Sylvia Plath lives on at Indiana University Northwest.
Remarkably, the famed, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, whose suicide in 1963 came before the publication of her acclaimed collection of verses, Ariel, never had a journal devoted solely to the study of her life and works until this year. IU Northwest Professor of English William Buckley, Ph.D., himself a noted poet, author and artist who frequently uses Northwest Indiana as the working-class backdrop for his writing, is the founding editor of "Plath Profiles," the online journal dedicated to scholarly examinations and personal reflections related to Plath’s work. The publication went online earlier this year at http://www.iun.edu/~plath/.
“She is the best American female poet since Emily Dickinson,” said Buckley, who teaches Plath in his classes and who has also written poetry inspired by her work. “She has worldwide appeal. She’s been translated into probably 20 languages.
“Her appeal is interdisciplinary and widespread, and the journal reflects that,” he explained. “It has essays, book reviews, art, photography, college essays, and even high school contributions. We have a youth forum and autobiographical sketches. And there are notes and responses. So it’s not just your usual academic journal.”
Plath, who also wrote a lone novel, "The Bell Jar," was the only American writer ever to receive the Pulitzer posthumously. But her struggles with mental illness, her tumultuous marriage to British poet Ted Hughes, and the sorrowful details of her death have become as much a part of Plath’s cultural legacy as her writings.
Yet, 45 years after her passing, Buckley said Plath’s words still resonate with readers worldwide. In particular, Plath’s poem regarding her father has struck a chord with generations of women, he said.
“It’s all because of that book Ariel, and especially her two poems, ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus,’” he said. “That book appeals to so many people. Plath appeals to women all over the world.”
It was his students’ powerful reaction to Plath’s verses that first compelled Buckley, whose academic areas of focus include 20th-century British literature, to study her work more closely. He first conceived of "Plath Profiles" after giving a presentation at the writer’s Massachusetts alma mater, Smith College.
“I was invited to give a speech on Virginia Woolf, and I had read in Sylvia Plath’s journals that she loved Virginia Woolf’s novels,” Buckley recalled. “So, instead of giving the usual academic paper, I wrote these poems, or I tried to write them, in the voice of Sylvia Plath.
“It was a pretty pretentious thing to do,” he admitted. “But I thought I’d do it, anyway, just to see if I could talk about Plath in relation to her love for Virginia Woolf. I read these poems in front of an all-female audience at Smith College, and it got a big reception.”
Impressed by the degree of interest in Plath, Buckley searched for existing journals devoted to her life and work and found none. But IU Bloomington’s Lilly Library possesses the world’s largest collection of Sylvia Plath papers, providing Buckley with an expansive foundation of research and support materials. Kathleen Connors, Ph.D., Plath specialist and visiting scholar in the IU Department of English at Bloomington, invited Buckley to attend the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium at Oxford University in October 2007. There, Buckley pitched his idea to other “Plathites,” who enthusiastically agreed to take part in "Plath Profiles."
The journal, cosponsored by Indiana University, Oxford University and Smith College, features many of the papers and presentations given at the Plath symposium, which convenes every five years. The diversity of works and viewpoints presented at Oxford demonstrated that Plath’s relevance and appeal extend across borders, cultures and languages, Buckley said.
“We’ve noticed interest from all over the world, especially from the Eastern countries,” he said. “She’s being taught in Japan now. So the journal is an attempt to try and understand why. If we can read what people are saying about her, then we’ll know why this American female poet has such an appeal to people in countries that you’d never think would be interested in her.”
The diversity of the "Plath Profiles" editorial board attests to the cross-cultural impact of Plath’s work. Its members hail from a broad spectrum of American universities – Harvard University (where Plath Profiles webmaster Peter Steinberg works at the Houghton Library), Trinity College, Oregon State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among notable others – but the board also includes representatives from schools in Turkey, Romania, England, India, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, and Iran.
Just as Plath speaks to people from across the social and cultural spectrum, Buckley said, "Plath Profiles" is meant to provide a forum where academics, Plath devotees, writers and artists, casual readers, and students may all communicate their thoughts, reactions and insights related to her work.
“We really want to be a different kind of journal, where everybody from all walks of life is involved,” he explained. “A practicing clinical psychologist came to the (Oxford) conference and delivered a paper. A surgeon came to the conference and delivered a paper. A female truck driver from Australia came to the conference and gave a paper. A young woman who works at a gas station here in the United States, who reads Sylvia Plath in between checking out her customers, came to the conference to listen to what was being said about Plath. I met a woman from Hong Kong in the Lilly Library, an independently wealthy Chinese woman, who is spending her money to travel around the world to visit Plath sites and write about Plath.”
And so, 45 years after her death, the works of Sylvia Plath continue to inspire, fascinate and resonate with readers the world over. As conceived by Buckley and his coterie of fellow academics and Plath admirers, "Plath Profiles" serves not merely as a reflection of the author and poet herself, but as a living, vital portrait of the people whose lives Plath’s words continue to touch and transform.