‘I am your opus …’

September 28, 2012

During a fall semester at IU Bloomington nearly 40 years ago, I sat in a windowless room high in the tower of the Main (now Wells) Library and had my eyes opened. I was taking a class on 20th-century women writers, including H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. That class was taught by Susan Gubar, now Distinguished Professor Emerita of English at IU Bloomington. Back then–just two or three years after joining the IU Bloomington Department of English–Gubar was already at work on the research that led to The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, co-authored with Sandra Gilbert, published in 1979, and still hailed as a classic of literary and feminist criticism.

She was also busy teaching me and the other long-haired, blue-jeaned young women in the classroom about writing by women that some, maybe most, of us had known little about. I have never forgotten my sense of surprise–shock even–at discovering the angry, passionate, and brilliant words of poets such as Sylvia Plath. Yes, the second wave of the feminist movement was in full swing in the mid-70s, the ERA still seemed a real possibility then, but poems like “Lady Lazarus” (“I am your opus” comes from this poem), spoke of oppression and liberation in profoundly different ways.

Today,  just a few hundred yards away from that library classroom, IU’s Lilly Library houses one of the most extensive archives of holdings related to Sylvia Plath. Among the Plath collection at the Lilly are her diaries, drafts of major poems, artwork, stories, essays, photographs, letters, and even a collection of hand-made, painted paper dolls, and a lock of Plath’s hair. Commenting on the Lilly’s Plath collection, Christopher Irmscher, professor of English at IU Bloomington says, “Plath has become an iconic poet: her rebelliousness, anger, and cutting irony helped an entire generation of poets find their voice. But her papers at the Lilly — the multiple drafts of poems, the handwritten corrections and edits in the typescripts of her prose, the journal entries struggling for descriptive precision — paint a slightly different portrait: that of a seasoned professional who worked long and hard at perfecting her craft and reached such perfection at a very early age, a model for anyone anywhere who cares about good writing.”

Irmscher is one of the co-organizers of the Sylvia Plath Symposium 2012, commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Plath’s Ariel collection and its “October poems” that brought Plath fame. The event, held October 24-27, will include scholars, poets, artists, and panelists around the world. Symposium co-directors with Irmscher are Catherine Bowman, professor of poetry in IU Bloomington’s Creative Writing Program; Kathleen Connors, visiting scholar at the Department of English and guest curator at the IU Art Museum and Lilly Library; and Cherry Williams, curator of manuscripts at the Lilly Library.

Symposium events from Wednesday evening through Saturday, including panel discussions, film showings, and poetry readings, are free and open to all. I’ll be in the audience. There’s still so much to learn.

–Lauren Bryant



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