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Textual Fluidity, or Why We Need to Acknowledge Poetry Books in Multiple Versions

Sylvia Plath’s Poetry in Multiple Versions: A Case Study of UK School Anthologies

Julie Blake


L’histoire des anthologies de poésie destinées à l’éducation nationale obligatoire reste largement négligée. La critique tend à considérer les anthologies scolaires comme des objets matériels éphémères et de moindre importance. Ces ouvrages ont pourtant un impact durable, en ce qu’ils informent la compréhension publique de la poésie à travers les rencontres textuelles qu’ils permettent. Cet article montre comment deux poèmes figurant fréquemment dans ces ouvrages, “You’re” et “Morning Song” de Sylvia Plath, cristallisent les logiques historiques qui déterminent les formes concrètes qu’ils prennent dans leurs pratiques bibliographiques. Il révèle de quelle manière ces textes ont été “enregistrés” (“enregistered”) (Agha 190) comme des supports acceptables pour les discussions menées sur la maternité et les relations domestiques, dans le cadre scolaire, par des élèves adolescents dont le degré de compréhension et les jugements sociaux sur la poésie varient. Les programmes éducatifs ont donc donné à ces poèmes une longévité que n’auraient sans doute pas laissé prévoir les lieux originels de leur composition et de leur publication. En tant que telles, les multiples versions pédagogiques des poèmes contribuent à construire un récit approfondi de la “seconde vie” des textes au quotidien.

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“The first and most important thing is that any material page on which we read any poem is a constructed object that will encode certain meanings even while placing others under erasure.”
George Bornstein (31)

Poetry Selections and the Compulsory National Curriculum

  • 1 One notable exception is Catherine Robson’s monograph Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized (...)
  • 2 See for instance Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy (2005).

1The history of poetry anthologies created for use in compulsory nation-state education is largely untold. As material objects, school anthologies tend to be regarded as low status and ephemeral. Yet these objects have a lasting impact, as they facilitate encounters that are formative in shaping public understanding of poetry. Because modes of literary study in secondary schools change over time and exist in a fractious and “differentiated” relationship with the changing history of literary study in universities, they have attracted little attention from literature scholars thus far.1 At the same time, the ubiquity of anthologies as the vehicle for poetry in schools makes them almost invisible to Education scholars. Where there has been interest in literary anthologies as pedagogic material, this has mostly centered on canon-making and the contested politics of textual inclusion and exclusion, and the focus has been on anthologies designed for American higher education survey courses.2 I contend that the history of school poetry anthologies “participates in the history of poetry and in the history of criticism” (Ferry 101) just as any poetry anthology, and is therefore worthy of study for scholars in both English literature and Education.

  • 3 This is the period covered by my doctoral dissertation, “What did the National Curriculum do for Po (...)
  • 4 I am borrowing a concept coined by Asif Agha in Language and Social Relations (2006). In his chapte (...)
  • 5 I am using “intellectual life” broadly as in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British W (...)

2This paper offers to chart the history of poetry anthologies used by 14- to 16-year-olds in UK schools as preparation for public examinations in English Literature taken between 1988 and 2018.3 Drawing on textual examples from my database of one hundred school poetry anthologies—comprising a total of 6,900 poems that were either specified or recommended for study by the examination boards over the last three decades—, it aims to show how certain poems by certain poets are “enregistered” (to take up a concept coined by Asif Agha)4 over time as valued curriculum material, then extracted from their original contexts of publication and dramatically transformed for pedagogic purposes within school anthologies. In seeking to develop an understanding of how poetry becomes constructed in public intellectual life,5 I am interested in the material form of poems as they appear in school anthologies as well as in the meanings that become available (or not) through that material form. To this purpose, I will present a case study of two poems by Sylvia Plath, “You’re” and “Morning Song” (both originally published in Ariel in 1965), the two poems most consistently selected for school anthologies in this period and the only two still featured at the time of writing. After showing how they came to be selected over time as the poems most representative of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in the school curriculum, I will illustrate how they appeared in various teaching anthologies over the past thirty years, before underlining the importance of considering school poetry anthologies as part of the account of the multiple versions of a poet’s work.

The Problem with “the” Poem and Why We Need to Acknowledge Multiple Versions

3In Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (2001), George Bornstein argues that modernist poems deserve to be more fully recognized through their multiple material forms. In doing so, Bornstein reframes what one might expect the poem to be. While it is conventionally understood as a single linguistic form published in an iconic collection of the poet’s poems—such as “You’re” and “Morning Song” as published in Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel—Bornstein uses the trail of material evidence pointing to different instantiations of each poem (such as earlier manuscript versions) to emphasize the need for a more accommodating definition, one that avoids a narrow reading of the poet’s work and takes into account the variations around each poem. Discussing a cluster of four sonnets (by poets from different historical periods), he argues that to consider a poem without its “original bibliographic codings” is to dehistoricize it, stripping it of its “social, political, and reputational aspects” and over-emphasizing its aesthetic aspects (13). Since modernist poets were interested in “radical contingency” as a lived reality and a poetic practice (35), their work might be best approached by attending to the multiple versions of their poems, Bornstein argues, and by examining editorial matters such as the sequencing of poems within any collection.

