Poetry News

The Handwritten Track Lists of Sylvia Plath

By Harriet Staff


Over at the Houghton Library Blog, there's a fascinating analysis of Sylvia Plath's handwritten track-lists from her 1958 and 1959 recordings. The recordings and track-lists are especially interesting because they pre-date the publication of The Colossus, her first collection, by two years:

In Plath’s penmanship, particularly as it appears on the back of her February 1959 reel, there is a curious disjunction between her rotund, balloon-like and almost teenage hand (accompanied by a cartoon animal and a curlicue ornament) and the nature of the poems that she recorded that day—stark, syllabically precise, and highly imagistic texts. The pinkish-red pen that accompanied her 1958 track-list was apparently quite characteristic of her: Plath scholar and former Poetry Room staff member Peter K. Steinberg reminded me that Plath had a predilection for composing her acute and piercing poems on pink paper.

For scholars, there is also an illuminating textual disjunction between the poems as they were recorded (and annotated on the reels) and the way in which they were later published. Of the 1958 reel, Steinberg observes: “The tracking listings include five poems titled in a state previous to their final form: for example ‘Mad Maudlin’ becomes ‘Maudlin’; ‘Nocturne’ was first ‘Night Walk’ before it changed to ‘Hardcastle Crags’; and ‘The Moon Was a Fat Woman Once’ was pared down to ‘The Thin People.’”

But what is the “final” form? An audio archive offers the possibility of the co-existence of multiple instances of a poem and of different embodiments of the poet over time and in variable contexts. Recordings reveal the poet changing his/her relationship to the poems being recorded, as well as alterations in his/her own physicality (the voice aging, the voice growing more confident or tentative, performative or conversational, or in Plath’s case the vowels becoming more British and the consonants more clipped over the course of her very brief recording career). Much like manuscript archives, sound archives also contain variant versions of the seemingly “same” poem—from last-minute title changes to entire stanzas or sections being excised. Sometimes these edits are made in direct response to making an audio recording. Plath herself deleted “The Earthenware Head” from her manuscript shortly after making her 1958 recording (she notes in her diary less than two weeks later, “I am rejecting more and more poems from my book …. ‘The Earthenware Head’ is out: once, in England, ‘my best poem.’”) Along the same lines, T. S. Eliot once spoke of the transformation that occurred in Four Quartets after having to record sections of the poem over and over again due to electrical outages during the Blitz.

You'll find the rest of the post (as well as more pictures of the track lists) over at the Houghton Library Blog.

Originally Published: March 8th, 2013