Letter: Poem with a chequered past

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RE THE article 'Everything but the truth' (Sunday Review, 9 October) by Claire Tomalin and the poem by Sylvia Plath, with comments by Michael Frayn, I should like to provide some additional information.

'Mad Girl's Love Song', like its creator, had a rather chequered past. One can assume that its date of composition was the spring of 1953, since it was published for the first time by the Smith Review in May 1953, when Plath was in her third year at university. It was just three months before her first suicide attempt, on 24 August 1953. According to my research, Plath described it as her 'favorite villanelle', a poem that her lover Philip McCurdy has suggested was 'the crafty outgrowth' of their relationship and her intense reaction to Dylan Thomas.

The poem next appeared in the August issue of the glossy magazine Mademoiselle the same year, after the month Plath spent in New York as guest editor (as dramatised in her novel The Bell Jar). The poem is an eerie foretelling of her descent into the crawlspace under the porch of her family home where she took an overdose of sleeping pills and remained entombed for two days.

When Plath's suicide attempt appeared in a Boston tabloid, 'Mad Girl's Love Song' was reprinted alongside the facts of her disappearance: the third time the poem appeared.

One wonders why the poem was omitted from Plath's Collected Poems, first published in 1981. The critic Denis Donoghue wondered as well, in the New York Times Book Review, where he noted the 'haphazard' publishing history of Plath's work, and a number of missing poems - among them 'Mad Girl's Love Song'. In 1982, almost two decades after her death, this collection received the highest honour the American literary community can bestow on a writer's work: the Pulitzer Prize.

I applaud Claire Tomalin's remarks about the legitimacy of biographical writing (unlike that of the cynical Janet Malcolm) that 'may concern itself with the shape of a life, with its human, historical and cultural context . . . and do justice to one who has not yet received it . . . uncover(ing) aspects of history that have been overlooked, or examine the interaction of a life and the work produced'.

Marianne Nault

Birmingham

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