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
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.