Sylvia and Me
By Rachel Miller '09
Years ago, I tried unsuccessfully to write my own poetry, attracting only one fan—my mother. I haven't attempted another poem since (for the best, I'm sure), but I still read plenty of poetry and especially admire the ability of each poet, through incredible strength and economy of words, to re–manufacture the language—and themselves along with it.
It was late September when I heard that Smith's Mortimer Rare Book Room had acquired a letter written by Sylvia Plath '55. It happened to coincide with the first time I'd ever read Plath seriously, in a class taught by Susan Van Dyne, author of Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems. We had read Plath's Ariel alongside the original drafts (all part of the rare book room's Plath collection), trying to understand the poet through her editing process. We also studied pages from Plath's agenda and letters she wrote home while living abroad (the Lily Library at the University of Indiana owns several of these), immersing ourselves in her thought process and filtering our way through her personality any way we could. We discovered, among many things, that Plath is hard to pin down.
In January 1954 Plath was released from McClean's psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was then she received a letter from Sally Rogers of Webster City, Iowa, who had found Plath through Mademoiselle magazine, where Plath had worked as guest editor that past summer. Rogers was thinking about college and considering Smith. She wanted to know what it was like surrounded by all those women (how could you possibly?), what Smithies did for fun on the weekends (how do you meet boys?) and what they wore (is it expensive?).
"Maybe I'd better give you an idea of my own personality orientation," Plath wrote in reply, "so you can better understand what my own particular biases are. I consider myself an ordinary high school graduate, with a maximum interest in English and people." Throughout the letter, which on the whole is neatly organized and carefully presented, you get the feeling Plath is posturing just a bit. She's a junior writing to a prospective student, so she has plenty of control and the perfect opportunity to present herself as "ordinary."
Social life is a "whirl," Plath goes on, boasting about big introductory dances with male guests from Amherst, Smith's famous Float Night ("crew races and floats painted by the freshman all on the dark waters of Paradise Pond at night under the glow of Japanese lanterns") and weekend trips to Yale, one of Plath's preferred escapes. The letter is full of encouraging details, like the fact that Smith's "uniform" is casually simple: Bermuda shorts in spring and dungarees and ski suits in the winter mean a Smith student's wardrobe costs "almost nil."
The letter includes many details about Plath's days as a Smith student and is a valuable addition to the collection at the Mortimer Rare Book Room. Named for Ruth Mortimer '53, curator between 1975 and 1994, the book room is constantly looking for new purchases to round out and flavor its collections. Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections, encourages students to check back regularly. "Our collections aren't static," she explains. Although they generally purchase items within their own budget, if something wonderful comes along (that also happens to be wonderfully expensive), they turn to a list of interested donors. That's what happened this past September: the rare book room was able to purchase Plath's letter with a generous donation from trustee Rachael Bartels '88, a collector herself.
I went to see the letter just after we'd finished our work on Ariel with professor Van Dyne. I had been thinking about Plath and reading her poetry so intensely that holding the letter she wrote felt oddly familiar. As I read, I wondered where she sat when she wrote it (the headline reads "Lawrence House, part of the cooperative housing plan"). Where did she get the paper? Did she snack while she typed? Did she have other homework to do? Kukil showed me the typewriter Plath used while at Smith—the same one used to type the response to Rogers.
Other letters in the collection reveal further details of Plath's life and her propensity for redefining herself. By October 1963, the year she died, Plath had already separated from the poet Ted Hughes and was living in England with her two children. She wrote Aurelia, her mother, to request a nanny; the work was piling up. But Plath also says this: "I am a writer. I hate teaching. I am a genius of a writer, I have it in me. I am up at 5 writing the best poems of my life, they will make my name." Plath is defiant and honest. To handle her situation, she has to make the private public, but she does it in her own way; she manufactures a means of escape through the rawness of her poetry.
As a junior at Smith, with time recently spent in a psychiatric ward, she had done something similar in her correspondence with Rogers, presenting an "ordinary" façade while regenerating and rebuilding to start the next stage. "I'll be a senior next year," she tells Rogers, "maybe we can get acquainted personally. That would be fun..."
I still can't shake the goose bumps.