A marriage between writers: 'Birthday Letters' as memoir and as poetry

from: The American Poetry Review - September/October 1998

by Alan Williamson

Abstract: Author Sylvia Plath's suicide had ended both her life and the writing career of her estranged husband, Ted Hughes. In her poem 'The Birthday Present,' she hinted on her malevolent death wish to transform people's regard of Hughes from a quiet country poet into a cold-hearted monster. Her wish was realized through her followers' derogatory treatment of Hughes. The book 'Birthday Letter,' by Ted Hughes, relates his side of the story, how marriage to Plath influenced him, and how her death affected him.

Suicides are timid murderers," Cesare Pavese said. Surely one of the many strands of motive in Sylvia Plath's suicide was a wish to freeze the meaning of her estranged husband's life, to deny him any significant history beyond her. In her great poem "The Birthday Present," where the "present" is, fairly clearly, death, she wrote:

I know why you will not give it to me, You are terrified 
The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it, Bossed, brazen, an antique shield, 
A marvel to your great-grandchildren. Do not be afraid, it is not so.

In this strange passage, denying, but still managing to insinuate, the murderous intention, the target is not just Ted Hughes the person, but Ted Hughes the writer. The man Plath accused of "a love of the rack and the screw" will be metamorphosed into one of his own medieval North Country monstrosities. (Small wonder Hughes became a translator of Ovid, for whom "metamorphosis," Hughes says, is "the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved . . . unendurable intensity. . . .")

How near Plath's half-wish came to coming true is one of the sadder and crueler stories in contemporary literature. Her "admirers" publicly accused Hughes of murder, heckled him at readings, defaced his name on her tombstone, and argued over his exact degree of culpability through half a dozen biographies. True, Hughes brought some of the obloquy on himself by his management of Plath's literary estate. But, leaving that aside, it seems common sense that no one can be expected to (or perhaps, simply, that no one can) take more responsibility for another person than human beings normally do - the responsibility, say, to stick with a troubled marriage - just because that other person has suicidal tendencies. Two of the most revered women poets of our time also had partners kill themselves during periods of estrangement. Neither was ever treated with anything other than the tactful silence such tragedies deserve.

Perhaps the deepest, and least visible, damage was done to Ted Hughes the poet. The gentle-violent chronicler of the North Country - the best locally English poet since Larkin - could not come back. The despair behind books like Crow and Gaudete was perfectly real; but because its sources were so public, cheapened and (from Hughes's point of view) undiscussable, it came out as hollow existential rant. The poet-critic Paul Breslin said at the time, "If such baldly didactic work were written in praise of sweetness and light, no one would read it." Philip Larkin's parody - written when both were invited to submit poems for the Queens Silver Jubilee, and sent in, as a practical joke, under Hughes's name - put it even more succinctly:

The sky split apart in malice, The stars rattled like pans on a shelf, Crow shat on Buckingham Palace, God pissed himself.

The Birthday Letters, along with last year's Tales from Ovid, constitute as remarkable a poetic recovery as we've seen in recent memory. For the most part, Hughes has returned to the descriptive pentameter line, braced with Hopkinsian alliterative clusters of strong stresses, that characterized his best early work. Whether he's describing boaters at Cambridge ("Punt-loads of shadows flitting towards their honey/And the stopped clock"), daffodils ("Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers/In the draughty wings of the year"), or his own hypochondriac symptoms ("Soft but stunning like the kick of a camel"), he routinely strikes off lines more brilliant than we've seen since Lupercal. Yet the style remains relaxed, speech-based. He isn't afraid to use the Commonplace word when it is the right word; or to risk locutions like "Your long, perfect, American legs/Simply went on up" - "low-energy writing," as Katha Pollitt has complained (New York Times Book Section, March 1, 1998), by our usual imagistic criteria, but perfectly right if the criterion is voice.

