Unpublished Sylvia Plath poem brought to you by an undergraduate blog at UMW?!

Sylvia PlathOk, I’m gonna take a different tact from the RIAA’s methods of dealing with college students, rather then threatening suit and certain incrimination -I will celebrate the unbelievably cool work that has been going on here at UMW. Amanda Rutstein has been blogging an independent study on Sylvia Plath that she is doing with Professor Claudia Emerson (this prof even has her own wikipedia article for good reason!). She found the WordPress Multi-User site I created for the English, Linguistics, and Speech department (an experiment of sorts), and decided that a blog may be useful way to track the progress of her Plath research over the course of the semester. I don’t think anyone had any idea how useful it would prove!

Amanda started discussing her readings of Plath while talking about all the cool resources available to scholars on sites like YouTube. Moreover, she blogged a discussion her class had with Dr. Donovan from VCU, who is the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Blackbird. During this discussion it came out that one of the students at VCU had “discovered” a poem by Sylvia Plath, “Ennui,” and Blackbird had published the piece to much acclaim. This was obviously a source of excitement for a budding Plath scholar and led Amanda to some more research -all of which she has blogged. To make a long, amazing story about undergraduate research a bit shorter -Amanda quickly realized that there are a number of Plath’s earlier poems in the Lilly Library at Indiana University that have already been indexed, including “Ennui,” but not published in the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Seems like the great find by Blackbird had already been discovered, and that many of Plath’s early poems have by sequestered in the Lilly Library for scholars but remain unpublished for a broader audience. According to Amanda:

I’ve been reviewing the articles that came out around the time that “Ennui” was published in Blackbird and I am continually surprised by the quotes I find! For instance the one listed above which I found in both The Washington Post and USA Today. In an effort to remain unbiased and fair I was giving Dr. Donovan (the editor of Blackbird) and Anna Journey (the graduate student who “found” “Ennui”) the benefit of the doubt and hoping that they had just been rather vague in describing how she “found” the sonnet, rather than simply claiming it a true discovery (in every sense of the word). However, it seems that everyone I’ve spoken with, and everyone in conjunction with Sylvia Plath (ie: Linda Wagner-Martin) were all under the same assumption I was: that Anna Journey did find an undiscovered poem. It seems completely inconceivable that no one ever flipped to the end of Plath’s Collected Poems and saw the list that allowed me such easy access to Plath’s unpublished poetry! I hate to harp on this, but I’m going to! All of Sylvia Plath’s unpublished juvenilia is accounted for and catalogued and safely stored in her archive at the Lilly Library.

She follows this with a very cool point:

For a minimal fee, and a reasonable reason, any student/teacher/scholar can get a copy of these poems and a chance to try to get them published. It is criminal, in my opinion, that this is not common knowledge, and has been, in effect, further hidden from the public due to the publication of “Ennui”.

Wow, so Amanda’s process has led her to an interesting discovery about the whereabouts of Plath’s earlier, unpublished poems. She then goes on to secure a copy of an unpublished poem from the Lilly Library for herself:

Very exciting stuff!!! I just got a letter from the Lilly Library with a copy of the poem I had requested along with all the paperwork I will need to get publishing rights. I might try to get rights to reproduce the poem on this blog, because it seems like everything is running so smoothly that I might as well try. I cannot believe how quickly I was able to get a copy of this poem. The poem is titled “Words of Advice to an English Prof” it’s actually not a great poem. I mean it’s fine, it’s cute but it’s not written in any precise form although it does have a tight end rhyme. The neat thing is just that I’m reading it, that I own a copy and that it was so SO easy to get. It is also fascinating to see something so mediocre by such a fantastic poet, it really shows her progress. I would love to get the original draft with her professor’s notes on it. It’s late, and I don’t have anything specific to say right now other than to spread the news that I have the poem and hopefully soon I can share it with everyone right here on this blog!

