Thursday, 31 December 2015


It's New Year's Eve so I'd better write a post quickly so that my blog will have a post this year! I'll do a quick run down of my academic and Plath activities this year.

Earlier in the year - February of March I think - Frieda Hughes, Sylvia Plath's daughter, appeared at an event as part of the Bath Literature Festival. The event was to mark twenty years since her father, Ted Hughes, had appeared at the first Bath Literature Festival. At the beginning of the event it was announced that two respected broadcasters who had been scheduled to appear - Melvin Bragg and Jonathan Dimbleby - we're now not able to. There was an loud groan from the audience at this, but I was not disappointed. I booked my tickets quite late so I knew they would not be there, and I had come to see Frieda. She left others to read the poems that Ted Hughes had written and read some of her own work, concentrating particularly on thise which related to her father. 

I was a little in awe. What can I say? I listened intently. I looked around me a little to see whether others were as enthralled as I. They seemed to be. Kate Tempest, a recipient of an award in Ted Hughes's name, read and amazed the crowd with her passion and power. Then there was a signing. I picked up a copy of Frieda's latest book and stood in the queue to meet her. I didn't trust myself to speak too much in case I suddenly blurted out, 'Oh my God. You're Frieda Hughes!' or something, so I just said that I'd enjoyed the readings and she said she was glad and signed my book. 

So that was nice.

Another exciting thing was researching at the British Library in the summer. My wife and I went to London and stayed for one night. My wife was in the process of applying to do her PGCE teacher training course and was working like mad to be ready for all the tests that are required. No better surroundings than the public areas of the BL to do her work. My business was in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Before I could go in I needed to make my case to be admitted as a member of the library. I think that's pretty much a formality when you're a PhD student, but you can't help wondering at these times whether they'll rumble you and realise that you're really just some kid who grew up on the streets of Weston and has no place in these hallowed surroundings. Still, I aced it and they gave me the card. I had been online and ordered the manuscripts that I wanted to see so that they would be ready for me, so I went to the Humanities Reading Room. That lost me half an hour. I needed the Manuscripts Reading Room. 

To see manuscripts that came from Plath's pen and typescripts from her typewriter was an amazing thing. It gave me lots of ideas for research too. We spent a couple of days there and also took a little time to do some touristy things, too.

I was delighted when, a week or so later, I was asked by Peter K Steinberg, who as we say here, is a top bloke, to do a little research for a forthcoming book of Plath’s letters that he is editing. So I returned to the BL to look at some of their holdings there. My task was to look for clues as to the dates of the letters. I’m not sure I came up with anything earth-shattering – more a case of confirming what was already known really, but I was really happy to be able to contribute to such an important project.

I was also very happy to be asked by the journal Plath Profiles to peer-review some articles that had been submitted for publication, and to receive an acknowledgement in the journal.

Teaching full-time as I do and trying to fit the PhD around it is proving tough. The six week summer break was great; lots of time and space to think, but in term time it's hard. At the end of the day I'm tired - a special type of tiredness you only get from spending the day with a class of seven-year-olds. I'll need to find more time in the coming year. 

Happy new year!

Sunday, 7 December 2014


Well I guess I'll be writing in this blog more than I have hitherto as I have now been accepted to study for a PhD at the University of Exeter. This is basically a dream come true for me. The university has the country's highest rated English department for research (which is what I'll be doing of course!), and my supervisors are both experts on Plath who have each published important works about her. Plus the university is in the county that Sylvia Plath called home for a significant amount of time and in which she wrote her best work.

As I work full time teaching, I do have concerns about how I will find the time to research, but I am hoping I can keep things ticking over during term time and work hard during the holidays. I may have to scale back a few other things. For example, I volunteer as a governor at school and also volunteer to attend many residential trips and fund raising events. I enjoy all of them, something will have to go.