But few readers will look at Birthday Letters, first, for its quality as poetry. Most will come to it out of curiosity - to hear the other side of stories told and retold so often they have become legends. So we may as well start there too. Many have commented on Hughes's impact on Plath, the demigod she almost immediately made of him, "the only one . . . huge enough for me." But what of the impact of her own hyperenergetic, almost mythic, presence on him? Her eyes, for instance, "Two little brown people, hooded, Prussian" (elsewhere Hughes calls them "a crush of diamonds,/Incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears"). But Plath appears to Hughes, from the start, as a complex, puzzling person, not just a heroine. There is her "roundy face, that your friends, being objective/Called 'rubbery' and you, crueller, 'boneless.'" There is

the mystery 
Of your lips, like nothing before in my life, Their aboriginal thickness. And
of your nose, Broad and Apache, nearly a boxer's nose, Scorpio's obverse
to the Semitic eagle That made every camera your enemy. . . . It was
never a face in itself. Never the same. It was like the sea's face - a
stage For weathers and currents, the sun's play and the moon's. Never a
face until that final morning When it became the face of a child - its scar
Like a Maker's flaw. But now you declaimed A long poem about a black
panther While I held you and kissed you and tried to keep you From flying
about the room. 

At the end of the story, too, after Plath dies, we hear a side we have not heard before, and need to. Much has been made of Plath as the emblem of all depressed, overburdened single mothers. But what of the single father, his responsibilities for parenting grown ten times graver at the very moment he feels guiltiest, most undermined by misery? And what if the occasion for guilt is not divorce, but suicide? Read "Life After Death," and find out.

The story of Birthday Letters is, as the "black panther" scene tells us at the start, very much a story of two writers. But it is simply not true, as Diane Middlebrook has asserted, that it is the stow of Hughes's "slow awakening" to his wife's genius, or that his praise of her is "a big concession." These two considered each other extraordinary from the beginning; and therefore each lived with an enlarging mirror of the panic, the stagnation, the psychic exposure that are part of any extraordinary writer's life. "Alone/Either of us might have met with a life," Hughes writes; together, "Siamese-twinned,"

Each of us was the stake Impaling the other. We struggled Quietly through the streets, affirming each other, Dream-maimed and dream-blind.

Watching Plath get inexplicably angry at two children plucking azaleas, Hughes intuits the connection between her rage and her susceptibility to the "nuclear core" -

The fountain threw off its seven veils 
As the air swayed it. 
Here was your stair - 
Alchemy's seven colors. 
I watched you as you climbed it all on your own 
Into the mouth of the azalea.

And he understands, too, beyond envy, fear, or admiration, that "What happens in the heart simply happens." The worst poems in Birthday Letters, in their struggle to get at that "heart," summon up all the faux-archetypal stage-thunder of Crow. The best have a relaxed, light-spirited patience with the everyday and what it might reveal that reminds me, though the comparison is odd, of James Merrill. "Was that a happy day?" Hughes asks poignantly, of a day spent fishing off Cape Cod. Many dark Plathian themes had unfolded - rowing out too far, into an ebb tide, having to be rescued. But then, when the day seemed over, in "a back-channel, under beach-house gardens," Six or seven feet from land, we pulled up flounders Big as big plates, till all our bait had gone. After our wind-burned, head-glitter day of emptiness, And the slogging row for our lives, and the rescue, Suddenly out of water easy as oil The sea piled our boat with its surplus.