  • 6 Key works in this area include Lynda Bundtzen’s The Other Ariel, Suzan Van Dyne’s Revising Life: Sy (...)

4Such issues are salient to a discussion of Plath’s work because of the way the editorial choices for her collection, Ariel, were re-shaped after her death by Ted Hughes. As is rather well-known now,6 Ariel exists in multiple versions: first, the two slightly different collections of poems published under that title that Hugues selected and sequenced from Plath’s typescript, as published by Faber and Faber in the UK and by Harper & Row in the US in 1965; second, Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems (1981), also edited by Ted Hughes, in which he re-sequenced the poems from Ariel in chronological order together with Plath’s other poems, and added his own notes about the composition of each poem as he recalled it; third, the “restored” selection and sequence of poems as left by Plath, presented in facsimile typescript form with a foreword by her daughter Frieda Hughes, as it appeared in 2004. Ariel therefore appeared in multiple editions over time, and if one attends to book history, materiality or multimodality, one cannot ignore how each new edition conveys different meanings—through the affordances of text, image, color, typography, layout and paper, as well as the various framings provided by new introductions and forewords. Even at the level of the individual poem that Bornstein is primarily concerned with, there is more than one version, more than one material form for each of the poems in Ariel, and different readings made possible by the “architectonics” of the different sequences of the poems.

5In addition to these well-known multiple versions, the facsimile reproductions of working drafts of the poem “Ariel” in Frieda Hughes’s “restored” selection make especially vivid the multiple potentials of the poems as they were composed and further worked on. These working drafts show something of Plath’s compositional process: words, lines and stanzas are crossed out and revisions inserted, thus foregrounding the provisionality of the poem. Another perspective is offered by the poem, “Morning Song,” as it first appeared in the British Sunday newspaper The Observer of 21 May 1961. The poem is printed in the bottom left-hand corner of a large broadsheet page, beneath a book review and adjacent to a column of advertisement—thus emphasizing the marginality and ephemerality of a poem not yet collected in a poetry volume. One might also take into account the audio recordings of Plath reading some of her poems (such as “The Applicant,” available on the Poetry Archive website at, where Plath’s commanding dramatic voice adds a certain depth to the poem’s flat printed surface, together with an almost playful musicality that encourages an interpretation predicated on sardonic black humor.

6From Bornstein’s perspective, all of these versions—manuscript, print, and audio—constitute the poem; and, I would add, so do the many versions that have been included in school poetry anthologies since Plath’s death, each of them in pursuit of its own editorial, historical and pedagogical purpose, each of them bringing into view—or occluding—various aspects of the poet’s work. Although school anthologies have a different rationale for taking “the poem” and representing it in different material forms and configurations, they nonetheless signal a similar need to attend to these different forms and configurations. In order to illustrate this, I will now examine which of Plath’s poems are extracted from her oeuvre for curriculum purposes, and how, over time, “You’re” and “Morning Song” have become the curriculum poems for 14- to 16- year-old pupils in England.

Becoming The Curriculum Poem: Getting Selected

  • 7 An as-yet unpublished database built for and drawn on extensively in Blake, 2020.
  • 8 The majority of pupils in England are required to sit a GCSE examination in English Language which (...)
  • 9 The central core and the sequencing of poets in rank order were determined by quantitative analysis (...)

7In the database I built from the contents of 100 school poetry anthologies,7 there are 6,900 poems prescribed or recommended for study in preparation for GCSE (General Certificate in Secondary Education) English Literature examinations sat by the majority of 16-year-old pupils between 1988 and 2018.8 Those 6,900 poems are iterated 12,735 times, which means that some poems appear in more than one of the one hundred school anthologies. There are also 1,489 poets, with a central core of 35 poets which includes Sylvia Plath in fifteenth position.9 In the top three positions are Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney; women poets with a higher ranking than Plath are U. A. Fanthorpe, Gillian Clarke and Elizabeth Jennings; the other women poets, in lower ranking positions than Plath, are, in sequence, Christina Rossetti, Carol Ann Duffy, Grace Nichols, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wendy Cope, Denise Levertov, Fleur Adcock and Imtiaz Dharker (Blake 138).

8Sylvia Plath’s position in this ranking will have partly been the consequence of her naming in the National Curriculum for English as a suitable poet for study. The architects of the statutory description of English in the National Curriculum deliberately did not name such a list of authors, considering this a matter of teacher professional judgement, but this position was rejected by the Conservative government of the day and the second set of statutory instruments included a list. Such lists were periodically revised until discontinued in the 2017 series that prevails at time of writing. Sylvia Plath was first named in a National Curriculum Council report in 1993 as a suitable poet for curriculum study and was formally named in the National Curriculum from 2004 (Blake 63-89). It should be noted that there is not a simple equation between being named in a statutory instrument and being taken up for GCSE examination purposes: Samuel Taylor Coleridge is named throughout and never included in the GCSE anthologies. Teacher, teacher educator and examiner agency contested statutory prescription in overt and covert ways; more likely to account for Plath’s relatively high ranking in the core of poets is that from 1998, when examination awarding bodies began to produce their own anthologies, rather than using trade anthologies, decisions were evidently made to increase the representation of female poets. In the 35-poet core, 37 per cent are women, a significant change from anthologies used prior to the National Curriculum which regularly included only male poets.