Overall, I feel delighted and proud to have been accepted. I can't quite believe I have been offered a place to study for the highest possible degree in one of the country's very best English departments. I hope I'm up to it. It's been seven years since I completed my master's and since then I've been teaching young children. It's quite weird switching from explaining things in the simplest terms possible so that a child can understand to thinking about things as deeply as possible so that it can push the boundaries of human knowledge.

I start in January and am just reading as much as I can in preparation. Can't wait to get started.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

It's the fire

Time for me to make an entry in my blog, so that I can mentally maintain the fiction that I keep a blog. The main thing that is going on with Plath and me is that I am pursuing the idea of starting a PhD based on her work. 

In 2007, I completed my Master's degree with a 26,000 word dissertation about Anne Sexton - a contemporary and acquaintance of Plath's. Like Plath's, Sexton's work has been regarded as of the confessional school because she made use of the events of her life to write her poetry. Like Plath, she committed suicide.

When I wrote my dissertation, I  picked Sexton almost at random. I'd initially wanted to research modern confessional writing - specifically writers such as John Diamond and Ruth Picardie who had written about their own serious illnesses. This was largely precipitated by the fact that I'd had cancer in 2001-2. I abandoned that idea of writing about it though, because it felt too close to home, and I would become depressed as I considered what  these writers were facing in their lives, and compared it to my own. One of the lecturers at Bath Spa remarked that I must be the only person ever to have studied a suicidal poet in an effort to cheer himself up. I kept a blog during my Masters year, and I actually wrote in it. It's here. The Masters dissertation itself is here. I'm proud of parts of it, and cringe a little at others. 

So I chose Sexton, and I grew to love her work. Both highly personal and highly poetic, I think. Anyway, the Masters was quite difficult, I think mainly because I didn't really know Sexton's work, so I had to get to know it and write about it at the same time. What I'm getting round to saying is that I have tried to approach things differently since I discovered a passion for Plath, and have spent he past year reading her work and biographies, and criticism of her poetry in order to be ready when the time came to start a PhD. I'm sure that it has been the right approach. Now, however, it is time to start thinking critically and academically. What is it about her work that makes it fascinating to me? I think the answer may lie in the title of this blog. It's the passion, the blood, the fire.

So I think that is where I need to concentrate my attention. I should probably also think about how on earth I'll pay the fees and find the time to do it. I am currently ignoring those problems - if I think about it too much, I'll start thinking realistically, and will talk myself out of it. Can't have that!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Those are not dogs

This post concerns my visit to Heptonstall, the resting place of Sylvia Plath, which I made on the sixth of August this year, about six weeks ago. It has taken a little while for me to work out how to approach this one. For one thing, I felt I didn't really want to do another this-is-what-I-did-and-this-is-what-it-meant-to-me post. And for another, I wanted to think about why I'm doing this sort of thing and why I'm telling the world all about it.

Why do people take offerings to graves? Most of my family who have died have been cremated, but in the churchyard on the same hill I live on in the South West of England, my maternal great-grandparents are buried and have a grave. Other family members, such as my grandparents, to whom I was close, were cremated, and have either a plaque of a decorated page in a book (or both) at the local crematorium. I rarely - well, never - visit those, and yet I do visit the grave of my great-grandparents, even though they died soon after I was born and I have no memory of them.
View from the hill approaching Heptonstall
I guess it's partly because of the grave and the tangibility of the fact that the bodies lie beneath, and partly because it's pretty close to the house, so I walk in that direction fairly frequently anyway. On the admittedly rare occasions -once or twice in my lifetime, I guess - that I have put some flowers on the grave, I have tried to choose something that I think they would have liked. This despite having no idea at all what they would have liked save for a vague notion of what types of flowers may have been popular during their time. I guess it seemed important that the grave reflect the occupant - but in fact it actually reflects my no doubt flawed and highly subjective mental picture of who they were or might have been.

