The Dead and the Rude: A Late Obit for Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

from: Booklist - March 15, 1999

by Molly McQuade

Abstract: Poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in 1956, married, and both came into their own as writers. After Plath committed suicide in 1963, many scholars and poets grew to loathe Hughes, who was the often stingy editor and executor of the works Plath left behind. Hughes died in 1998, and the debate over his value as a poet and his relationship with Plath rages on. Some blame him for Plath's suicide, while others tout him as a better poet than she. The ongoing conversation itself is testament to the influence that Plath and Hughes had on the poetic community.

Please don't use the word was in the same sentence with "Sylvia Plath" or "Ted Hughes." For it seems impossible, even after their deaths, that we cannot still know them and fume over them in that old intemperately imaginative, imperative voice, present tense, that was brazenly invented by them and greedily learned by us. We're too fond of the voice to part with it yet. An inkling of its inherent value: defiantly rendered ambivalence. After all, this voice has both guided and oppressed us. Plath and Hughes owned it, shared it, struggled with it, and now it belongs to us, the eager, willful, dubious heirs. Is that our fault?

The voice, the lingo, its rhythms and scenarios, helped Plath and Hughes to chisel their way as writers into a book, the century. They live there today while we loiter, eavesdropping on the cadences of opera. As readers, we're married to them with a finality that feels truceless. We don't have a say in this.

But almost everyone has an opinion about our rather strange marriage.

"Why do all these people want to forgive Ted Hughes?" asks the critic Marjorie Perloff. "He really did treat her terribly, and then made a lot of money out of it."

Suggests Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux who worked with Hughes in his last years, "I wonder if the animosity toward Hughes has been overstated, I'd like to know if there are as many Ted Hughes-haters as we're sometimes told. I've read about them but not met them."

"Paradoxically, they're really a pair," comments the Shakespeare scholar David Bevington, who staged an evening-length performance of poetry by Plath and Hughes in Chicago last November. "Their legacy is joint. They're bound together for eternity, like Antony and Cleopatra. The legend grows, and the poetry grows with it."

Lately, both the poetry and the legend have been doing some unusually sensational somersaults in air. Readers have known for years about the Plath-Hughes collaborative literary collision and its marital shocks, leading to her suicide at 30 in 1963, because Plath wrote many of her most knowingly incendiary poems about or inspired by that collision. Even so, Hughes' best-selling 1998 collection of abjectly autobiographical poetry, Birthday Letters (Farrar), managed, in the months before his death from cancer at 68 last October, to evoke for some the full scale of the two poets' alchemy. The book chronicled confessionally their first meeting in 1956 at Cambridge University and the seven-year period that followed as they married and both came into their own as writers. All the while, Plath contended with manic depression. Surviving her, Hughes served as Plath's literary executor and editor, and irked many with his sporadically self-protective and self-aggrandizing handling of the job--as well as with a flamboyant public silence on the subject of his former wife, a silence that "some people have said was gentlemanly and others have called brutish and truculent," notes the American poet Henry Taylor. More recent news of the contents of Hughes' personal papers, currently being cataloged at the Emory University library, has pushed scholars, poets, biographers, critics, and others into a state of quivering expectation. Therein, reportedly, the man whom some have loved to hate for decades both unburdens himself convincingly about a notorious partnership and offers up previously unpublished poems by himself and Plath.

Predictably, the literary canon's ravening engine is spitting, groaning, and pronouncing. And spirited disagreement seems, as always, to be the order of the day.

"That [Plath's] poems are better than the poems of most poets at any age may be in part because she fretted so much over earlier poems and over her personal pain," observes the poet Dennis Schmitz in an essay about Plath in the fall 1998 issue of Field, the literary journal. "Maybe pain made her lucky--whoever deserves or earns a poem?" Also in Field, the poet Jean Valentine remembers discovering Plath's late work: "When I saw the first of the Ariel poems in print, in 1963, I sat down and rewrote my whole first manuscript ... I was woken up, brought to life."