9Over the 30-year period and across 100 anthologies, 41 poems by Sylvia Plath have been featured 111 times (fig. 1). By way of comparison with a top-ranking core poet, 79 poems by Ted Hughes are featured 287 times. The following diagram is a decrescendo that features the most frequently selected poems by Plath on the left and the least frequently selected ones on the right:

Figure 1. Frequencies of poems by Sylvia Plath in school anthology poems data-set

10As one can see, “Morning Song” and “Mushrooms” occur most frequently, with 12 iterations each; they are followed by “Mirror” (9 iterations), “You’re” (8 iterations), “Medallion” (6 iterations), “The Arrival of the Bee Box” (5 iterations), “Balloons” and “Metaphors” (4 iterations), then “Snakecharmer,” “Child,” “Blackberrying” and “Wuthering Heights” (3 iterations) and finally, 29 other poems that made it only once or twice into the selection.

11Interestingly, two of the most frequently selected poems are “Morning Song” and “You’re,” but neither “Daddy” nor “Fever 103⁰” nor “The Couriers” (in other words, none of the poems they are juxtaposed with in either version of Ariel) can be found in the data-set. One might speculate as to the pedagogical reasons why. Presumably, “Daddy” did not make it into the school selection due to its repetition of the (mildly taboo) word “bastard;” unless of course the historical references to Jews and Dachau were considered too emotionally raw or politically sensitive for classroom discussion. In any case, none of the school anthologies has deemed it necessary to preserve the meanings afforded by the sequence established in Ariel.

12If we compare the selections over time, focusing on the 1988-2018 period to follow the evolution of the two poems’ inclusion into (or exclusion from) school anthologies during those three decades (fig. 2), then the link between the selections and a changing statutory context becomes evident. The same data—i.e. 41 of Sylvia Plath’s poems iterated 111 times over 30 years—can thus be examined from a different a different perspective, taking into account the changes in government prescriptions regarding national examinations.

Figure 2. ‘Morning Song’ and ‘You’re’ as they appeared in school anthologies (1988-2018)

13The bottom row of Figure 3 is divided into six time periods of varying durations (1988-1993, 1994-1997, 1998-2003, 2004-2011, 2012-2016, and 2017 onwards), each of which corresponds to a different set of specifications for the GCSE English Literature examination. During the first period (from 1988 to 1993), for instance, one set of specifications was available to schools until another set of specifications replaced it (from 1993 to 1997), and so on. Each of the revisions was occasioned by statutory changes to the curriculum. Indeed, GCSE examinations were introduced the same year as the 1988 Education Reform Act, an Act of Parliament that laid the legislative foundations for a National Curriculum for England that all state-funded schools were required to follow.

14Each column rising above the time periods represents the appearance of the two focus poems, “You’re” and “Morning Song,” in particular school poetry anthologies; they also show the number of other poems by Sylvia Plath included in the examination specifications in that time period. Despite the decreasing number of poems by Plath—from 35 during the 1988-1993 period to only 2 since 2017 with a complete hiatus between 2012 and 2016—school anthologies feature “Morning Song” and “You’re” as the most continuous poems and, in the last iteration, the only ones.

15The first series of GCSE English Literature specifications (from 1988 to 1993) are characterized by maximum variety of choice for teachers in both content and assessment. Although a National Curriculum existed in law as early as 1988, the detail of the curriculum for English was not defined until 1989 or implemented by Statutory Order until 1990. The GCSE examination boards then had a few years to align their new specifications with the curriculum, for first examination in 1994. In this context, 35 of Plath’s poems were included in the different anthologies used between 1988 and 1993; “Morning Song” appeared in four anthologies and “You’re” in three.

16Touchstones 5 (Benton & Benton, 1968), Looking Glass (Williams, 1973) and Poetry Workshop (Benton & Benton, 1975) were edited by highly regarded teacher educators and their choices of poems for a progressive English curriculum were mainstream and influential. The anthologies by the Benton brothers were also long-lasting: Poetry Workshop was on its 11th impression in 1990 and a new edition was published in 1995. Touchstones 5 went to a fifth edition in 1992 and was then revised as New Touchstones in 1998, and as Touchstones Now ten years later in 2008. In fact, Touchstones 5 is still in print today, fifty years after the first edition; such is the impact of a popular school anthology.