I'm sure you can see where I am going with this. Photos I have seen of Sylvia Plath's grave show it covered in trinkets, tat and stones that reflect the feelings and wants of those who bring the offerings and probably not much else. Of course they do. How could it be otherwise for Plath, my great-grandparents or for anyone? 
The graveyard in which Sylvia Plath is buried
Many photos that I have seen online of her grave show baskets full of dozens of pens, red tulips such as those described in her poem of the same name, poppies, and probably other items that have been mentioned in her work. To what extent do these items reflect Plath herself, and to what extent do they reflect the needs and interests of they who offer them?  This raises all those questions with which so many in Plathdom wrestle. In attempting to keep our offerings focused on Plath herself, we cannot help but reflect ourselves. By looking for clues in her work in order to find appropriate symbols to reflect her life in some kind of meaningful or poignant way, we can in end up saying more about ourselves than she whom we seek to honour.

This goes equally, I would suggest, for much that is written about Plath, too. The debate continues to rage (as much as any literary debate can ever be said rage) as to the extent to which Plath is knowable through her work. Early criticism noted the undoubted biographical value of her poetry and prose, and at times sought to use it to discover clues as to her emotional state at various times of her life. Latterly, this has come to be seen as unsophisticated and unscholarly. A typical academic article about her now seems to start with a variation on this theme: 
Since her death, Sylvia Plath's work has tended to be read mainly for its biographical value, as if reading her poetry could somehow help to explain her mental state and the reasons for her untimely suicide. In this article I shall argue that these readings, whilst not necessarily inaccurate or unhelpful in themselves, have lead critics to overlook the many other ways in which her work may be read. 
Maybe this sort of approach is a step forward. Maybe not. That people are looking deeply into her work is an excellent thing, for sure. That they are realising that efforts to know her through her work are ultimately futile is also good, I'd say, although that certainly doesn't mean that there is nothing to learn of her life from her work - far from it.
On the other hand, perhaps we need to be wary and mindful that our musings, writings and scholarly activities may say as much or more about ourselves as they do about the poet, and into the bargain, we may in danger of beginning to deny that which brought us to her work in the first place. Overall, there is a vast amount that can be read into or found in her work and it should continue to provide much to analyse and reflect upon - for those interested in her life and for those who take other approaches. Maybe part of the true value of Plath's work is not what it tells us about her, but what it says about us.

I found the grave somewhat more overgrown than the surrounding ones - no doubt because her space in front of the headstone had been sown with various seeds and plants over the years.
All evidence of tat had been removed and there were no stones balanced on the headstone. Her married name of Hughes looked, as it does in other recent photos, only slightly different from the 'Sylvia Plath' part of her name. I believe it has now been many years since misguided feminists have defaced it. I did not place anything on the grave. I felt it was not my place to do so. I guess I was also mindful of the attack, by her widower, Ted Hughes, in his poem 'The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother', in which he characterises I'm not sure who - Plath fans? - as beasts who pull at her body with their lips and have robbed her children of her. I spent a quiet hour there, sat on a bench for a while, stroked a ginger cat, thought about the fact that Sylvia Plath's body - the body of the person whose words seem to mean a great deal -  was very close to me indeed, and took some photos. Some very lovely Plath people had suggested to me some other sites to visit in the area, but somehow I didn't want to, so I walked back through the village to my car, and drove home.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Sylvia Plath Lived Here

I blogged previously about my trip to  London to hear the readings of Plath's Ariel at Royal Festival Hall in May. What I did not say about that day was that, en route to the hall, I visited two places in which Sylvia Plath had lived in London.

When I learned that the Ariel reading would be taking place, I resolved to be there and went online to buy a ticket at the first opportunity. I chose a seat in the rear stall, as these were the best seats available that I could afford. As popular as Plath undoubtedly is, there's no getting away from the fact that, in the scheme of things, literature is a bit of a niche interest these days. Even more so, poetry. And even more so any particular poet. Because of this, I am quite accustomed to attending Plath-related events alone. Indeed, it is often conducive to the enjoyment of the experience to be so, as it affords the chance to contemplate. Still, I fancied some company for this jaunt, so I asked my mum if she's like to come. She would. Great. The seats near to the one I had already reserved were also reserved by now, so we bought two tickets for seats on the balcony. Sadly, she was not well in the week leading up to the day of the performance, and felt that she'd be hard pressed not to cough loudly through the performance. In fact, it would hardly have mattered, since, as I reported in my review of the event, each set of three readings was received with loud coughing from hundreds of people in the audience! 