And now she is simply waiting to get the go ahead from the Lilly Library to publish it! Imagine that, an undergraduate begins a process of studying Sylvia Plath’s poems three months ago, and is currently on the verge of presenting a heretofore unpublished poem by a literary giant to the rest of the world on her own blog. It just blows my little mind! Now you tell me undergraduate research won’t be affected by these tools! While no tool will ever be able to replace the passion and drive of student research -the possibilities of connecting, collaborating, and publishing one’s work to a larger audience is only a click away! If you’ve made it this far -do me a favor- let Amanda know that you’ve read her blog and that this is, indeed, a very cool thing!

Below is an ordered list of blog posts that take you through the quotes and details of Amanda’s discovery. Well worth following at length! Also, rather than commenting here -please save your comments for Amanda’s posts. She deserves all the meager attention I can muster for the hard work and effort she has devoted to this research over the last several months.

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6 Responses to Unpublished Sylvia Plath poem brought to you by an undergraduate blog at UMW?!

  1. Amanda says:

    Thank you so much!!! This is such a nice shout out 🙂 Sorry about my terrible spelling/grammar. I just posted an update and it seems like i’m getting closer, we’ll see….

  2. jimgroom says:


    The suspense is killing me! You’re blog is started to frame a very interesting cliffhanger narrative. I’m on edge every time I get a new post in my RSS reader these days- “Will this be the one?”

    I’m crossing my fingers for you!

  3. A few clarifications are in order here.

    Amanda’s original blog article about the Blackbird publication of a previously unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath (the sonnet “Ennui”) contains a few innuendoes and statements that are, sadly, inaccurate, and there’s at least one big bad misunderstanding with which she is continuing to operate.

    Anna Journey, the grad student and Blackbird contributing editor who discovered the poem’s unpublished status and who set the Blackbird staff off on the long and winding road towards publishing it in the journal, has often publically stated and made it quite clear that the poem “Ennui” was indeed previously listed among Plath’s juvenalia, and that the poem is among quite a number of youthful works by Plath which are as yet unpublished, most of which are housed at the Lily Library in Indiana. The accompanying materials in Blackbird made that very clear as well. However, up until now, no one had ever published any of those poems written when Plath was a college student. Also important is that, in order to publish those poems, anyone wishing to do so must also (in addition to paying a fee to the Lily Library) gain permission from the Plath Estate–and that’s the difficult part. The Plath Estate is represented by several agencies in London, and ultimately permission comes from Plath’s own children, who as heirs still hold the copyright on everything written by their mother, no matter where it is stored. (The Lily Library can give you copies of the poems, but cannot give you permission to publish them.)

    Amanda has been presenting herself as a kind of discoverer, including bieng a discoverer of something akin to falsehood or deception on the part of Anna Journey or of Blackbird, and none of that is accurate. The Blackbird journal has not only presented the poem itself, but we also presented a fully documented account of the entire process of composition of the poem, including its literary allusions and sources, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and we described where and how it was found by Journey’s research, and she also discovered the Fitzgerald connection. It’s a wonderful and interesting story about the development of a young poet, and you can read all about it in the Fall, 2006 issue, always readily available in the Blackbird archives.

    I’m glad of all the attention which was brought to the early work and writing life of Sylvia Plath by our publishing the poem and the accompanying thorough description of its background in Blackbird, an event which also brought increased attention and legitmacy to all online publishing. (And I was glad of Amanda’s enthusiasm as well, until she began to write accusingly that there was any sort of deception being done by myself or Ms. Journey or Blackbird.) One final point I should again emphasize, as I have emphasized to Amanda and to her professor Claudia Emerson (who is a good friend of mine): everyone should be made aware that it is not ok to publish any of Plath’s works anywhere, anytime, including in a blog, unless they have the express and formal legal permission of the Plath estate (which also involves a fee to be paid, I should add).

    There are websites which are currently–and quite illegally–publishing poems written Sylvia Plath. Sooner or later, they may hear from the Plath Estate and be asked, at the least, to take those poems down or to pay a royalty, as those poems are all still in pring and fully protected under copyright law. A word to the wise.


    Dr. Gregory Donovan
    Senior Editor, Blackbird

  4. J. Douglass says:

    Academic Scholarship or a Novice’s Self-Serving Agenda?

