicts a speaker standing listening in an empty room, the barely-disguised living room of Plath’s own home, Court Green, in Devon. The physicality of the room is captured and frozen in time textually: ‘There is no body in the house at all./There is the smell of polish, there are plush carpets./ There is the sunlight, playing its blades,/ Bored hoodlum in a red room/ Where the wireless talks to itself like an elderly relative.’ The echoing mausoleum of the house quivers with spectrality and the reader sees how Plath has merged her domestic and living space with her poetical output. When Plath leaves her blueprint in this way, she creates an indelible watermark that we can scrutinise.

No detail is too small or insignificant because Plath does exactly what she says by making her personal experience relevant to bigger things, the trivialities of her domestic life come to represent something much more significant .

On 25 October, 1962, Plath wrote in a letter ‘I have late poppies, bright red, & blue-purple cornflowers on my desk now…’ Two days later at the same desk, she composed the poem ‘Poppies in October’.

[Anna to read ‘Poppies in October’]

We see how something seemingly inconsequential as a vase of flowers is a starting point. The domestic, living space opens up a discussion for psychological anguish, of loss, and mortality.

What we should not overlook however, is Plath’s sense of fun and humour. Her letters are wry and perceptive. She eye-rolls herself as much as other people. The only surviving journal notes from 1962 are a detailed FBI-style take on her Devonshire neighbours and, in my opinion, some of her best writing. Her encounters with Marjorie, the bank manager’s wife, are legendary. Through various archival sources we know that Plath used these notes to inform her final novel Double Exposure, so the fact that this manuscript still remains missing is even more lamentable. Plath regarded this second novel as much funnier than The Bell Jar and for those of us still recovering from the image of  Buddy Willard with his washable underpants around his ankles, we can only hope the manuscript emerges at some point.

What we are privileged to see though, is the genesis of a Plath poem or novel or story emerging from her life, seeping in between the lines of her work and becoming something permanent. In one of her final pieces of prose, called ‘Context’ written in 1962 and commissioned by the London Magazine, Plath with a burst of prescience almost foretold her own legacy:

“Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure – not its influence as religious or political propaganda. Certain poems and lines of poetry seem as solid and miraculous to me as church altars or the coronation of queens must seem to people who revere quite different images. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.”

poet in the city 5

The Enigma of Hauntings

‘Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspect of it.’

(Avery Gordon 1997:7)

Sometimes reality is far from transparent. In fact often our taken-for-granted realities are challenged by a feeling, an experience that does not seem to fit into our everyday life. Sometimes events have no empirical evidence attached to them. Sometimes what we experience as an event is so wispy that it defies articulation. We move into the realm of ghostly matters, of hauntings, where barely visible things, traces, render us unable to attach any typical meaning or description to what is happening to us. The usual polarised boundaries between the visible / invisible, the dead / the living, and the past / present suddenly begin to seep into each other and we realise that far from tidy and neat categories of empiricism and knowledge, we actually flounder in a fug of messy uncertainty where time and presence play themselves out in uncanny reconstructions.

It is unfortunate then, that we are not trained to recognise these experiences for what they are. In fact the troubling inability to deal with uncategorisable experiences is too often written off as mystical superstition or unworthy of academic study. Yet to study our subjective world is surely as important as studying hard, solid things that we can pin down in the outside world, for is it not these very inner experiences that we transmit into our social interaction? Surely, ‘investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.’ (Gordon 1997:8).

To be alive is to suffer loss and loss means there is a space where something once was. There is a shape of something that is missing. How we deal with this absence of physicality is an individual matter but what is certain is that often loss can lead to experiencing the missing object in unconventional ways. These ways could be describe as hauntings, as ghostly or spectral apparitions, and such hauntings occur at the very site where the lost object and the individual meet. The paradox being that forces occur which make the object both there and not there at the same time. So we must question what is occurring at this meeting point. Traces? Residue? A unique and particular experience of reality? What is the purpose of hauntings, particularly if they occur against our will? Do they even need to have a purpose or is it our ability to play around with the malleability of reality and our capacity to create ruptures in linear temporality coming into its own? For some people, it seems, ghosts will simply not go away. Therefore, whether they appear with a purpose or not, we either have to learn to live with their presence or listen to what they are trying to tell us.

The year is 1989. I am standing at the graveside of Sylvia Plath in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. The train ticket and overnight stay in the small village is my birthday present. There is nothing else I wanted or anywhere else I wanted to go.


Interestingly, the layers multiply, increase, and become more complex when readers seek out a dead writer. For although, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, Plath haunts our culture, I would argue that her ghost has equally become haunted by her readers. In other words, Plath’s very own spectral presence in our lives has itself become a site of haunting. How can this be? How can someone who is dead be haunted by the very people she herself is supposed to be haunting? How can our experiences suddenly become so slippery and unreal? Time, past and present, potentially become muddled because we can conjure up people we know whether they are alive or dead. Their physicality is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant.

