Winter 2012, #18


Seeking Sylvia in the Rare Book Room

     by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

The Mortimer Rare Book Room of the Neilson Library at Smith College has that reverent quality one experiences in places of worship. Its librarians and curators are like devotees to some of the grand spirits of the past. Among these are Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Catherine of Sienna, to name three of the famous, and infamous, whose papers, books, and artifacts are housed here. As the result of a research project I am involved in, I had the privilege of spending some days with the Sylvia Plath Collection where I was introduced to what Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator and editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 fondly calls “research in the round”. Here, I meet Sylvia the young working artist whom I didn’t really know, as opposed to Plath the famous poet so many of whose poems I knew by heart. To see the dime-sized burn mark at the bottom of a typescript of “Mary’s Song”, or the smudged ink streak (tears? baby drool?) that stains Sylvia’s January 1963 day calendar, invites imaginings of the habits and moods of the young mother who would become one of the twentieth-century’s major poets. I had never imagined Plath smoking cigarettes. Unlike W.H. Auden’s tobacco-ravaged face, or images of the iconoclastic Dorothy Parker, or the sultry Edna St. Vincent Millay, Plath’s white-toothed smile and coiffed 1950s hairstyle in so many photographs never suggested a cigarette smoker to me. But I was meeting another Sylvia as I learned to decipher words under the black ink deletions of her poems, noting the many, many, lines she underscored in ink throughout a 1938 copy of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud  and a 1960 edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care, to name two of the many books she read and marked, or I should say devoured, since this was the sensation I had when Karen Kukil showed me her1949 (2nd edition) Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary — how voraciously this young poet engaged with words!

If Plath’s Letts Tablet Diary gives us an intimate view into the day-to-day life of a struggling Sylvia Hughes Plath who notes reminders to weigh her newborn son Nicholas, wash her hair, bake an apple pie, and paint the children’s bureaus in the midst of circled notes for French and German lessons, her dictionary allows us insight into a passionate world of language. Like an archeologist unearthing evidence of how a city came to be, I turned the pages of her Webster’s riveted by what Plath underlined in her characteristic black ink, the words and images so often repeated in her poems. Plath’s interest in stones and crystals for example, are reflected in the thick underlinings of words and definitions that include agate, amethyst...clear purple or bluish-violet...crystallized quartz...crystal-gazing ...crystal..cut for ornament or for use in magic...emerald...pit...The stone of a drupaceous fruit. We see these obdurate stone and gem surfaces in the language, and titles, of poems as diverse as “Crystal Gazer”, “Purdah”: “Jade-/Stone of the side”, “Berck-Plage”: “The sea, that crystallized”, “Insomniac”: “eyes mica-silver”, “Love Letter”: “stone-glittered”, “Owl”: “Diamond rings,” and “Poems, Potatoes”: “Stones, without conscience,” to name some instances. It is rare to come upon a page in the dictionary that doesn’t have at least a handful of underlined words and definitions, more often the pages are jammed with ink lines under words in every alphabet. Interesting too is the fact that Plath often chooses to underscore the definitions leaving the defined word unmarked. This artisan-like approach suggests how Plath mines -- the noun she underlines along with “precious stones...ore deposit...subterranean passage” -- connotations and contexts that interest her. “Adamant” for example has these definitions underlined: “1. An imaginary stone of impenetrable hardness; formerly the diamond. 2. An unbreakable obstacle; impenetrable hardness…adj. Impenetrably hard; hence, unyielding;” I notice that she often skips articles and prepositions, or the word’s grammatical purpose as she, instead, prefers to cull the metaphorical and material connotations.

Plath’s fondness for moons has the almost entire list of dictionary entries marked: “mooncalf”; “mooneye”; “moonfish”; “moonflower”; “moonseed”; “moonset”; moon-struck”; moonwort” moony”, references left unmarked by her ink pen are the more pedestrian “moonbeam”, “moon-blind”, “moonlight”, “moonlit”, “moonshine”, and “moonstone”. The moon “is merciless” in “Elm”, “A full moon” in “Lorelei” is “a bland mirror-sheen”, under “the moon’s rictus” an “Insomniac” is suffering on a “desert pillow”, “The moon is no door” in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, and of course, “The moon has nothing to be sad about,” in “Edge”.

What emerges after reading through a plethora of underlinings is of a poet’s intense attention to what the word, or word-definitions, can do, for the myriad ways they, like clay in a potter’s hands, can be shaped. “Burn” for example, as verb and noun, is underlined almost entirely for its active uses and consequences, rather than its more passive or descriptive usages. This is how the section in the dictionary looks:

1. To be on fire; to give forth light and heat during combustion. 2. To feel, or to appear, as if on fire or excessively heated; as, to burn with anger. 3. To be charred, scorched, scalded, withered, etc. by the action of fire or heat. 4. Chem. To undergo combustion of any kind. — v.t. 1. To consume or destroy with flames or heat. 2. To injure or change destructively by fire or heat; to scald, scorch, singe, etc. 3. To make or produce by means of fire or heat; as to burn a hole. 4. To subject to the action of fire or heat in order to perfect, condition, etc.; as, to burn clay for pottery; specif., to cauterize. 5. To affect in a way that is like or suggests the action of fire or heat; as, to burn the mouth with pepper. 6. Chem. To cause to undergo combustion. — n. 1. A hurt, injury, or effect caused by burning.

Reading the marked lines by themselves creates immediacy; one both palpable and hypnotic, the effect is almost alchemic as the words take on intensity with the repeated underscoring of “fire”, “heat”, “scalded”, “scald”, “scorched” and “scorch”. It is as if Plath understood just this effect, that the “ore...Any material containing valuable metallic constituents for the sake of which it is minded and worked” is what, given the poet’s intentions, will “blaze” in “great activity... making” for “Splendor; effulgence; glare;” I took Plath’s underlined definitions for “burn” and made line breaks where her pen markings ended, or where there was a semi-colon; the lines used are those she underscored. I wanted to see how, together, the language she favored might recreate a context for how Plath experienced them. My only liberty was to add periods at the ends of lines three, four, and six.

To be on fire;
to give forth light and heat
be charred, scorched, scalded, withered.
To consume or destroy.
To injure or change destructively by fire or heat
scald, scorch, singe.
To subject to the action of fire or heat
hurt, injury, or effect caused burning.

Note: all underlined words and phrases are faithful to Sylvia Plath’s ink underlinings in her 1949 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, (2nd Edition), G. &C. Merriam Co. Publishers, Springfield, MASS., USA. The dictionary is part of the Sylvia Plath Collection in the Mortimer Rare Book Room of the Neilson Library, Smith College.