17The other three anthologies that appear on the diagram were edited by poets and were all pioneering in their intentions to shape public understanding of literature. The Anthology of Modern Poetry (1963), edited by John Wain, set out to define for the lay reader what modern poetry was. It is notable here for its inclusion of “Morning Song” only two years after the poem’s first publication in The Observer and two years before the poem appeared in Ariel. The Rattle Bag (1982), edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, set out to transform “the way we define and appreciate poetry,” not least by the way it disrupted prior anthology conventions and sequenced poems alphabetically by title. The Faber Book of 20th Century Women Poets (1987), edited by Fleur Adcock, contributed to a re-assessment of the significance of women poets within the literary canon. Although it is unlikely that these three anthologies were used widely with pupils, their presence in examination specifications gives an indication of what teachers might have had available as departmental resources for poetry teaching. The important issue for this paper is that both “You’re” and “Morning Song” were legitimated as suitable learning resources across many different kinds of anthologies, which increased the likelihood of their transmission over time.

18Once the National Curriculum for English became fully implemented in 1994, however, the range and variety of school poetry anthologies for GCSE English Literature gradually narrowed in response to government specification of particular kinds of literature to be studied. Poetry was made mandatory for all age groups and was systematically assessed at age 16; literary study was to include both pre-20th- and 20th-century texts as well as texts “from other cultures and traditions.” A certain filtering appears to have taken place for the 1994 to 1997 specifications, as old anthologies were used to serve the new requirements and a list of prescribed poems was provided by the examination board (as opposed to book-form anthologies produced by trade publishers). Plath’s “Morning Song” appeared in the short list of thirteen poems, evidence that teacher-examiners specifically selected it for examination purposes (as opposed to its more general inclusion in an anthology). The poem was included in a themed selection as part of “The Experience of Growing Up.” A common feature of school anthologies, thematic clusters have played a crucial role in shaping the meanings of poems studied in schools cross the United Kingdom and beyond. The consistent selection of “Morning Song” and/or “You’re” for the National Curriculum, together with the framing of these poems within thematic clusters, was instrumental in constructing Plath as a poet of motherhood and domestic relationships.

19As poetry selections further narrowed over time, so did the semantic potential of the poems selected. Typically, the “motherhood” framing of Plath’s poems intensified whenever “You’re” and “Morning Song” appeared together in an anthology. For the new GCSE specifications for 1998-2003, there had been sufficient development of the National Curriculum for English for new school poetry anthologies to be produced by publishers: interestingly, in Poems 2—edited by Markus and Jordan and published in 1995 by Pearson Education in the Longman Literature series for schools—seven contemporary poets were featured, and Sylvia Plath appeared alongside Maya Angelou, Carol Ann Duffy, U. A. Fanthorpe, James Fenton, Philip Larkin and Anne Stevenson. (Seven others had appeared in Poems 1 while another title in the Longman Literature series covered Poems from Other Centuries). Poems 2 included ten poems by Plath, but only “Morning Song” and “You’re” appeared on consecutive pages. In another new anthology entitled Visible Voices, edited by a senior examiner and published as part of a popular school TV series about poetry in 1994, “Morning Song” was followed by Philip Larkin’s “Born Yesterday” in a thematic cluster called “A Matter of Life and Death,” once again emphasizing her role as a poet of motherhood.

20By 2004-2011, intense government pressure on school examination results had led to an increase in central government control of the curriculum and its assessment. Opening Lines was part of a new form of school anthology that has since become ubiquitous: the poems are presented in A4 booklets published by the examination boards, selected solely for examination purposes, in specified clusters that will relate directly to examination questions, and with a lot of white space for extensive annotation to facilitate examination preparation. Plath continues to be framed as a poet of motherhood, as “You’re” opens a cluster called “Generations” and is followed on the same page by Gillian Clarke’s “Baby-Sitting.” Her work then disappears from the curriculum between 2012 and 2016 as the number of poets and poems selected continues to decrease, only to reappear in 2017 in one of the new A4 examination board anthologies entitled Towards a World Unknown, where “Morning Song” and “You’re” are the only two poems by her that have survived, as part of 139 poems specified nationally at that point. Unsurprisingly, “Morning Song” appears in a cluster titled “Love and Relationships,” where it is preceded by Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love” and followed by Tony Harrison’s “Long Distance II,” while “You’re” now appears in the “Youth and Age” cluster, preceded by Thom Gunn’s “Baby Song” and followed by Gillian Clarke’s “Cold Knap Lake.” The poems have now become school fixtures, and there is no doubt that their meaning and scope have dramatically decreased over the past three decades.

Decontextualization and Recontextualization: How Three School Anthologies Have Shaped the Poems’ Material Form

  • 10 See Christopher Martin’s 1991 anthology, War Poems, for a classic treatment of this kind (Martin 61 (...)

21I have shown how two poems by Sylvia Plath became “anthology-pieces” (Ferry 3) in the school English curriculum over a period of 30 years, in a process of cultural noticing, valuing, remembering and transmission. In these examples, what is also selected is what Bornstein, taking his cue from Jerome McGann’s The Textual Condition, calls the singular “linguistic code” of the poem—i.e. the abstracted poem text as encoded for the first time in a single poet collection, and not as it appears with its “bibliographic codes” of the many other possible versions (Bornstein 7). Although a few school anthologies have in the past featured manuscript draft versions of poems alongside their linguistic code, this is a rare editorial choice usually reserved for Wilfred Owen’s poems “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.”10 Yet the seemingly de-contextualized poems are always re-contextualized within school anthologies, where they appear alongside editorial material.