This maddening, cyclical attachment creates a complicated relationship. To what extent we choose to be haunted by Plath or to what extent she chooses to haunt us becomes irrelevant once the reciprocal haunting begins.  My fantasies are grounded in the place where I stand in a time I can never be. My imagination plays with events of the past. I am transformed from my ordinary social context to something, somewhere new. There is nothing tangible occurring here, but there is a shift in consciousness, like being in the same place at two different times, but equally at the same time. Simultaneously my modes of perception are both real and illusory.

sp_hebden bridge

Plath is resurrected, both into the present and into reliving the past through my own imaginings. Reconstructing her as she flits between the gravestones shows the value we embed in physical sites and how the emotional attachments we create become part of who we are, part of the stories we tell.

I walk past an open grave, earth piled at the side, ready. I walk past graves so new there are no stones there yet. I see familiar family names. I see your grave and am both disappointed and amazed. It is the closest I will ever get to you. I feel the earth and remember ‘Electra on Azalea Path’ and the line ‘How far gone is he?’ I am being grisly. A sense of history, of meaning given to a place draws on memory, myth, fantasy, and desire. The frustration of six feet of soil.

heptonstall churchyard

So a haunting then does not seem to be a passive event. A person does not just sit back and let the experience wash over them like an empty jar waiting to be filled. There is a sense of reciprocity in hauntings. When the ghosts appear either because they are conjured or because they are just there waiting to be found, once their presence is experienced, then like anything else, we develop a relationship. We try to figure why the ghost is there, what they might want from us or what we might want from them. What is the draw? Why does this spectral presence remain and refuse to leave, why do we not with our own sense of agency exorcise this uncanny presence in our lives?

Avery Gordon (1997) explores the idea that we may need a certain hospitable mind set to receive the presence of ghosts and questions whether our need to reckon with hauntings is really our own need to reckon with justice. Bothering with a ghost out of concern for justice, for Avery, would be the only reason one would bother. Is then the shadowy presence of Plath a need for us to somehow compensate her for her last months of life, for the ‘hacking and worming’ of her last works left so neatly binded and then slashed into fragments and pieced back together so wrongly? Is our own reciprocal haunting of Plath somehow an attempt to give voice to a feeling of helplessness or silence?

May be so and yet it feels that receiving ghosts simply to address some issue of justice does not quite cover the range of emotions experienced during a haunting. What about pleasure, or hope, or longing or empathy? The fact that we choose through our own agency not to exorcise the ghost, but in some cases to encourage the communication, suggests there is more than a struggle for justice taking place. Could it be there is a mutual function? Plath wanted her work to travel further than a classroom, further than a lifetime. Her words reach us through the barrier of time. We give her what she wants by reading her, by keeping her alive. But at the same time we also gain. The pleasure of the words, the shock of reading thoughts that seem to have sprung out of your own head but so much more eloquently, so much more brilliant. Her ghostly presence saves lives. I was still living in my idyll when I found Plath and I almost grew into aspects of her defiant suffering, so from the age of thirteen onwards when everything was going wrong and truly for the first time I knew everything was beyond my control, she had already been there and knew.

Psychoanalytic theory would explain these experiences as introjection and projection. The establishment of an idealised other who we project our fantasies onto and subsume those features that we would most like for ourselves. The narcissistic self craves to find mirroring and cohesion in another who is capable of sharing similar mental experiences. Yet this very act of identification is the one thing that makes us aware of our own agency and this identificatory love plays a central role in our notions of desire and pleasure. This ideal other creates, according to Jessica Benjamin (1988), a safe space that permits self-discovery, aloneness in the presence of the other. Yet this intersubjective view of the self argues that the idealised other plays an active part in the struggle of the individual to creatively discover and accept reality. But as I mentioned previously, is our so-called knowledge of reality so categorisable? Do we really need to explain those events which do not fit into our tidy descriptions of life as mere psychological quirks? There is something unsatisfactory about this explanation that appears to place full agency on the person being haunted and appears to deny any intervention on the part of the ghostly presence of the other.

I did not create Sylvia Plath; she already existed before I was born. I did not conjure up her words, they were written and published and present. They had a life of their own beyond mine. To reduce this meeting of reader and text to a psychological state is, in my opinion, as unsatisfactory and inhibiting as the belief in purely empirical knowledge. We have seen how hauntings lead to boundary seepage, how taken-for-granted realities become hazy and uncertain, therefore somewhere between pure psychology and pure empiricism must lay a more uncertain position. The very nature of hauntings mean they are ambiguous and indeterminate, spectral presences indefinable, so where does that leave us in our tentative search to understand this phenomenon? To claim the existence of some misty, foggy middle ground seems equally as unsatisfactory. But perhaps we do have to acknowledge that the presence of ghosts is to a certain extent inexplicable and that our well trained minds are not quite equipped to understand the devastation such a haunting can wreak.

‘Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.’ (Gordon 1997:8)

Is it this magical element that we need to learn to become more comfortable with? The effects of hauntings and ghosts can easily manifest themselves as social phenomena. We can apply psychoanalytic theory to explain reasons why we may be drawn to particular people or places, but it is not so easy to explain the reciprocity of hauntings and it is certainly not easy to explain that murky uncharted territory where empiricism crumbles away leaving an empty, unexplored place.


Works cited:

Benjamin, Jessica, 1988. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the problems of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gordon, Avery, 1997. Ghostly Matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Plath, Sylvia, 1981. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber.

Rose, Jacqueline, 1991. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. London:Virago.

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.


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).



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?


[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.