Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sylvia Plath - Part I

Photo: Ellen Miller

For something like forty years, regardless of the fact that she was already dead by the time I'd read a single one of her poems, I've wanted to prevent Sylvia Plath from committing suicide, wanted to reach into her journals, yank her from the page, and say, "Don't! Stop! Stop it right this minute!"

For another number of years, when I lived in New Hampshire, I observed her October birthday by visiting the Rare Book Room at Smith College which boasts many books from Plath's personal library, as well as photos, diaries, letters, and various mementos connected with her.

The room is elegant, polished, varnished. Beautiful wood is everywhere -- hand-crafted glass-doored bookcases line the paneled walls; there are twelve large tables, aligned in two rows, set with sturdy upholstered chairs; the oak floors; the four large windows, framed in oak, that dominate the west wall.

To a Plath-obsessive, the room is also hallowed. Each time I entered it I mentally genuflected, dipped my fingers into an imaginary font of holy water.

There were never more than two or three other people in the room on my visits.
Once, though, I was surprised to see that the room was crowded. Every table was occupied. A screen, incommensurate with the room's character, was set up against a far wall of bookcases.

I went to the the glass-walled office in the corner where visitors are obliged to register. I glanced around for the usual curator, expecting to be recognized by her as I had been in the past.

Instead, a well-tailored man of about forty-five, exuding an air of authority, approached me. "Can I help you?" he asked in a tone that I took to mean can I help you get you ass out of here. I felt him looking down his nose at my worn leather jacket and jeans.

"Yes, I'd like to read some of Sylvia Plath's original journals that are here."

"They've all been published," the man said dismissively. "There's nothing here that hasn't been published."

This is simply not true. The inaccuracy of his statement flabbergasted me. I wish I was one of those quick-witted silver-tongued self-confident types so I could have responded: "Upon what authority -- which authority you just sadly debased -- are you making this outlandish statement?" I said, instead, "No, the ones that are published are expurgated."

My dander was up; he deserved to be punched and bloodied, but I'm not that kind of guy either. Just then I saw the familiar curator coming out of an inner office that is just beyond the windowed office. She smiled as she saw me. Everything was going to be okay now. A few steps more and she was addressing me. I turned away from the jumped-up man, making it seem as much as possible like a well-deserved dismissal. I smiled and greeted the librarian. "Hi! How are you?" she said, welcomingly.

"I'm good! It's Sylvia's birthday, so here I am again!"

"I was expecting you! You're very faithful! So what would you like to see today?"

"I'd like to read some in her journals. I guess I'd start with the 1950-53 volume."

"Let's see," she says, putting her index finger across her lip as if this will make it easier to think. "How shall we handle this? They're using this room for a class today and the lights are going to be dimmed because they're doing slides." Then she gestured with her hand for me to follow. "I know! ... come with me!"

She led me into her inner office. She cleared off an area of a jam-packed table and pulled out a chair for me. "I'll be right back," she said.

Momentarily she came out carrying a box that contains photocopied pages covered in Plath's extraordinarily neat penmanship.

"Thank you!" I said. I removed a notebook and a pencil from my knapsack and began reading.

Shortly the curator was back at my side. "Excuse me," she said. "Since it is her birthday and since you are so faithful, I think you deserve to touch the real thing." She first dangled out for me a pair of thin white muslim gloves ... one is required to put a pair on before handling certain original materials, just as, on the altar, an acolyte must pour water over the priest's fingers before the latter touches the sacred wafer. My hands covered, the curator handed me the original diary, a very ledger-like bound volume, familiar in the 1950s, perhaps nine by twelve, close to three inches thick -- one of the very volumes over which Sylvia Plath had bent her head, had held in her hands; a volume whose pages she had filled with ink from her own pen .

Examining the neatness and uniformity of Sylvia Plath's handwriting I noted that it was different from the draft-manuscripts penmanship I'd seen of some of her poems. I imagined that in her determination to be as perfect as possible she must have written the journal's entries first in draft and then copied them into the ledgers -- an amazing task, but youth thinks youth is timeless -- while, when working on one draft after another of her poems, I suppose her pen moved quickly to capture the words before her fervid imagination replaced them with more and more and more words.

After a while the curator returned. "Thank you very much," I crooned in amazement while putting the precious artifact back into her hands, for she had to return it to the vault.

I sat then for an hour or so reading from the photocopied pages, copying down some things that I knew were not in the expurgated published version. Eventually the curator returned and said, "The class out front is ended if you'd be more comfortable in the main room." I told her that I'd done enough for the day and was about to leave; I wanted to drive over to Holyoke Library and do some family research there.

Leaving the Rare Book Room and heading toward the front exit through the long corridors of the library I came upon the man who'd earlier tried to make me feel unwelcome in the Rare Book Room. He and his students -- they looked to be a dozen or so -- were flocked about one of the vitrines in which, as all along the main corridors of the Smith College Library, this or that rare manuscript is displayed. He, as well as several students, looked up as I passed. I held his eye, quickly removed my right hand from my pocket, lowered all but the middle finger, and lifted that individual finger up to lay it against my right cheek.

Outside, I walked along the curving sidewalks to exit the beautiful sunny autumn-tinged campus. I read some of the large-lettered messages that are always scrawled in chalk on the sidewalks when I'm there in Octobers. Most of them call for political action or announce meetings, but I noticed one -- and it was the one with the largest letters, letters about a foot high -- that said I LOVE MY PENIS!

I went to a coffee shop in downtown Northampton which, out front, has tables on the sidewalk. It felt charmingly Parisian to sit in the warm sun at an outdoor table with an expensive latte. While watching passers-by, I pondered just what sort of person would write I LOVE MY PENIS on the sidewalk at one of the country's most radically-feminist colleges.

I couldn't imagine.


  1. you sound like a complete asshole. Just because you feel entitled is no reason to lay blame on someone who wasn't the librarian but a teacher who was trying to be helpful to someone who was not in his class.

    You are not the only Plath lover out there. You are not more entitles to special favor or acknowledge than anyone else.

  2. Ha! Good for you (the single-finger salute). Maybe he didn't notice, but stuff like that is so self-satisfactory, it doesn't matter. He was rude no matter how you shake that incident up.
    I'm glad I am finally sitting down and having a good read here in your blog.
    I completely understand your first paragraph, about wanting to stop what happened from happening. Of course it's not rational but it is something I have felt since the beginning too, after finding her poems and then reading of her life and death. It's sort of like we didn't chose this, it chose us...because it is hard to explain beyond the scholarly pursuit our long held interest in Sylvia as a person and writer.

  3. Hey there Anonymous of April 9th. You need to learn to pay attention to what you read. That "teacher" was not trying to be helpful, but just trying to get rid of me, and shooting off his mouth while not knowing what he was talking about. Not once in my life have I felt entitled to any special favor. When I was a kid we'd childishly say "Whatever you say is what you are!" How true that is in regards to you!