Birthday Letters By Ted Hughes Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20
One suspects that if Ted Hughes threw himself upon Sylvia Plath's grave, ripped his garments, heaped ashes on his head, shouted mea culpa a thousand times and then slit his throat, his detractors, those who believe he drove his poet-wife to suicide 3 1/2 months after her 30th birthday, would not be satisfied.
So it must matter little that close to the 35th anniversary of that death Hughes has broken his obdurate, legendary silence with the 85 poems collected in Birthday Letters. ``Too little, too late,'' will be the cry of those who scream ``Murderer!'' at the public readings of the Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, who repeatedly chip the name ``Hughes'' from Plath's gravestone.
The publication of Birthday Letters has been greeted with the sort of interest usually reserved for news of celebrity shenanigans or important criminal investigations. The complete American edition of 25,000 copies sold out immediately after release, an extraordinary feat considering that sales of 2,000 copies of a book of poetry over a poet's lifetime are considered rather splendid nowadays. The book certainly carries a massive cargo of titillative potential, and many of those who rushed to rip the volume from bookstore shelves primarily must have had in mind (and hoped for a positive answer to) the question: ``Will Ted admit he behaved so badly to Sylvia that she felt constrained to turn on the gas?'' How many of those readers will look beyond the tremendously sad and sordid aspects of this doomed relationship of two brilliant poets and powerful (and deeply flawed) personalities to the fact that Birthday Letters is a volume of poems and that as poetry the book is not very good?
There is plenty in Birthday Letters to rile Plath's supporters. The poet takes the attitude throughout the book of a man coupled with an emotional cripple over whom he assumes a bemused and sometimes frantic proprietary claim. The theme of Plath's emotional fragility runs through the poems, from "the flayed nerve, the unhealable face-wound/Which was all you had for courage" to "a paralysis of terror-flutters/I hardly understood" to "What I remember/Is thinking: She'll do something crazy." Hughes harps on Plath's famous Electra complex far more in these poems than she ever did in her work, though, of course, he lived with her unhealthy love and terror of her dead father, who died when Plath was 8, every day. Early in the book, he asserts what he sees as Plath's extension of her complicated feelings about her parents to him:
You had only to look Into the nearest face of a metaphor Picked out of your wardrobe or off your plate Or out of the sun or the moon or the yew tree To see your father, your mother, or me Bringing you your whole Fate -
but he doesn't go so far as to agree that his wife committed suicide because of him; it was Daddy's fault:
You wanted To be with your father In wherever he was. And your body Barred your passage. And there are curious things.
Hughes never refers to the couple's children as "ours," but always "your son," "your daughter," "your children." Once he even says "your marriage," as if he were somehow not officially a part of it, while she was, fatally. Twice he uses the phrase "African-lipped'' and once `"aboriginal thickness" to describe Plath's lips; perhaps the English are more casual about these matters than Americans are, but it feels as if the n-word trembles at the nib of the poet laureate's pen. In one late poem, Hughes mentions falling in love with another woman, but the fact that he left his wife and children in October 1962 and allowed them to live on the dole until Plath's death on Feb. 11, 1963, is unremarked.
These are extra-literary concerns, the stuff of blame and recrimination. As far as the poems themselves are concerned, what startles initially is how much Hughes's poems here resemble the poems written by Plath during the last year of her life, but without Plath's incandescent clarity, without the enrobing sheen of a despairing certainty and simplicity. Hughes's first book, Hawk in the Rain, published in 1957, burst across the staid landscape of English poetry with meteoric and mythic metaphors in tow, and the poet has continued to load his work with the alluring, deep imagery of his insight and intuition. It would be impossible for moments, lines and passages in Birthday Letters not to captivate us with the unique Hughes touch that combines the brutal and dreamlike with the utterly natural. We follow willingly to, for example, Karlsbad Caverns, where bats cluster "thick as shaggy soot in chimneys/Bigger than cathedrals," or to Chartres Cathedral, where "the spectacular up-spearing/Of its tonnage pierced us/With the shadow-gloom and weight of the sacred." Yet many of these poems seem clotted, dense and implacable with gratuitious clashes of visual and emotional elements. Unlike Plath's last swift, glittering, terrifying poems, often inspired by the same background of domestic distress and psychic horror Hughes describes, the poems in Birthday Letters feel unmovable on the page, overworked, overripe, too loose and frequently too long, as if the poet could not keep his hand from moving on across the paper. I kept coming to the perfect ending lines for a poem, the point at which the poem's emotional arc needed to terminate, only to turn the page and discover - two more pages of the poem; do poet laureates not require editors?
These comparisons may seem monstrously unfair; Plath and Hughes are different poets, Plath was writing in the immediacy of crisis while Hughes is writing years after the fact. Several of the poems in Birthday Letters are, indeed, stunning, but they are the ones in which Hughes controls most firmly his sense of stanzaform, stripped-down language and central metaphor. Best in the book is The Ventriloquist, a harrowing poem that describes the psychic moment of Plath's death as a struggle between Plath and Hughes presided over by a doll, Sylvia herself, that screams "Daddy was no good:"
As you lay on the bed I leaned to the locked door. The doll sat on the roof and screamed I was with a whore. The doll broke in that night Killed you and was gone Screaming at the stars to look And see Justice done.
Though it is gratifying to see Hughes in this fearlessly unprotected guise, the chief virtue of Birthday Letters was that it sent me back to Sylvia Plath's poems.
Copyright (c) 1998 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
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