While most readers know her for the incandescent prose and poetry she produced as a young woman, Sylvia Plath was creating from the moment she got her hands on pen and paper, and became a published writer at the age of eight when the Boston Herald printed one of her poems.
So much of her life during her later years has been bound into books—her journals can even be purchased right on Amazon for 11 bucks; every tear dropped and smile cracked splayed across a page for anyone to flip through. Plath's younger years are less documented, but shelved away in the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, pieces of Plath's childhood exist, preserved under lock and key.
The NYPL holds some fantastic manuscripts from Plath's life, and we had a chance to see the small collection years ago, but due to copyright issues and various layers of red tape it's been nearly impossible to publish any of it here. Recently, however, we paid another visit, and were given the clearance needed to share it all in the above video.
Patti Smith recently commented on the collection after seeing it herself:
"We saw her notebook from when she was a little girl and poems from when she was seven. It made me realize what a scattered child I was. She was so precise. She had her little notebook. She had her poems, all different stages of her life. She was truly a poet. She was just born a poet. It was very touching to see her manuscripts from childhood to later in life and beautiful that you have them."
The "juvenilia" items range from lighthearted (a drawing of a cat!) to heavy, and you never get a carefree vibe while looking at it. As Smith points out, it seems everything created had a purpose behind it.
A drawing of herself has the caption: "This is Sylvia. She smiles and is polite." Other drawings, like the one above, were meant to cheer up her brother while he was sick. There's a notebook in which she copied out poems by other writers she admired, and then there's her own original poetry.
"Here's something... she signs it, 'by Sylvia Plath, 8 years old.' It's called Winter in Magic," said Isaac Gewirtz, holding out a sheet of paper during a visit to the collection he oversees. "I'll just read the first sentence or so. 'The snow was sifting upon a little town. It was night on Christmas Eve. Everybody in the town was having a feast. All but one house in which the blinds were torn. There was no smoke coming out of the chimney. Inside there were four children and a poor mother dividing a crust of bread with a candle in the middle of the table.' So, this is going to be a very poignant story, and you can see the Plath sensibility even at eight years old."
The Plath materials are held in Berg Collection, and you need to be a researcher with a purpose in order to make an appointment to see them. For this reason, and because the Plath Estate holds the rights to them, they have never been so publicly shared. We'll have more on the NYPL's Plath holdings—from later in her life—coming up soon.