22I will now look at three anthologies from the last 30 years that were designed for pedagogic purposes, looking specifically at their re-contextualization of “You’re” and “Morning Song.” Examining the material form of the poems in relation to the various pedagogic agendas underpinning them will make it possible to approach poetry anthologies as part of a wider ecology of multiple versions.

23In the essay already quoted, George Bornstein argues that the bibliographic codes related to the multiple sites of initial publication are part of the unique temporal and spatial “aura” of the poem (7). In his account, removing poems from their original settings and inserting them into the “decontextualized realm” of an anthology creates a field in which only the aesthetic and the stylistic are emphasized (14). Although his argument about decontextualization is important in countering a New Criticism default, the evidence of actual anthologies suggests a twin process of decontextualization and recontextualization. Indeed, the linguistic code of a poem is never merely extracted into a cultural vacuum; rather, every poetry anthology has its own bibliographic code and exists in time and space as a participant in the history of poetry anthologies—a history that includes their varying architectonics, relationships with visual images, choices about reader support in the form of notes and annotations, the shaping presence of forewords and introductions, and the history of conformity, variation and innovation of poem selections. While anthologies vary in the degree to which they foreground these matters, school anthologies specifically devised for pedagogic purposes always make their recontextualization evident. I will now illustrate how Plath’s “Morning Song” and “You’re” are transformed for pedagogic purposes in three anthologies, the 2005 edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the 1995 school anthology Poems 2, and the 1975 school anthology Poetry Workshop, in order to show how each of them constructs a new and different version of the poem on its own terms and contributes to its afterlife.

The Norton Anthology of Poetry (2005), a Plath for Undergraduates?

24My first example is an anthology familiar to many university students and professors, the Norton Anthology of Poetry (5th edition, Ferguson, Salter & Stallworthy, 2005), which presents a broad chronological survey of English-language poetry beginning with Cædmon’s 7th-century hymn and ending with a poem by Greg Williamson published in 2001 entitled “New Year’s: A Short Pantoum.” In that hefty two-thousand-page-volume, Plath’s work starts on page 1,836 and is represented by seven poems printed in the following sequence, “The Colossus,” “Morning Song,” “Tulips,” “Elm,” “Daddy,” “Ariel” and “Lady Lazarus.” The selection of poems, designed to give a flavour of the poet’s work, is quite different to that encountered in secondary school anthologies. This time, the “utterly empty” of “Tulips” and the “bastard” of “Daddy” sit alongside the “Suicidal” of “Ariel” and the “Nazi lampshade” of “Lady Lazarus.” In such a context, the bleaker meaning potentials of “Morning Song”, such as reading the poem as in part a depiction of post-natal depression, are likely to be foregrounded. In other words, while “high-school-Plath” is the somewhat surprising poet of calm motherhood, “university-Plath” is the intensely confessional poet of a suicidal mind.

25In their recontextualization for pedagogic purposes, the selected poems are framed with extra information. In addition to the expected basic information (such as the poet’s name and the title and text of her poems), the Norton Anthology also provides Plath’s dates of birth and death (underneath her name), as well as line numbers (marked at five-line intervals down the left-hand margin of the page), the poems’ composition and publication dates (underneath the poems), and a footnote section (providing glosses of vocabulary, references and allusions, translation of non-English phrases, and additional biographical details). Footnote 5 to the poem “Daddy,” for example, amplifies lines 9 and 10—“Ghastly statue with one grey toe / Big as a Frisco seal”—by explaining that “Plath’s father’s toe turned black from gangrene” (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 1840). Although it is hard to tell how much qualitative difference such information might make to a student’s understanding of the poem, it is obvious that the pedagogic design is intended to support independent reading appropriate to undergraduate preparation for a seminar or essay; by calling attention to an image of bodily degeneration, the footnote also contributes to an understanding of Plath as an intensely morbid biographical poet—an effect that is reinforced by the “biographical sketch” of the author provided on page 2,121, which foregrounds two particular facets of her life, on the one hand her higher education (at Smith College, Boston College and Newnham College, Cambridge)—a fact presumably considered of intrinsic interest to undergraduates—, and on the other hand, her two major periods of depression (one in 1953 that formed the basis of her later novel The Bell Jar, and one in 1963 that led to her death). Such carefully selected facts are obviously grounded in a pedagogic rationale, ultimately designed to make individual poets appear distinctive, even memorable, in such a vast survey of poets and poems. Needless to say, readers of “Morning Song” in the 1961 Sunday newspaper were granted no such interpretive frameworks.

Poems 2 (1995), a Plath for Adolescents?