So I drove up alone, but happy to be taking the trip, and with a choice of three seats in which to sit. Before the performance, I wanted to visit two places.
3 Chalcot Square

3 Chalcot Square, where Plath lived with Ted Hughes in 1960-1961, and 23 Fitzroy Road, where she lived the last weeks of her life in 1962-63. I guess I'd chosen to see the houses in this order in order to give myself a little time to psych myself up for seeing  Fitzroy Road, the place in which Plath ended her life. My plan didn't work out though. I wasn't very familiar with the geography of the place, and had not realised that the two roads intersect each other. Thus my route to Chalcot Square sent me through Fitzroy Road. I had a strange feeling as I unexpectedly saw the plaque, to former occupant WB Yeats, on the front of the house as I drove by and realised the significance of the place I'd just past.

I drove round to Chalcot Square and parked the car near to number 3. Behind me was one of those lovely little semi-public gardens that they sometimes have in squares In London.

The house overlooked this. I wound down the window of the car. It was a hot day, and families were playing and sunbathing, whilst the sound of live jazz drifted through the air, from the garden of a nearby pub, I assumed. It was an idyllic scene.
The garden at Chalcot Square

I had not expected this! I've been to London quite a few times, but always to visit museums, galleries, shops or theatres. I usually return home thinking that I'd enjoyed the day, but couldn't bear the hustle and bustle for a longer period. Now I saw another side of the city. I could imagine two young writers being happy and inspired here. Come to think of it, each of the two places in which Plath has lived that I've visited - this part of London and Court Green - has been very different from my expectation. Court Green, which I'd envisaged as a rural idyll was in fact rather bleak - in February at least - whereas this area that I'd expected to be noisy and busy was just the opposite.

In biographies I've read, the flat at no. 3 is described as tiny: a lounge, a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen on the second floor (or the third if you use the American system).
23 Fitzroy Road

I spent about forty-five minutes there. For part of the time I sat in the car relaxing and reading, and I also walked around the square, looked at the house and took photos. I walked round to Fitzroy Road too. I took a couple of photos. The place was covered in scaffolding. Of course it is the place in which she died and in which she wrote her final poems. I didn't really connect with it. The road was busy and the atmosphere felt different from that of Chalcot Square. I soon walked back to the car.

I drove to the Southbank Centre, where the reading was taking place at Royal Festival Hall. The relaxed atmosphere outside the hall seemed to mirror that of Chalcot Square, and seemed perfect for the occasion.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The bees are all women - Sylvia Plath's Ariel at Royal Festival Hall

I know of no other poet, living or not, whose work read by others could fill the 2,500-seat Royal Festival Hall as Sylvia Plath’s did yesterday. That alone must be a testament to the enduring appeal of her work.

Three lecterns at the front of the stage stood equally spaced in front of a semicircle of chairs from which the performers would rise in groups to deliver Plath’s Ariel poems in the order in which they were left when she died. 
The stage set up for the performance
Plath groupie that I am, I found it an extraordinary thing simply to be in the same room as Plath and Ted Hughes’s daughter, Frieda, who introduced the evening. During the afternoon I had visited the flat in which fifty years ago, Sylvia Plath ended her life, whilst the woman speaking now – then an infant - and her brother were sealed in an adjoining room. Now here she was, a middle-aged woman a little older than me introducing a reading of her mother’s work.

Frieda Hughes remarked that she had wondered what to wear for the evening, joking as she gestured towards the other performers that she had plenty of others from whom to seek advice. She described each of the two versions of Ariel as important and was at pains to point out, I felt, that her own ‘restored’ version was not intended to replace the one edited by her father, but to stand alongside it. Frieda asked that the audience refrain from applauding individual poems – no matter how strongly they felt the need – and save their shows of appreciation for the end. Thus the readings began – though Frieda may have come to regret her plea, as each set of three readings was received with loud coughing –presumably people had been desperately stifling them during the readings.

