Now They're Dead, So Maybe The Poetry Can Live

from: Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) - October 31, 1998

by Fredric Koeppel

Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, died Wednesday at 68, and perhaps now it can be laid to rest, the 35-year enmity between him and the supporters of his late wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. These are the legions who hold Hughes responsible for Plath's suicide in 1963, for the abrupt ending of a brilliantly burgeoning poetic career, the detractors who jeered at Hughes at public readings, called him murderer and chipped his name repeatedly from her headstone.

Theirs was the most famous marriage of poets since Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but it was a marriage far more troubled than the romance that produced that beloved testament, Sonnets from the Portuguese. The marriage of Plath and Hughes became far better known after Plath gassed herself to death in a small, cold London apartment, leaving milk and cookies for their two children, despondent that Hughes had left her for another woman.

It must have seemed a marriage made in Parnassus for two creative spirits, he a tall, handsome, intense Yorkshireman, born in 1930, she a vivacious, obsessive (and already suicidal) American, two years younger, both drunk with the power of words and poetry and the hope of literary immortality. By the time she published her first and still water-testing book, The Colossus, in 1960, Hughes was famous as author of two scintillating bardic volumes, The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal. He wrote about the dark impulses of animals and nature, the pigs who "eat cinders, dead cats," a pond "as deep as England," thistles like "a grasped fistful/Of splintered weapons."

Plath, reaching her incredible and prolific stride in 1962 and the first month of 1963, turned inward, fearlessly excavating the demons of her dead father, her courting of oblivion, her maniacal attraction to and repulsion of physicality. The first time you read Daddy (in the posthumous collection, Ariel) with its horrendous closing line - "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through" - or Lady Lazarus, with its dispassionate references to the poet's suicide attempts - "I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real" - you felt irrevocably in the grip of a ripe and sorrowful genius.

We cannot know where Plath's remarkable pain and talent would have taken her. Hughes, of course, went on to vast recognition, though his critical fortunes have swayed through the decades even as his official position became unassailable. He was as notorious for his fierce sense of privacy and his reluctance to talk about Plath as for his work, and perhaps it was as much this reticence as his behavior to Plath that made him the subject of controversy and condemnation.

Hughes broke his silence this year with Birthday Letters, published in America 10 months ago. He had kept the 85 poems about his relationship with Plath secret for years but felt impelled to release them because of his battle with cancer. They revealed a marriage fraught with joy, indeed, but more anguish than joy, with frustration and competition and with Hughes's increasing sense of detachment and alienation from his wife's profound disturbance. The book became that rare thing, a best-selling volume of poetry, though, despite the interest it roused and the prizes it won, its importance is mainly as an emotional document; the poems themselves are among the least accomplished or poetically interesting that Hughes wrote. The focus on the tormented lives of Plath and Hughes and the insistent, decades-long assigning of blame has tended to overshadow their very real and significant contributions to mid- and late-20th Century literature.

From the ferment of souls is great poetry, their poetry, born, poetry that leaves its readers shaken and chastened and that assumes an existence larger than the poets who wrote it. Both dead now, Plath and Hughes earned the silence of their graves separately, the hard way. Now let the poetry live.

To reach Fredric Koeppel, telephone 529-2376 or E-mail

Copyright (c) 1998 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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