Yet in his 1998 collection of essays, What the Twilight Says (Farrar), Nobel laureate Derek Walcott dismisses Plath as a mere "muse of aspirin" who succumbed to "hysteria," whereas "the power of Hughes' work is that it preserves its own archaicness.... Hughes brought to poetry a toughness." In a winter 1999 issue of the New York Times Book Review, Irish poet Eavan Boland, herself profoundly formed by Plath, also salutes Hughes: "What he had was a stubborn, disenfranchised intelligence and the courage to put it smack in the middle of the decorous British pastoral convention." Seamus Heaney, seen by some as marked by the achievements of both poets, has cautioned readers about Plath's most famous poem: "A poem like `Daddy,' however brilliant a tour de force it can be acknowledged to be, and however its violence and vindictiveness can be understood or excused in the light of the poet's parental and marital relations, remains, nonetheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people's sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy."

Though to locate the rudiments of a legacy is always chancy, it's especially so when what's been given to us seems adamantly singular--these poets and their poems.

Still, the sounds of an inheritance wind through the words of various living writers. For example, Heaney, as Farrar's Paul Elie views him, was and is "interested in how Hughes' work was crackling and alive, not in what verse forms he used or whether it rhymed ... Hughes wasn't a word-squeezer. He had a great ear, but he left the words a little bit rough to keep the energy in them. That runs counter to the level of polish and shine in a lot of work by contemporary poets." Elie also mentions the American poet August Kleinzahler as a possible legatee of Hughes' "kineticism."

Timothy Donnelly, poetry coeditor of the Boston Review and managing director of the Poetry Society of America, sees the poet Lucie Brock-Broido as "writing from the same point of intensity and with a lexicon 25 percent of which comes from Plath as a `foremother.'" Other writers sometimes cited as shaped partially by Plath include Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, and Paul Muldoon.

And Cathy Bowman. Bowman, who lives within walking distance of Indiana University's Lilly Library, where some of Plath's papers are housed, has written poetry and criticism about Plath and plans to make a documentary film about her. She simply says, "Plath is a part of the way [think about things. Over the years, I have felt both a love and a repulsion for her." Bowman believes that "every contemporary American writer, man or woman, has read Plath and been influenced by her as a parental figure. But her legacy has been corrupted. The confessional style has been commodified. As poets, we've backed ourselves into a corner where intimacy has turned into a perfume that we spray."

Plainly Plath's influence is not borne without controversy, or at least a sigh and writhe. As poet Janet Sylvester, who teaches a course on Plath and Hughes at Harvard, puts it, "When I was 23 years old, I was entirely influenced by Plath, but that was 25 years ago. I was enraptured by her extremism. What made Plath and Hughes great poets was their inability to compromise, and that was also what made their lives so hard." Complains Marjorie Perloff, "A lot of lesser poets have been very influenced by her, but not the very good ones. Plath has so definite and pure a voice that it would be difficult to imitate her."

Counters Timothy Donnelly, "Just as some people are influenced by Plath too superficially, others are too quick to dismiss Plath for the superficial influence she's had on some writers."

The range of Hughes' influence is perhaps even more hazardous to speculate on, since at his best he showed "a capability to speak with a prophetic voice that called into question the very usefulness of language. He spoke for trees, rocks, birds, et cetera," says Henry Taylor. However, there are those, like poet Campbell McGrath, who maintain that Hughes was largely just "a craftsman turning out poems within an aesthetic tradition." By contrast, "Plath's on fire within the language--absolutely original." McGrath's next book, Road Atlas, coming from the Ecco Press in June, will include a prose poem about Plath. A poem in his previous book, American Noise (Ecco, 1994), "creates a purgatory for baby-boomer cultural figures in Las Vegas, and Sylvia Plath is seen shopping for Pampers at Wal-Mart."

Despite the stream of reckonings, reconsiderations, and weird images chasing after Plath and Hughes, however, we're left facing the stanzas of the poets. When Hughes died, I felt inexplicably mortified; I can't quite explain why to myself. But it was as if a parent had vanished and also as if Plath had abruptly perished for the second time, leaving us undeniably alone and stranded. Although the failures of parents, as people or as writers, don't endear them to us, they do hand us something to work toward and against, along with a sense of our own imperfectly realized behavior and hopes. Much as we may have objected to this or that about them, we'll probably always be in conversation with them, maybe especially if they seemed to mock safety, as these two did, while they lived. What Plath and Hughes gave us may have been what we already had but didn't yet recognize: the last word of the language.

NOTE: Molly McQuade's collection of essays, Stealing Glimpses: Of Poetry, Poets, and Things in Between, will be published by Sarabande Books in April.

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