26The second illustrative example is Poems 2 (1995), a school poetry anthology edited by Julia Markus and Paul Jordan designed specifically for 14- to 16-year-old pupils working towards GCSE English Literature examinations. Unlike the Norton Anthology of Poetry, it presents individual poems without any contextual framework, in keeping with Bornstein’s idea of a dehistoricized linguistic code extraction. The pedagogic design is minimal, just the poem texts surrounded by generous white space, because pupils were expected to read and develop an understanding of the poems in class with a teacher, using the white space on the page for annotation. Class work would have been geared toward the criteria of public examinations, helping students to demonstrate their ability to recognize “persuasive or rhetorical techniques,” “the effects, in context, of different kinds of vocabulary” and “grammatical features such as structural repetition” (Great Britain Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office 33-34). Hence the decontextualized appearance of the poems, meant to support those pedagogical guidelines.

27However, all is not entirely as it seems since the poems are in fact recontextualized by introductory material that inconspicuously frames each section, such as a black and white head-and-shoulders photograph of the poet and a brief biographical presentation. Although in the case of Sylvia Plath the introductory material covers only a page and a half, it is wider-ranging than the “biographical sketch” in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, as it includes mention of Plath’s birthplace, her father’s death, her school career and progression to Cambridge University, her marriage to Ted Hughes, their children, Hughes’ extra-marital affair, an evaluation of Plath’s personality, the publication of her novel The Bell Jar, an evaluation of her mental health, her suicide, her publication history and finally her posthumous reputation. Plath is already presented as complex and troubled, but the ten poems selected—which include both “Morning Song” and “You’re”—are less intensely morbid. Another version of the poet is thus constructed, one more specifically intended for adolescents, as is made clear by her portrayal as “the Marilyn Monroe of modern poetry” (Markus and Jordan, 1994 54)—a fanciful view that cannot fail to shape students’ readings of “Morning Song” and “You’re.”

Poetry Workshop (1975), a Plath for Personal Growth

28The third and last example is an earlier anthology entitled Poetry Workshop (1975) edited by Michael and Peter Benton. From the mid-1960s until the introduction of the National Curriculum for schools in England, progressive English teaching professionals were occupied in developing a curriculum better suited to the provisions of mass education. Rather than emphasizing “skills” or “cultural heritage” (Dixon 1-2), the progressive model emphasized “personal growth” in an English curriculum attending to learning processes and individual meaning-making. Through the gradual accumulation of a shared experience of language, it valued talk and drama, exploratory writing and personal experience, where the pupil “learns to use language to build his own representational world and works to make this fit reality as he experiences it” (Dixon 13). Literature was valued not as literary criticism or as cultural heritage, but for its ability to stimulate personal growth, as is made clear in the following guideline: “only in a classroom where talk explores experience is literature drawn into the dialogue—otherwise it has no place” (Dixon 60). In that context, poetry was neither more nor less important than any other literary genre, and literary genres were no more no less important than film and TV narratives, or real life observed “live” and in written and spoken documentary sources—which accounts for some of the editorial choices that were made for Poetry Workshop.

29Poetry Workshop includes nine of Sylvia Plath’s poems, scattered over various thematic sections. The volume opens with three substantial sections of twenty-one to twenty-eight poems each, two of which contain poems by Plath: the first one, “Man and Beast,” features “The Arrival of the Bee Box” while the second, “You,” features “Metaphors” and “Morning Song.” The fourth section, entitled “Five Poets,” contains a handful of poems by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost and Brian Patten (in that sequence). Plath has the fewest with only four poems, “Mushrooms,” “You’re,” “A Winter Ship” and “Balloons.” Her poem “In Breughel’s Panorama” is included in a short later section entitled “Poems and Pictures” while “Mirror” appears as one of four poems in a section entitled “Reflections.” In the anthology, each section is followed by a “Workshop” section that provides pupils and teachers with ideas for classroom activities, including discussion points, drama, creative writing, making displays and observing everyday life. The focus is clearly on the experiences and feelings that pupils are likely to respond to in the poems, not on the poems as literary artefacts—a choice that is in line with the objectives of such a curriculum, that gives birth to a Plath for “personal growth.”

30The layout and material features of Plath’s poems in Poetry Workshop are worth examining in detail. Plath’s “Metaphors” and “Morning Song,” to begin with, are clustered together on the same page, under the section-header “YOU” (in all capitals) that contains an image of a foetus within the womb-like space of the letter O (fig. 3). On the facing page, a black-and-white photograph shows a woman gazing intently at a naked baby on a bed (a domestic cat reclines comfortably on the same bed, also apparently gazing at the baby). Underneath the image is James Kirkup’s poem “Baby’s Drinking Song.” The construction of Plath as a poet of motherhood is unequivocal. In a curriculum that insists on starting with the pupil’s experience, the pedagogic invitation implicit in the section’s title “You” is personal and autobiographical and the “Workshop” section that follows suggests activities such as discussing “What do you remember of your earliest years?” or “What are the emotional demands made by young children?” as well as developing a drama from the starting point of a new baby in the family (Benton and Benton 46-47).

