The Birthday Letters - to give everyone a quick background on the work of this highly talented poet - is Ted Hughes's last collection of poetry. I fondly call it his final grin, based on his earlier poem called "The Grin," which I will talk about later.
The book singly deals with his relationship to the notorious and equally prolific poet Sylvia Plath who committed suicide in 1969. After this book, he went on to publish his muchpraised translations of Racine's Phedre and Aeschylus' The Orestia before he died last year.
The publication of this book came as a shock to all avid readers of the so-called Plath-Hughes literary tandem. It sought to summon nuances of their marriage and poetics that were never before uttered until Hughes finally published this book. Many of the poems in Birthday Letters use imagery from Plath's work.
While we are tempted to squeeze the nasty plots out of this collection and start gossiping, what is crucial I think to discuss here, is how this book offers a last look into the compulsions that drove Hughes to devote his life to the writing of poetry. And why sadly, these poems fail to accomplish what could have been a befittingly gorgeous swan song. I think it's safe to assume now - after more than 40 extant works of poetry, prose, translations, kiddie literature, and criticism - that Hughes's place in 20th-century English letters is intact (despite his rank absence in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon).
Whatever equally disparaging and correct comment anyone can say about Birthday Letters, I think, will barely alter his stature as a poet of worth.
Quickly now, the book is a collection of poems written over a period of nearly three decades. Read as a narrative - which should be discouraged precisely because this is not prose - it tells of the couple's first encounter, their flirtations with romance and poetry, their marriage and children, Plath's suicide, the surprising presence of a mistress, and other quaint-turned-sob narratives, like the couple's visit to Marianne Moore's house sometime in the '60s.
All 88 poems in the book somewhat fit what we now call confessional poetry, meaning the situations of the poems are uttered by a voice that claims to have really experienced the subject or "story" it is talking about. While the distinctions between fact and fiction in literature is a big bolus of blur, confessional poetry's truths rely not on a checklist of so-called facts. It clings on to the confessional use or tone of language to make it sound factual and usually emphatic. While these poems are being marketed as confessions, Hughes distance from his subject is obvious, if not inevitable, considering his distinct voice. As correctly observed by The Literary Review in its recent review of this work, "Hughes opens the gate, but still guards the entrance, and readers looking for true confessions will be disappointed."
Birthday Letters is a surprise, since Hughes has "confessed" nothing but the ways of animals, plants and rocks in 12 books of verse, beginning with "The Hawk in the Rain." He has also, with the exception of some poems in "Moortown" and "Moortown Diary," rarely wrote in the first person and on his familial life.
Before this book, Hughes has written largely on the beauty and violence of the natural world far more furiously than any modern poet I can recall now.
The thesis of his life's work is a glorious terrarium without cages.
Hughes's fantastic forest is a place where on "the seventh day the serpent rested," a pig's "bite is worse than a horse's," a tree is "a priest from a different land," and crabs "are God's only toys."
In one of his best books called Crow, Hughes has created a primal universe where the Crow - together with stark and silly images of God and Eden - figure in one of the most disarming and anxious encounter with the creation and destruction of the world that I've ever read.
In Birthday Letters, Hughes keeps his brawny baritone booming. But sadly, he dilutes his deterministic poetic vision to tell stories. While I will never have the gall to claim that these pieces are simply stories and not poetry - and truly these are poems - what I'm trying to get at is how, in this final collection, Hughes drops the muscle-tearing weight of his previous books' language to do brisk walking. I guess we all need time for a break and a quick chitchat.
There is no gain saying, of course, that the subject matter of this book is serious. But ultimately, poetry is not about a wife's suicide, no matter how insane or popular she was. It is about language. And while Birthday Letters still delivers that muscular language we have come to expect from this big guy, he lowers the stakes despite the gravity of his subject. These poems, with the exceptions of a few innovative pieces, seem to have been leisurely written while he was, let's say, waiting for the next train. Only his treasury of words guarantee that even mere doodles, and perhaps vague recollections, turn into poetry.
The book is packed with narratives that zoom in and out of their plots to show us that, indeed, he has the gift of seeing things differently. Absent here are the clever and distinct concentration of images and sound that appeared in his earlier poems like "The Bear," "Apple Tragedy," and "The Thought-Fox," among numerous others.
But some of the poems here, thankfully, provide us glimpses of the man who wrote "Crow," and "Lupercal." Not oddly, these poems resort back to animals to prove to us how poetry works.
In "Karlsbad Caverns," the couple observes an army of bats:
We had seen the bats in the Karlsbad caves, Thick as shaggy soot in chimneys Bigger than cathedrals. We'd made ourselves dots On the horizon of their complete world And their exclusive lives. Presumably the whole lot were happy - So happy they didn't know they were happy, They were so busy with it, so full of it, Clinging upside down in their stone heavens.
In "Being Christlike," "Costly Speech," and "Apprehensions," Hughes still deserves "heaven's prolonged applause." In spite of my misgivings, I am still very much an avid fan.
Going back to that grin I was saying earlier, I think this book is simply a last, bittersweet grin to everything that was correct and wrong about his life with Sylvia Plath. The admissions about his marriage to Plath are less of a concern to us - since some of them may be lies - than how the book ultimately stands as one piece if we intend to read Hughes's work seriously.
In his poem called "The Grin," Hughes follows the personification of the verb "grin" as it tries to fit itself into various people's faces in moments of immense anguish:
There was this hidden grin. It wanted a permanent home. It tried faces In their forgetful moments, the face for instance Of a woman pushing a baby out between her legs But that didn't last long the face Of a man so preoccupied With the flying steel in the instant Of the car crash he left his face To itself that was even shorter, the face Of a machine-gunner a long burst not long enough and The face of a steeplejack the second Before he hit the paving, the faces Of two lovers in the seconds They got so far into each other they forgot Each other completely that was OK But none of it lasted.
Eventually, and way too exhausted, this hidden grin, like The Birthday Letters, sinks back, "temporarily nonplussed," into Plath's already-bare skull. I hope this final sinking-and-grinning into the life of Plath does not spawn more gossip passing as criticism. I think we've read enough party pieces on this couple to keep us awake all night.
Despite my disappointment with many of the poems in this book, I think Birthday Letters is at least a good entry point for anyone who wants to read the brilliant and difficult work of this poet. I still recommend to anyone who seriously reads modern poetry to get a copy of this work. This book is dedicated to their children, Frieda, who recently published her own poetry in a book called Worlowo, and Nicholas, who I read somewhere is a slacker and travels the world for fun.
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