I would characterise the evening as very successful. A triumph, even – though not without its ups and downs. According to the one-side-of-A4 programme, it was Gerda Stevenson who kicked off the readings. Her energetic reading of the poem contrasted with my own internal reading, and set the tone for the evening.
Outside the hall, an hour before the show
I was reminded that Plath said of these poems that they should be read aloud, and this seemed to be especially apt for this evening of live readings, some of which, with their varied emphasis and intonation, suggested hints of new meaning. Emily Bruni’s delivery of ‘Lady Lazarus’ highlighted this, I thought. For example, whereas Plath’s own reading emphasises the word, ‘knocks me out’, Bruni’s ‘knocks me out’ seemed to move the meaning away from the notion that Plath’s poetry is purely personal (stressing the word ‘me’) and render the message more inclusive. The significance of this seemed to be further underlined with the delivery of the line, ‘Nevertheless, I am the same, [pause] identical woman.’ The pause – for me at least - drawing attention to the commonality of experience suggested by the word preceding the pause.

Who could follow that, I wondered. Juliet Stevenson, of course, reading one of my favourite Ariel poems, ‘Tulips’. Delivered calmly and confidently but with feeling – I was a little surprised when she fluffed a line – perhaps two. Presently it was time for Ruth Fainlight to read ‘Elm’. Fainlight was the only performer other than Frieda to speak any words that were not Sylvia Plath’s, explaining briefly that ‘Sylvia’ had dedicated the poem to her. A little later, during the reading of the ‘Ariel’ poem, she seemed a little frail, leaving the stage with the aid of a stick and seemingly bidding goodbye to her fellow performers. Happily she returned about thirty minutes later.

As I said, there were lows as well as highs. I agree with the sentiments expressed by Angel DeMonica in her review on Sylvia Plath Info, about the delivery of ‘Poppies in October’, which I felt was delivered in a somewhat perfunctory manner. A little later however, as the actors sat down and the lights dimmed, we were about to experience the highlight of the event: The famous recording of Sylvia Plath reading ‘Daddy’. Her voice seemed bright and clear without any of the background hiss that I’m used to hearing as a backing-track to the reading. Her black and white picture filled the screen which had until now held the moving colour images of the performers, the static monochrome seeming to emphasise the distance of years between then and now, even as the quality of the recorded voice served to stress the opposite.

There were a couple of unexpected laughs from the audience – including one towards the end of the night for Messrs Tate and Lyall!
The view from Royal Festival Hall's balcony after the performance
I found myself yearning somewhat for some of the wonderful poems that are not included in this version of Ariel: ‘Poppies in July’, ‘Sheep in Fog’, ‘Edge’…

I surveyed the all-female cast as Deborah Findlay delivered the line, ‘The bees are all women,’ but any wishes I may have had that at least one male speaker had been included – if only to escape from the notion that speaker in these poems can be identified as the unmediated outpourings of Plath herself – quickly evaporated as she lifted her head to deliver the event’s final line, ‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring.’ A pause – then the applause that we had obediently held back was delivered with full force.

Overall, it was an amazing thing to spend the evening with 2,500 fellow Plathies. At their best, the readings were thought-provoking and suggested new shades of meaning that I had not previously considered. Plath, it seems, was right to say that the Ariel poems should be read aloud. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Glimpsing The Ghostly Archives

I'm  so glad I live in the age of SatNav. There was a time when taking a trip to anywhere was a hellish experience for me. Amongst many navigating disasters, I remember searching for the venue of a job interview in Bristol in 1999, and getting so lost I had to phone my wife from my new mobile phone and have her direct me. 
Maps - I just don't understand how they work.

