Long-silent poet looks heroic amid scandal-peddlers

from: The Boston Herald - February 1, 1998

by Margery Eagan

On the front pages and talk shows this week we've seen Hillary Rodham Clinton almost reveling in her stonewalling, spurious defense of her husband. We've seen Terry Giles, lawyer for the Beverly Hills High teacher, crawl out from beneath a rock to announce Andy Bleiler's affair with Monica S.

Lewinsky, then smear her without a bit of corroboration, then call it his patriotic duty.

Meanwhile, other Lewinsky boyfriends are reportedly negotiating tell-all deals, feeling no need to defend themselves. And phone-tape trickster Linda R.

Tripp watches her bestseller prospects grow and grow. No one, it seems, keeps quiet about anything anymore, or feels much need to. Now we don't just whisper but go on TV.

Yet in the back pages of the newspapers this week, all but overlooked, was the story of a public man publicly vilified now for 35 years. But this man has never tried to defend himself or set the record straight or cash in on his tragedy to sell more books or, in his case, poems. And the contrast between Ted Hughes and the rest of us, today, could not be more stark, or embarrassing.

Hughes is the widower of poet Sylvia Plath, who was born in Jamaica Plain, raised in Winthrop and Wellesley, and wrote "The Bell Jar" and "Ariel." Four months after Hughes left Plath for another poet's wife, Plath, 30, stuck her head in a gas oven, leaving cookies and milk for the couple's two children, ages 2 and 6 months.

That was 1963, perfect timing for the burgeoning feminist movement to embrace Plath as the brilliant symbol for women's subjugation in a male-dominated world. Her artistic genius was subsumed into his. She was hemmed in by 1950s domesticity, by the diaper duties that fell mainly to her while Hughes, the handsome rogue, trolled poetry readings for prettier, younger things.

Or so the story went. She was driven to her death by a so-called "fatal husband," a cruel and brutish scoundrel who abandoned both his babies and his bride when her rages and depressions became too much to bear. No wonder Plath fans chipped and hacked away Hughes' name from her grave. Hughes was blamed, basically, for killing a woman who nearly succeeded at suicide long before he met her. And while at least five biographies have been written on Plath, Hughes has refused to be interviewed for any, yet further evidence of callousness, his detractors say.

There are others, though, who have admired Hughes' quiet dignity, who have viewed his separation from Plath as the desperate move of a man overwhelmed by an impossible wife.

Now, coinciding with the Feb. 11 anniversary of Plath's suicide, comes Hughes' "Birthday Letters," a volume of poems that reveals him not as unfeeling and cruel but preoccupied with their love affair and her death. Poetry is not autobiography, and some Hughes critics insist this work merely assuages his guilt. But what's striking about "Birthday Letters" is the tenderness the alleged brute expresses toward his alleged victim. "In your pink wool knitted dress," he writes of Plath on their wedding day, "before anything had smudged anything, you stood at the altar. Bloomsday ... You were transfigured. So slender and new and naked, a nodding spray of wet lilac. You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth.... Brimming with God."

It's incredible, really, to read such lines in the same newspapers that are simultaneously investigating possible presidential semen stains on an intern's dress. We should all be grateful, I guess, for back pages, all but overlooked.

Of course, "Birthday Letters" is not without relevance to the seamier contretemps of the hour. It reminds us that we are really unable to judge intimate human relationships, marriages or affairs; that even the people inside them may see them from different, sometimes even alien, perspectives; that what seems so obvious from afar may be something else entirely up close.

Copyright (c) 1998 Boston Herald. All rights reserved.


»Return to Articles & Criticism