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Student Finds Unpublished Plath Poem

An unpublished sonnet that Sylvia Plath wrote in college while pondering themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" will appear Wednesday in a Virginia online literary journal.

Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 at age 30, wrote "Ennui" in 1955 in her senior year at Smith College, said Anna Journey, a graduate student in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. While researching Plath archives at Indiana University, Journey discovered the sonnet had not been published.

The poem will be featured in Blackbird, published online by VCU's English department and New Virginia Review.

In her personal copy of Fitzgerald's book, Journey said, Plath wrote the phrase "L'Ennui" — boredom — next to a passage in which Jay Gatsby's love interest, Daisy Buchanan, complains, "I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything."

"She was observing; her notes were creative, metaphorical reactions," Journey said of Plath. "She was riffing off of Fitzgerald's passages."

Journey said the poem — two original typed scripts with some of Plath's handwritten notes — contained the same themes as the notes Plath jotted in "Gatsby."

The 14-line sonnet opens:

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,

designing futures where nothing will occur.

The ironic poem pokes fun at people who consult tea leaves or psychics, hoping they'll foretell impending disasters, but says that real life is seldom as dramatic or romantic as a fairy tale, said Gregory Donovan, a VCU English professor and Blackbird co-editor.

It was notable that a woman who suffered dramatic depression and marital difficulties had examined the concept of boredom as a college student, Donovan said. But what is more illuminating is that the poem is another example of how hard Plath worked at her craft at a young age.

"That's what made it possible to write such amazing poems later in life," he said. "Poets don't just come out of an overwhelming emotional experience. They come out of study and hard work."

Linda Wagner-Martin, author of "Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life," thinks there still might be more early, unpublished works by the prolific writer.

When Plath's husband, the late British poet Ted Hughes, put together a collection of Plath's poetry in 1981, "he didn't pay much attention to her earlier poems," said Wagner-Martin, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina. "He had the audacity to say, 'Plath's career started when she met me.' "

But what makes the discovery of any unpublished Plath poem noteworthy, Wagner-Martin said, is the groundbreaking expression of humor and anger by a female writer, and her works' lasting impact.

"These were not voices you would hear in the '60s in women writers," she said. Plath's "The Bell Jar," which is considered by many as the first American feminist novel, was published in 1963 and was a precursor to decades of feminist writing. But Wagner-Martin said Plath never saw women adopt contemporary attitudes — she killed herself two weeks after the book was published.

"The waitress in the diner, the clerk in the store," Wagner-Martin said. "Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. They all want to talk about her."

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