And suddenly the day seems to have a shape like a life, "Curl[ing] out of brilliant, arduous morning, Through wind-hammered perilous afternoon, Salt-scoured, to a storm-gold evening, a luxury Of rowing among the dream-yachts of the rich Lolling at anchor off the play-world pier. The day, Hughes realizes, is "a small thrill-breath of what many live by" - the relaxation into the moment which insignificant work permits, and which writers miss precisely because life, for them, is always Life. It was a visit from the goddess, the beauty Who was poetry's sister - she had come To tell poetry she was spoiling us. Poetry listened, maybe, but we heard nothing And poetry did not tell us. And we Only did what poetry told us to do. It's a moral that speaks not only to Plath's peculiar fate, but to the fate of all who live too much by words. Near the midpoint of the book, with the extraordinary poem "The Badlands," a sense of symbiotic connection between the two lovers' unconscious visions of "evil" begins to dominate. "Maybe it's the earth," Plath says, looking out on the "landscape/Staked out in the sun and left to die." Or maybe it's ourselves. This emptiness is sucking something out of us. Here where there's only death, maybe our life Is terrifying. Maybe it's the life In us Frightening the earth, and frightening us. For Hughes, this terror-vision seems to take concrete shape in Plath's obsession with her dead father. There is a burst of uncharacteristic anger ("paparazzo sniper") when, reading one of her poems, he realizes that Otto has "slid into me." On their return to England, he watches with bewilderment and terror as Plath's nightmares increase along with her talent - "a sea clogged with corpses,/Death-camp atrocities, mass amputations." But he, too, begins to suffer from obsessive symptoms. After they settle in Devonshire, he has chest pains and an "unpredictable faintness . . . strengthless hands" which convince him he is dying of heart disease. I was already posthumous. Whatever I looked at, any cat or dog, Saw me already dead, merely Lurching on a few paces, perfunctory vision Still on my retina. My new study Was all the ways a heart can kill its owner. . . . He even plays Beethoven, "To reconduct that music through my aorta/So he could run me clean and unconstrained/And release me." But "[o]f all this one,/Two, three years I told you nothing." Despite his silence, however, Hughes seems to experience his symptom as a kind of demonic possession shared with Plath, perhaps a possession by her father. That, at least, is the only way I can read the lines which conclude "The Lodger": Who was this alien joker Who had come to evict us, Sharing my skin, just as he shared yours, Watching my digging, so calmly? And gazing Over your shoulder, into the poems you polished As into this or that or the other mirror That tried to ignore him? This seems, on the face of it, rather outrageously to blame Plath for Hughes's neurosis. Yet the truly uncanny connection with Otto is one the poem never mentions: Otto too misdiagnosed his own symptoms, mistaking diabetes for incurable cancer. The result was not only his early death, but the "Two, three years" of (again, unexplained) melancholia that blighted Plath's childhood. Why did Hughes need to relive these years? Was he, in any degree, conscious that he was doing so? These are deep psychic waters. As family-systems theory tells us, married couples do become hypersensitive to, and even live out, aspects of each other's fantasies and neuroses; just as they divide up roles - one strong, one weak; one "healthy," one "sick" - that really belong to both their psyches. One can only imagine what a profounder student of marital symbioses - say, the Kundera of The Unbearable Lightness of Being - might have done with Hughes's material. But it is clear enough to me, from these poems, that Hughes's obsession with Plath's father-obsession was not invented after the fact, to deny his guilt; it was a vital thread in the undertexture of their marriage. But Hughes and Plath, and indeed their whole Cambridge circle, were occultists, half-believers in Ouija, Tarot, astrology, etc. Hughes had changed his major from literature to anthropology after a fox appeared to him in a dream and said, "Why are you killing us?"; and anthropology, for him, seems to have been less a critical study than a treasure-trove of archetypes, spells, and rites. Too often, Hughes treats his and Plath's neuroses with an occultist's literalism. Otto is a Teutonic demon-king, with a retinue of priestesses, ogres, gypsy curses, characters out of Shakespeare and Bluebeard. And the style begins to sound like a dulled-down parody of Plath, mixed with Crow: King Minos, Alias Otto - his bellow Winding into murderous music. Which play Were we in? Too late to find you And get to my ship. The moon, off her moorings, Tossed in tempest. . . . The laughter Of Sycorax was thunder and lightning And black downpour. She hurled Prospero's head at me, A bounding thunderbolt, a jumping cracker. Et cetera. Even good poems often turn to this tone at the end, with disastrous consequences. There are still passages that capture the texture of a deteriorating marriage with a fine realism. The savage wit of Plath's poems can be heard, unmistakeably, in a tirade against England and, implicitly, her English husband: Was black paint cheaper? Why Were English cars all black - to hide the filth? Or to stay respectable, like bowlers And umbrellas? Every vehicle a hearse. And Hughes's bewilderment at these outbursts ("What had I done? I had/Somehow misunderstood") rings true enough. But as the story darkens, Hughes more and more falls back on his hysterical Grand Guignol style, with its two themes, Fate and the Father. When the Fate motif sounds again at the beginning of the only poem about Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath, it is easy to agree with Katha Pollitt that the book has "hit the nadir of taste and the zenith of self-delusion." Wevill is not quite the non-presence in this book that its harshest reviewers have said; but almost. Of course, Hughes was further traumatized by her own gas-oven suicide a few years later. (I have heard it rumored, but never seen it said in print, that Wevill, herself an occultist, felt Plath was urging her to this act from beyond the grave.) Be that as it may, Hughes appears by now to have made Wevill the Bad Object, as Kleineans say ("Slightly filthy with erotic mystery"), and displaced a good deal of his own guilt onto her. He has persuaded himself that Plath was his true love, and that he would have gone back to her if she had not given him such violently contradictory signals: He had promised her everything she asked for, And she had told him all she wanted Was for him to get out of the country, to vanish. I'll do whatever you want. But which do you want? Go together next week North Or for me to vanish off the earth? She wept, pleading for reassurance - that he have Faith in her, and he reeled when he should have grabbed: "Do as you like with me. I'm your parcel. I have only our address on me. Open me or readdress me." How complete a truth this is, no outsider will ever know. And so we come to the question of defensiveness, of self-exculpation. Perhaps it is a question with all personal poetry. Plath did not defend, she attacked; but her uncanny ability to undermine her own attacks, to reveal the psyche's "short circuits and folding mirrors," raised her to greatness. The famous lines damning Hughes in "Daddy" are in fact prefaced with the statement "I made a model of you," acknowledging her own psychic construction of him in the image of her demon father. Because Hughes's tack is rather to present himself as reasonable, reflective, looking for Truth, his Achilles' heels are all the more evident. Again, Katha Pollitt's New York Times review has put the case for the prosecution best. Beyond the occult trappings and the fatalism, even, Incident after incident makes the same point: she was the sick one, I was the "nurse and protector." I didn't kill her - poetry, Fate, her obsession with her dead father killed her. . . . Poem after poem has the same plot: an effort at ordinary happiness, pleasure, closeness . . . turns ominous as a symbol . . . appears on the scene to foreshadow the terrible future. And yet, and yet. It is partly, but not wholly true, as we have seen, that Hughes represents Plath as the only "sick one." And surely the repeated structure, though it gets tiresome, owes as much to the conventions of elegy, and the nature of grief, as to the need for self-justification. Thomas Hardy's elegies, too, see the early years of his marriage, "when our day was fair," through the glass of what came later, though he was under no public attack, and freely admitted his own share of guilt.

