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Karen Kukil Teaches the Editing Process Through Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

Karen Kukil teaching Plath class, January 2019

Karen Kukil engages students Olivia Handoko ‘21 and Iris Afantchao ‘20 in Sylvia Plath’s work during an Interterm class.

Every morning from January 14-18, Karen Kukil met with students to teach them about editing poetry. But the students aren’t editing just any poetry - they’re editing Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and they’re able to do it because Smith College Special Collections owns multiple versions of many of her works.

“Sylvia Plath left up to 10 drafts of some of her poems,” noted Kukil, who is the Associate Curator of Special Collections within the Smith College Libraries. “It’s so unusual to see the creative process documented - most poets don’t want you to see their first drafts. You can really trace how the poems came to be. We wanted to go through [these drafts] and arrive at the authorial last version of the poem, which is often different from what Ted Hughes published.” Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, controlled her estate after her death in 1963.

This is the third time Kukil has taught the Interterm class, entitled “Editing Sylvia Plath’s Poetry.” Participating students had the opportunity to transcribe Plath’s poems, starting with scrawled, handwritten drafts and ending with a neat, typed, annotated transcription. Further interaction with Plath’s journals, correspondence, artwork, manuscripts, and photographs brought the historic figure to life, lending deeper context to her works. For example, Plath describes suffering a fever in a letter to a friend, and subsequently wrote a poem called Fever 103°.

Upon beginning the course, Kukil had students write one adjective to describe Plath. Submissions ranged from “morose” to “melancholy” to “tortured”. The same exercise was repeated at the end of the course. The new responses include “passionate”, “determined”, and “fearless”, demonstrating a new understanding of the poet, her life, and her work.

Kukil is a noted Plath scholar, and recently published The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol. 2: 1956-1963 with Peter K. Steinberg.


Karen Kukil