Likewise, some years ago I arranged to meet a friend for coffee in Bath and another group of friends for lunch, and was hopelessly late for both as I took wrong-turns on a route I'd travelled many times before. All the while, as I searched for these places, I'd internally berate myself for such idiocy. A sign of manliness in our society  is, it seems, to be able to talk about the route you took to arrive at a particular place. "Did you take the A472, or the back roads?", people will ask. I don't know!! 

Thanks to SatNav, I had no such trouble when I needed to get from the school at which I teach in Weston-super-Mare to Plymouth University in time for the preview recitation of These Ghostly Archives 5. It's just a case of inputting the correct postcode and doing as you're told. I can do that.

As soon as my interest in Plath began in earnest, I took to Googling her name regularly, in order to discover any events that may be of interest. From one of these I found that Peter K. Steinberg and Gail Crowther were to present a preview of their paper in Plymouth on March 20th. I immediately decided that I would be there. On the day, I left school immediately and the SatNav told me I'd be in good time to arrive about thirty minutes early. As I drove however, my elderly Vauxhall protested a little and so I drove at 55-60 most of the way. The ETA on the SatNav crept up steadily and I in fact arrived at around ten to six. With the talk due to begin at six, I realised that no on-campus parking was available. By the time I'd parked, walked for a while in the wrong direction and looked for the building, I was about five or ten minutes late. 

Climbing the stairs to the room on the seventh floor of the building, I entered the room as the introductory speaker was well under way, and sat down at the back of the room,
The Rolle Building - Plymouth University

attempting to control my breathing from the exertion of climbing the stairs (I hate lifts - perhaps because my brothers and I were trapped in one in Paris when I was thirteen), and surreptitiously taking a puff on my inhaler.

I had read the revelations that Peter and Gail had already made from their discoveries from various Plath archives, published in the online interdisciplinary journal Plath Profiles, and was therefore ready to be astonished by their further revelations on this day. The paper has not yet been published, so it would be wrong of me to reveal any of its contents here, but I'm sure it's okay to say that the revelations that were presented surpassed my expectations and left me amazed that such things were still discoverable from archives and locations which have been mined by many for many years.

An unexpected pleasure was that Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of Sylvia Plath from her time in North Tawton and co-dedicatee of The Bell Jar, was in attendance, and spoke at length about her personal relationship with Plath and Ted Hughes. Elizabeth also brought Sylvia Plath's heavily annotated copy of a book of - I think - Dylan Thomas's poems. 
Elizabeth's dedication in The Bell Jar

We broke for drinks and returned for questions. I am very aware that Sylvia Plath's suicide is for some a part of the reason for their interest in her. However , I was very surprised at the extent to which some of the questions dwelt on this. Indeed, far from asking questions of the panel about the paper that had presented, some simply made statements of their own opinions about the supposed selfishness of suicide, which I felt was discourteous to the panel and irrelevant to the reasons for which I had supposed we were all there. Surely a gathering such as this, fifty years after her Plath's death, was taking place because of the poetry and prose she had written and - in my supposition at least - what it had meant to each us; and was supposed to be more than a simple forum for people to attempt to impose their views about her final act. Despite feeling a little reticent - shy if I'm to be honest - I wanted to ask a question and felt I should. I asked Gail about the correspondence regarding the biography Bitter Fame she had seen in the archives at Smith College, which she had mentioned in These Ghostly Archives 4 and I received a fascinating and illuminating answer.

It was amazing to hear about the things Peter and Gail had done and seen, and I was flattered that Peter complimented my question via Twitter the next day. It was also encouraging that Gail, like me, has a fear of flying, and yet has visited Smith College to work on the Plath archives. I have since been looking into the prices of cabins on the Queen Mary - the only liner which now makes trips to the States.

I would have loved to have stayed for a while to talk to people after the event, but I had a long trip in a potentially unreliable car to look forward to, so I left as soon as the questions were done. However, I was delighted to attend and spend a few hours in the company of people who understand what it is to be  so fascinated with a single poet, and I'm looking forward to reading the full paper when it's published in the summer.