Of course, Hughes has his own view of those who think he owes them an explanation. He is bitter at the world that treats literary celebrity as it does political; and a little bitter, even, at the melodramatic side of Plath that courted such a fate. "Freedom of Speech" envisages a sixtieth birthday party, at which the guest of honor is not Plath but "Ariel," a sort of talking bird perched on Plath's knuckle eating grapes. "Only you and I do not smile" - the cost, to them, precisely that "beauty" which is "poetry's sister," but which poetry doesn't always listen to. The theme - the attack on reputation - is almost new to literature, for the simple reason that most poets as good as Hughes are mainly concerned with their own reputation, and far too attached to it to pay more than lip-service to its drawbacks. It is perhaps unfortunate that Hughes cannot see some, at least, of Plath's critics not as voyeurs or "hyenas," but as people who fell in love with her hyper-vivid version of experience (as earlier generations fell in love with Byron's, or Hart Crane's), and wanted to defend her against real or imagined enemies. But it will take a thick-skinned critic to read "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother" without a twinge of doubt about our own enterprise.

In such a moment of humility, we might reflect that the tasks the Muse assigns writers are not always the ones we would assign. I mean, of course, the tasks that draw writers to the height of their powers. Hughes's task, in that best sense, was not to fix blame, but to reexperience his love for the woman who had set such a stamp on his entire life. Perhaps Birthday Letters fails, if one comes to it expecting an honest answer to every accusation Plath biographers have levelled at Hughes, over the years. But the twenty or so poems that stick to their truest task are a small masterpiece. My list would include, at a minimum, the second half of "18 Rugby Street," "Fate Playing," "The Owl," "Chaucer," "The Earthenware Head," "Wuthering Heights," "The Chipmunk," "Flounders," "Child's Park," "The Literary Life," "The Badlands," "The 59th Bear" (except for the ending), "Grand Canyon," "Remission" (again, except the ending), "Daffodils," "A Short Film," "The Rag Rug," "The Rabbit Catcher," "Robbing Myself," "Life After Death," "The Prism," "Freedom of Speech," and "Red." The alternation of white heat and relaxed everydayness in these poems makes most marriage sequences by men - even Lowell's Dolphin - feel emotionally cramped by comparison. Only Hardy - who was able to own up to guilt - is clearly better.

NOTE: Alan Williamson's new book of poems, Res Publica, will be published this fall by Chicago. His discussion of Sylvia Plath can be found in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. He teaches at the University of California at Davis.

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