Figure 3. Sketch of Plath’s “Morning Song” in Poetry Workshop, ed. M. Benton and P. Benton (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975)

31In the section entitled “Five Poets,” Plath’s cluster of four new poems opens with a large photograph of Sylvia Plath looking out at the viewer (fig. 4). Visually, the poet dominates the left column as if to suggest that she is at least as significant as any of her poems. Above the photograph there is a quotation from Plath that includes the statement “I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people” (Benton and Benton 76), a statement that seems to be in accord with the values of the curriculum, though Plath goes on to say that irrespective of any attention she gives to this idea, poems will tend to find their way into the world in unexpected ways. Below the photograph, on the same page, is a very brief biographical sketch starting with the sentence “Sylvia Plath died in 1963 at the age of 30” (76). “Mushrooms” is printed in the right-hand column of the page, but it is hard to read it without one’s eye being drawn back to the portrait of Plath, or forward to the very striking image that dominates the next page, an image known as “The Unborn Child” that presents a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci scaled to fill about three quarters of the Poetry Workshop page. The montage leaves very little room for Plath’s poem “You’re,” whose two stanzas are printed side by side above the image (77). Again, it is difficult to read the poem without being drawn back to the image, or having its riddle-like quality destroyed by visual explication, as the following illustration will attest:

Figure 4. Sketch of the pages for Plath’s “You’re” in Poetry Workshop, ed. M. Benton and P. Benton (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975)

32On the next double page, Plath’s “A Winter Ship” appears strikingly in white letters on a black background, next to a full-page image of a ship—a reproduction of Gustave Doré’s “The Land of Ice,” one of a set of iconic illustrations for Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” With each poem also presented in a different font, the reader is clearly invited to respond to the visual framing rather than the aesthetic presence of the poems themselves.

33One of the pedagogic invitations at the end of “Five Poets” is a “more demanding project” (Benton and Benton 94), in which pupils create a folder detailing their wider reading of work by one of the poets, biographical information about him/her, the appeal of their work and “perhaps” some original poems written in response. The poems in “Five Poets” are described as “quite difficult” but the opportunity is there for “a really worthwhile literary project of your own choosing” (94). What we can see here, if we attend to the pedagogic context, is a practical approach to “mixed ability” teaching—or at least, being able to use the same anthology with pupils divided into different academic “streams.” Presented in a looser thematic construction designed to stimulate the pupil’s own memories, opinions and experiences as part of “personal growth” and with strong visual support, Plath’s poems are constructed as accessible to pupils across the attainment range. Presented in a tighter grouping of poems by a single poet in relation to Plath’s “difficult” biography, they are constructed as also suitable for challenging pupils at the upper end of the attainment range.

34This re-contextualization of Plath’s poems is a complex ethical and professional balancing act. It offers access to prestige forms of literary accomplishment for all students, while recognizing the diverse ways that different social groups might find this meaningful—an understanding of the ways in which this might be possible for pupils with very different levels of literacy. This situates the anthology at a very precise historical moment when, from the late 1960s to early 1970s, there was a political will to foster comprehensive education in England, with state secondary schools for all and no selection based on academic ability. Clearly, no poem in a poetry anthology is a simple matter of de-contextualization as Bornstein envisages it, and Plath’s example once again shows how entangled in history, society and politics anthologized poems are.


  • 11 See in particular Making Poetry Matter: International Research on Poetry Pedagogy, edited by Sue Dy (...)
  • 12 For further information, see John Dixon’s Growth Through English: A Report Based on the Dartmouth S (...)

35This paper sought to illustrate the ways in which different iterations of two poems by Sylvia Plath in school poetry anthologies encode a historical rationale for their material form in their bibliographic practices. This rationale is likely to be opaque to scholars of English literature because it has little to do with critical and editorial logics in that field. It may also be opaque to Education scholars, whose attention thus far has focused on understanding and innovating the practices of poetry pedagogy,11 rather than considering the multiple material forms of a poem that make certain pedagogic choices more or less likely. Nonetheless, the motivations for these multiple pedagogic versions become clearer when one examines the history of school English.12 This history needs to attend to the official discourse of government policy debate and statutory regulation, and to the pedagogical discourse by which teaching texts and resources, pedagogic practices and teacher values are contested and continually re-shaped within the professional and scholarly education communities.

36How certain poems are noticed, selected and reproduced in different school poetry anthologies to the gradual exclusion of other poems by the same poet, adds a new source of evidence to Anne Ferry’s account, in Tradition and the Individual Poem: An Inquiry into Anthologies, of the ways in which poems become “anthology-pieces” over time (Ferry 3). This accords with Agha’s theorization of the process of transmission of cultural objects. Taking my cue from Agha, I hope to have shown that “You’re” and “Morning Song” have indeed become “enregistered” for school-based adolescent readers as acceptable tokens for the discussion of motherhood and domestic relationships, and by secondary-school teachers as poems accessible to pupils with different social valuings of poetry and different levels of literacy in a context of high stakes examinations for all. As such, following Natalie Houston’s typology of multiple canons co-existing in different types of relation with each other (Houston 361-362), I have been able to show something of the process by which poems in their multiple, school-book versions, become established within a pedagogical canon of poetry, specifically in this case, one deployed in all schools in England.

