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Sylvia Plath’s Women and Poetry

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Karen V. Kukil’s featured lecture on “Sylvia Plath’s Women and Poetry” from the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium at the University of Oxford on October 27. The international conference was cosponsored by Oxford, Smith College and Indiana University. In addition to editing Plath’s unabridged journals, Kukil curates the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith and is associate curator of special collections.

Sylvia Plath leaving home for England, September 11, 1955, after she won a Fulbright fellowship to Newnham College, Cambridge. Courtesy of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, and the Estate of Aurelia Plath.

In spring 1955 when Sylvia Plath was a senior at Smith College, she entered the prestigious intercollegiate Kathryn Irene Glascock annual poetry contest at neighboring Mount Holyoke College. That year, Marianne Moore, John Ciardi and Wallace Fowlie were the judges. She was named a co-winner with William Key Whitman of Wesleyan University. After the poetry weekend, Plath wrote to one of the contest organizers:

I’m still waiting eagerly to hear from the Fulbright committee, and must admit that I’m crossing my fingers for Oxford! So many British poets come from Oxford that it would be rather an inspiration to live on the same soil!*

Plath won a Fulbright fellowship to Newnham College, Cambridge. But she would be thrilled to know that Oxford is hosting a 75th anniversary symposium in her honor this year.

Sylvia Plath, now one of the most interpreted poets of the 20th century, composed most of her famous Ariel poems in October 1962 at four in the morning when her inner poet was closest to her dreams. Perhaps encouraged by the honest, groundbreaking work of Anne Sexton, Plath wrote the title poem “Ariel” on her 30th birthday. Most of the Ariel poems, which scholars call Plath’s best work, were written on the back of drafts of her novel The Bell Jar. She used the last discards from the novel on “The Tour,” a poem in which she contrasts the gentility and perceived barrenness of Marianne Moore’s world with her own messy, “burnt out” country cottage.

In Plath’s manuscript of Ariel and Other Poems, she overcame a failed marriage and reinvented herself as a fearless White Goddess, a Godiva riding her lioness of God at breakneck speed.

Like Lady Godiva in “Ariel,” Plath had grown her hair down to her waist and she was now able to twist it completely around her head to form a full crown of braids similar to Marianne Moore. She had finally arrived and she knew it. Plath told her mother that fighting against hard odds she was writing the poems of her life that would make her name.

Unfortunately, the book that Plath left on her desk when she committed suicide on February 11, 1963, was not read by the public until just three years ago. After Plath’s death, her husband Ted Hughes published a different version of Ariel, cutting 12 poems from the typescript and adding 14 poems that she did not include in the original sequence. The back cover of the British edition of Ariel published by Faber & Faber in 1965 lists all 44 Faber poets, including Marianne Moore and Sylvia Plath. In just 10 years, Plath had joined the ranks of one of her Glascock judges.

Frieda Hughes rescued her mother’s rebellious voice by publishing in 2004 the Restored Edition of Ariel, which is based on the original manuscript now preserved at Smith. On November 30, 2004, the Restored Edition of Ariel, just released by HarperCollins, was read publicly from start to finish in a New York City auditorium. The stellar roster of poets and critics who read Plath’s powerful verse included daughter Freida, Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham (all three have also given readings at Smith through the Poetry Center) and feminist writer Katha Pollit, who was the 1970 winner of the Glascock poetry contest. Perhaps it is fitting that a poetry contest started in 1923 because of the untimely death of Mount Holyoke undergraduate Kathryn Irene Glascock should eventually fan the flames of other prize winners of the contest and in the process bring Sylvia Plath’s defiant voice back to life.

* Sylvia Plath to Joyce M. Horner, TLS, [18 April 1955]. Kathryn Irene Glascock Poetry Prize Records, 1950-55 (box 6, folder 2), Mount Holyoke College Archives.

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