    I fail to see any actual scholarship in the claims of the undergraduate blogger, Amanda. This type of academic sniping is not only uninformative (all lovers of Plath’s poetry know from her Collected Poems the indexed names of all the uncollected ”and perhaps unpublished” poems housed at the Lilly Library “no news there” guess what: there are also unpublished Plath poems housed in the library of her alma mater, Smith), but her position seems largely self-serving. It would seem, to this reader, that Amanda’s turbid prose ramblings and lax pseudo-scholarship boils down to a “look at me!” cry to the media outlets that reported the first publication of “Ennui” online in Blackbird.

    Also, it would seem that Amanda, from an academic standpoint, needs to develop a unique angle of vision regarding a specific unpublished Plath poem she wishes to promote: i.e. something other than the inane chant, “Did you know there are other unpublished Plath poems out there?” For example, the graduate student, Journey, whom the undergraduate seems to blame absurdly for the associated press’ rhetorical choices, connected “Ennui” to Plath’s response to reading Fitzgerald, research that an academic journal found fit to publish. As a professional in the field, some advice to the would-be scholar, Amanda: First, it’s better to make allies than enemies in one’s chosen academic field. Second, the mere novelty of a poem being unpublished is not sensational news: the critical stakes behind a given work are what gives substance to a true scholarly discovery. Third, by infringing on the copywrite of the illegally posted unpublished work, you exploit, rather than promote the estate of Sylvia Plath.

  5. jimgroom says:

    Thanks for the comments Dr.Donovan and J. Douglass.

    Amanda’s efforts, however misguided you understand them to be, would benefit tremendously from comments and clarifications from experts in the field-a conversational space wherein you could admonish and mentor Amanda’s work if you were truly interested. Making the choice to indirectly comment on her work here in many ways takes her entirely out of the picture, silences her, and de-contextualizes something she makes extremely clear here: she’s a student using a blog to work through her ideas for an independent study.

    Amanda makes no claim to expertise or authority and recognizes the blog as a venue through which she is tracing her ideas, making notes, and thinking through possibilities. Is that problematic for an undergraduate student? Well, I think it points to the possibilities for new forms of communion and tutelage that move beyond the confines of a classroom–allowing for a distributed community of interest to emerge–into a space wherein Amanda’s notions can be engaged, questioned and argued about civilly.

    Her blog seems to me a radically different process than getting publication rights and framing an introduction for a previously unpublished poem. It is a space for discourse that would benefit tremendously from individuals such as yourselves who can engage and guide Amanda’s discussion given your experience and credentials.

    All that being said, I believe an online publication such as Blackbird should be keenly aware of the space of the internet and how it has changed the face of publishing radically over the last few years in particular. Publications still need stewardship and rigor, but they must also engage the expectations of interaction that may encompass a wide range of opinions and reactions to what they publish. Blackbird has already proved forward looking in its conception and presentation of literature to the public for free, which is an unbelievable mission and accomplishment which I applaud.
    The next logical step, in my mind, is to imagine how Blackbird (given it is currently the professional standard) can harness and reflect the online discussions and reactions to the literature they publish. How do they frame an intellectual discourse through their publication that can trace the ways that scholars, artists, students, and interested readers respond to some many rich works. I firmly believe that if this space existed that Amanda’s reflections on her blog would never have garnered so much attention.

    Contemporary literature doesn’t belong in an online mausoleum, it should be released into the dialogic space the internet has become. Blackbird can blaze the path on this front as well-for the state of online publication is in fascinating moment of unparalleled transformation and proliferation. Not since the era of the printing press has the explosion of publications been so dramatic. Amanda’s blog is just one example of this new reality, bavatuesdays is yet another.

    Jim Groom

  6. Kathleen Connors says:

    Just a quick note in response to Dr. Donovan’s statement that none of Plath’s college poems have been published. This is not the case, as Hughes included a number of them in his juvenilia section of Collected Poems, and some poems she wrote in college were published at the time. Also, Lilly Library has a great deal of these poems, far more than indicated above, as well as earlier works. And while Dr. Donovan is absolutely correct on permissions, but there are no cases of the Plath Estate pursuing copyright violations on web use of a small amount of material.


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