Graduate Conference: Ted and Sylvia

Are you a fan of Sylvia Plath? How about Ted Hughes? Or maybe you just want to know what kind of research our graduate students are doing, or why I have included a photo of Sylvia Plath feeding a deer at Algonquin Park, and what does that have to do with all of this? Read on to find out more!–JLH 

On July 29, the students of “English 735: Ted and Sylvia,” taught by professor Murray McArthur, held a conference to present their research projects. “Ted and Sylvia” was devoted to the seven years of the partnership of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath from their tumultuous meeting on February 25, 1956 to her death in February 1963. Organized around Birthday Letters, the lyric-narrative cycle that Hughes published in 1998, the year of his death, the course also addressed his first two volumes of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Lupercal (1960), her first volume, The Colossus (1960), her journals and letters home, and her novel, The Bell Jar (1963), and the two arrangements of Ariel, the manuscript she created in December 1962 and the very different volume published by Hughes in 1965. The program was as follows:

Session One: 12:30-2:20

Sarah Walker: “Toward One Self, or Oneself?: The Authenticity of the Divided Self in The Bell Jar and Ariel”:
This paper examined the ways in which Sylvia Plath presented the idea of her many different selves as a sincere and accurate means of expressing her identity. The paper attempted to offer a brief critique of the concept of Plath having only one, true “authentic” self that she progressed toward, and instead put forward the view that Plath was always presenting this divided self to her readers in her works in prose and poetry.

Airlie Heung: “Ted and Sylvia’s Summer Travels of 1959: ‘The 59th Bear’ Short Stories and Poems”:
During the journey across Canada (photo of Sylvia feeding the deer at Algonquin Park) and the U.S.A. in the summer of 1959, Sylvia Plath wrote no journal entries. Suspecting she was pregnant (an obsessive topic of the journals), which was confirmed when they returned and went to Yaddho in October, she wrote instead the short story “The Fifty-ninth Bear,” which Ted responded to thirty years later through a poem with that title and four others about the journey in Birthday Letters.

Michelle Irvine: “Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Prose Mediated by History”:
In October 1962 when Plath wrote twenty-six of the poems for Ariel, coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been on the BBC on her radio in Dorset continuously. The historical, however, has been little considered in relation to Plath, and this paper examines the historical in Plath through four aspects: the historical references in Ariel; the reception of Plath as historical by second wave Feminism; her writings as historical archive; Hughes’ use of history to control the narrative of Birthday Letters.


Samuel Rowland: “The Hawk Is Howling: Sublimity and Synaesthetic Metaphor in The Hawk in the Rain”:
This paper discussed synaesthesia and the sublime in Ted Hughes’s poem “Wind.” This paper will be the basis for a larger research essay on sensation, perception, and the continuous motif in Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain of the horizon, a motif foregrounded in his 1962 BBC broadcast “The Rock,” about his birthplace of Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire.

Session Two: 2:30-4:20

Aleczandra Sallows: “The ‘Ariel Poems’: Sylvia Plath’s Salvation and Demise”:
This paper examined specific examples of Plath’s conflicting emotions towards the people around her as well her own views of life. The aim of this paper was to prove that Plath cured herself of these conflicting emotions through her writing of the “Ariel” poems in an attempt to reveal her true self; however, through this process she stripped herself of all of the love relationships in her life and lost her identity, which ultimately led to her suicide.

Brittany Rossler: “Reading the Poetic Rainbow: Continuing the Conversation in Colour in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes”:
This paper examined the palette of colours in the poetry of Sylvia Plath and the responses of Ted Hughes to the seven-colour spectrum of Ariel. Plath colourized or colour-coded her poetry, especially through the key colours of red, white, and blue, and Hughes responded throughout Birthday Letters towards the last poem in the sequence, “Blue,” where he turned the famous red head scarf stolen at their first meeting blue.

Jessica-Leigh Van De Kemp: “’I Eat My Way’: Poetry-as-Eat in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Poems for a Birthday’”:
This study of Sylvia Plath’s poetic sequence “Poem for a Birthday” identifies William Slaughter’s eating metaphor as the prime device that Plath uses to position poetry as a generative process within the body. The metaphor of poetry-as-eat allows Plath to bridge the gap between her vocations as poet and mother and links the composition process to ideas of identity, ventriloquy, and writing the body.

Victoria Feth: “’Bones Still Undergoing Everything’: Burying and Raising the Future in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters”:
Among corporeal bodies, like Sylvia Plath’s, the futuregiven a textual body by Ted Hughes’ poeticsis buried throughout Birthday Letters. Unlike Sylvia, this paper argued that the unrealized futures cannot be resurrected, even symbolically, through the act of poetry making.

Thank you to the students of 735 for sharing their research.

Image credit: Etsy.


3 responses to “Graduate Conference: Ted and Sylvia

  1. I wonder if the conference ended with a viewing of the Paltrow movie about Plath?

  2. Could the author of this blog post please contact me

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