It's being read not as poetry but as the intimate memoir of the late 20th century's most fabled literary relationship. That's why it's selling like a Murdoch tabloid. That's in a sense what it could be, too, with front-page screamers suitable for snagging sleepy eyes at the checkout line: TED HUGHES TO SYLVIA PLATH IN HER GRAVE: I WAS THE MALE LEAD IN YOUR DRAMA. God knows you can't read Dylan Thomas' "Collected Poems" this way -- for the faculty wives smuggled into motels at midnight, the pints quaffed in bad company, the responsibilities to wife Caitlin left unmet, the marital tiffs at breakfast. But you can read John Berryman's "Dream Songs" this way if you've a mind to -- as a blood memoir of failures and benders and confusions and shock therapies.
With Robert Lowell at the lead, we had a generation-plus of American poets rubbing our noses in self-destructive and self-abasing "life studies": Berryman, Plath, Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, to name a few whose drunks, hospitalizations, rages and affairs were confessed in poetry. Long before there was a Betty Ford Center, American poets showed the way. Still, Berryman's "Dream Songs" were never more than literary news. Ted Hughes' "Birthday Letters" is cultural news, a surviving husband's broken silence on the subject of second-generation feminism's self-sacrificing literary "lamb." When Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven and turned on the gas on Feb. 11, 1963, she became feminism's perfect martyr -- a brilliant poet abandoned by an adulterous husband, stuck with two young children and schizophrenic melancholia in an unusually cold London winter. She also gave literary feminism its paradigmatic villain -- the pig who left her to have an affair with another woman but who, to the fury of decades of feminists, was her literary executor and even destroyed some of her work for their children's sake.
God knows Hughes' dossier doesn't look good on cursory acquaintance. But that is almost entirely a product of his public silence about Plath, 35 years of it during which Plath became an object lesson, Plath Studies became an academic industry and Ted Hughes, the great oppressor, became, as the dust flap of "Birthday Letters" puts it, "Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II" (which makes it sound as if he's on personal call to write, say, "Lines on the Unfair Deification of Di and Castigation of Charles"). Ted Hughes wasn't Plath's "Daddy," but to the Plath faithful he might as well have been. He was a killer in jackboots. The subsequent history of the woman for whom he left Plath (suicide) certainly didn't help. Nor did the death of her daughter.
Hughes himself bemoaned his entirely involuntary immersion in death. What right did Hughes have, after all, to destroy any of Plath's work? In a good but obnoxious wisecrack, William Faulkner once said to an interviewer that he'd sacrifice his own grandmother for a lyric by Keats. "The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies," said Faulkner, which is good bar talk over a bourbon and branch water but not a practicable option for those who might actually love their grandmothers. It isn't hard to imagine Plath poems that might have been written in the depths of depression -- Medea poems in deranged fury at her own children -- that no father could ever allow to be published.
But then, as her literary executor, Hughes made "Ariel" possible. And as a silence made of stone, he made possible his own archetypal damnation in the gender wars.
The dead always have a moral advantage over the living. And suicides have the greatest moral advantage of them all. Their last public statement is a permanent indictment of everyone left behind. Regardless of what living with her day to day may actually have been like, every act that Hughes performed on behalf of Plath's posthumous martyrdom was a mute collaboration with his own trial and conviction.
We much prefer to speak our ill of the living, after all -- most of all when they steadfastly refuse to speak for themselves, as Hughes, with few exceptions, has for 35 years in the matter of his wife. The convicting testimony, then, has all been Plath's; the children and the work were Hughes' to raise in some area away from what he now calls the hyenas of academe. ("Let them/Jerk their tail stumps, bristle and vomit/Over their symposia.")
Only the indecent, the stupid and the terminally politicized ever imagined that Hughes didn't have a most persuasive case. Just what possibilities are there for marriage to one who hears "viciousness in the kitchen" when "the potatoes hiss"? When "the blood jet is poetry" for one poet and the poet she's married to always sees the skull beneath the flayed skin, what sane human being would give their marriage a chance?
To anyone of any probity, the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath seems almost as much an Olympian prank as it does a literary love affair -- a sadistic experiment performed with pitiless detachment by some distant god.
(It is no accident, believe me, that the book Hughes published just before "Birthday Letters" was a very free and rather wonderful translation of some of Ovid's "Metamorphoses.")
They were just enough alike to make collision inevitable (and, one can only gather, immensely powerful). And collision seems to have better described what they did than mating, with archetypally powerful results. And now, after 35 years of resolute silence, this altogether startling literary gesture -- Hughes' poems written to Plath over a period of 25 years.
They address her as "you" in the same way that Theodore Roethke addressed as "you" the huge, drunken father who swooped up his terrified young son and waltzed him off to bed ("with every step you took/ my right ear scraped a buckle").
To anyone still clinging to Hughes the monster oppressor in feminist mythology's very own "Metamorphoses," his "Birthday Letters" is permanent reproof. No one could dream of denying his self-absorptions or insufficiencies, but Plath -- who has for so long occupied death's higher ground -- constructed a drama beyond anyone's control, least of all her own. "Drama queen" is the pitiless term of the current young about women who lived as Plath did. "Madwoman" is a term they might have used a century earlier.
"Tragic" is the term we might well use who are still clinging to lachrymose midcentury notions of compassion. Such talent was wedded to such chaos. And there was Hughes, inflamed at the sight of "your long, perfect American legs" and "those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers/And the face -- a tight ball of joy."
Biology, in some ways, makes monsters of us all -- Plaths and Hugheses both. So "Birthday Letters" is a selective memoir of Hughes and Plath together and Hughes alone -- everything from travelogue (France, which she embraced and Hughes scorned; Spain, which literally made her ill and which Hughes, predictably, took to) to emotional legal brief ("the mahogany table top you smashed/Had been the broad plant top/Of my mother's heirloom sideboard"). There are some excellent poems here and some truly wretched ones. But we read them all through a keyhole, to see another version entirely of a literary drama we've known for 35 years -- a version we always knew was there but were denied by the stone silence and old-fashioned scruples of the extraordinary poet left behind with the martyr's work and the two children they shared. It is, and always will be, Plath's drama.
But with "Birthday Letters," Act 1 of it is clearly over. Act 2, just as clearly, has begun.
Caption: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were featured in a January 1959 article in Mademoiselle magazine called "Four Young Poets."
Copyright (c) 1998, The Buffalo News
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