37Natalie Houston has also drawn attention to the idea that canons are formed by people whose understanding of literary history is in part shaped by their encounters with anthologies, including those presented as “textbooks” in education settings (361-362). Teachers, teacher educators and examiners who determine the pedagogical canon for GCSE English Literature will have been shaped, in part, by the anthologies they experienced in school and perhaps also in their higher education. Pedagogical canon formation has a further conservative dynamic, in that anthologies stay a long time in school stock cupboards because few can afford to replace them, and subject-specific teacher professional development is very limited (Blake 216). This identification of a motivation to sustainability in the pedagogical canon adds a dynamic to Tom Mole’s account of a “dark web of reception” (2). The effect of this sustainability dynamic is that once a poet’s work, such as the two poems by Sylvia Plath I have discussed here, has been selected and constructed in a particular way in school anthologies, that construction is likely to have a long-lasting effect on public understanding of the poet, the poems, and poetry. That likelihood is increased by the “histories of the university’s and the school’s differentiated modes of literary study” (Robson 20), such that scholarly developments in literary critical understanding of Plath’s work have at best a very slow impact on schooling.

38The pervasiveness of the impact of schooling on public understanding of literature is best understood by considering that, in England, for example, over half a million children a year study particular selections and framings of poetry that are specified by examination boards in relation to statutory regulation of the curriculum. That amounts to 15 million children in the period discussed here. In a population of 53 million people, this is a mass diffusion of poetry, a potential recognized by the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1881 in correspondence with James Russell Lowell: “When the school-children learn your verses they are good for another half century” (Rubin 108). Whilst the school poetry anthology is likely to remain of subsidiary interest to scholars of English Literature, this case study indicates some of the ways in which accounts of multiple versions of poems might usefully include attention to this pedagogic genre of mass schooling.

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ADCOCK, Fleur. The Faber Book of 20th Century Women’s Poetry. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.

AGHA, Asif. “The Social Life of Cultural Value.” Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 190-232.

BENTON, Michael, and Peter BENTON. Touchstones: A Teaching Anthology 5. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968.

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1 One notable exception is Catherine Robson’s monograph Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem (2012). In her book, Robson examines how the pedagogic practice of poetry recitation came to assume a central place in the 19th-century school curricula of both Britain and the United States, considerably affecting ordinary people and their everyday lives.

2 See for instance Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy (2005).

3 This is the period covered by my doctoral dissertation, “What did the National Curriculum do for Poetry?” (Blake).

4 I am borrowing a concept coined by Asif Agha in Language and Social Relations (2006). In his chapter entitled “The Social Life of Cultural Value,” Agha develops the idea of “enregisterment” as a process by which a set of linguistic markers becomes recognized as belonging to a particular social group, then maintained and transformed—as in the development of Received Pronunciation in English (Agha 190). “Enregisterment” helps explain how particular poems by Plath have been valued, maintained and transformed over time in the British teaching community.

5 I am using “intellectual life” broadly as in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001).

6 Key works in this area include Lynda Bundtzen’s The Other Ariel, Suzan Van Dyne’s Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems and Erica Wagner’s Ariel’s Gift.

7 An as-yet unpublished database built for and drawn on extensively in Blake, 2020.

8 The majority of pupils in England are required to sit a GCSE examination in English Language which includes an element of literary study; most pupils also sit a GCSE examination in English literature as the two “subjects” are most commonly taught together in schools. For illustrative purposes, in the summer 2022 examination series, 719,790 pupils sat GCSE English Language and 582,680 pupils sat GCSE English Literature examinations.

9 The central core and the sequencing of poets in rank order were determined by quantitative analysis of the frequency of occurrence of poems by each poet in the corpus, weighted to allow for change over time. The 35 core poets have all been included in anthologies in at least four of the six series of GCSE English Literature that occurred in the 30-year period.

10 See Christopher Martin’s 1991 anthology, War Poems, for a classic treatment of this kind (Martin 61-65).

11 See in particular Making Poetry Matter: International Research on Poetry Pedagogy, edited by Sue Dymoke, Andrew Lambirth and Anthony Wilson (2013), and its companion piece Making Poetry Happen: Transforming the Poetry Classroom, edited by the same and Myra Barrs (2014).

12 For further information, see John Dixon’s Growth Through English: A Report Based on the Dartmouth Seminar, 1966 (1967), Brian Cox’s Cox on Cox: An English Curriculum for the 1990’s (1991), and Simon Gibbons’ English and Its Teachers: A History of Policy, Pedagogy and Practice (2017).

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. Frequencies of poems by Sylvia Plath in school anthology poems data-set
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Légende Figure 2. ‘Morning Song’ and ‘You’re’ as they appeared in school anthologies (1988-2018)
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Légende Figure 3. Sketch of Plath’s “Morning Song” in Poetry Workshop, ed. M. Benton and P. Benton (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975)
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Légende Figure 4. Sketch of the pages for Plath’s “You’re” in Poetry Workshop, ed. M. Benton and P. Benton (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975)
Fichier image/png, 1,9M
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Julie Blake, « Sylvia Plath’s Poetry in Multiple Versions: A Case Study of UK School Anthologies »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Julie Blake

Manchester Metropolitan University

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