Not as much itch as edginess marked the seven-year relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which ended tragically with her death in 1963. The couple met in England in 1956, where the 23-year-old Smith College graduate and promising poet began a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge. Odd-jobsman Hughes, already emitting sparks of brilliance, struggled to begin a literary career and pay the bills.
Neither was then a household name, as perhaps they are not now, but the tortured details of Sylvia Plath's private life, confessed in poems and journals during her lifetime and posthumously by her executor, Mr. Hughes, brought her considerably closer than her husband to a permanent niche in popular culture. Even in the most unlikely places, Sylvia Plath merits more name recognition than scores of other writers of greater scope.
That Ted Hughes is able to withstand the weight of the towering Plath myth and a legion of detractors is testament enough, but the publication of Birthday Letters shows well the baggage he has borne.
For 14 years Mr. Hughes has been Britain's poet laureate, but this collection of private poems is anything but official verse. The book, a closely guarded secret until its publication, seems to have caught the literary world by surprise. The poems themselves are meant to surprise and provoke, pursuing a zigzag of emotions from love's beginning, through a trailing off filled with reproach and helplessness, to its end. Many believe that Mr. Hughes' abandonment of Ms. Plath was a key component in her suicide at the age of 30, just before the publication of Ariel, which contains her most widely anthologized poetry.
Because Mr. Hughes left Ms. Plath for another woman who subsequently died by her own hand, Ms. Plath's followers, friends and acolytes lambasted what they saw as the brute heart of Mr. Hughes. On a trip he made to Australia, a group protested in front of the building where he was to give a reading, holding signs proclaiming him a murderer. Whether or not it was intended to (we take into account that Mr. Hughes, now 67, has kept his own counsel on the subject for 35 years), Birthday Letters should shed light on some of the recriminations.
In the bulk of these offerings, Mr. Hughes is at his best: clear, direct imagery and fluid narrative. The poet pairs unlikely images with both benign and darker ones - resulting in evocative, unforgettable lines. Sometimes the backdrop of the scene perfectly matches the story told. "The Badlands" traces the couple's restless journey through the majesty and terror of western American parks and deserts and fits like a glove the uncertainty and anxiousness of their blessed, doomed lives together.
The earliest poems are revealing of Mr. Hughes' present, and past, state of mind. In "Visit," about how a friend led Mr. Hughes to what he thought to be Ms. Plath's dorm window so that he might throw clumps of dirt at it in a bid for attention, Mr. Hughes "jigged through those gestures - watched and judged/Only by starry darkness and a shadow." Later, he remembers his young daughter being frightened by Ms. Plath's absence and asking, "Where's Mummy?"
Mr. Hughes seeks refuge outside, noting: "The freezing soil/Of the garden, as I clawed it/All round me that midnight's/Giant clock of frost."
Time is a recurring theme in the collection. One critic noted in the London Times that the later poems, which serve to announce the beginning of their end and the withering flame of Ms. Plath's brief life, are more abstract, private and distanced. These poems, he proposes, are among the best in the collection and - because of their complex mythological, and astrological, symbolism - will be the least well--received.
This is probably true, though not, perhaps, for the reason he provides. Naturally we are attracted to the bloom of new love ("Of intertang-ling and of disentangling/ Limbs and Loves and Lives/Nobody was old") - even when it is clear, as in this case, that the flowers were thorny, the soil tainted. The earlier poems read more like exquisitely created short stories, which, one after the other, uncover the end that was at the beginning.
In "18 Rugby Street" the lovers fall into each other's embrace even as a voice advises him: "Stay clear." The crystallized scenes in which the poet works through why he did not ride on serve poetry's highest purpose, to illuminate the inexplicable happenstance of human experience.
It is important to note that the 88 poems, life-transcripts spanning nearly a decade, are not an apology or admission of guilt on Mr. Hughes' part. Inevitably, critics will continue to take sides, but Birthday Letters does not. The roles the poet casts for himself in his narrative alternate between intense engagement and resigned drawing back.
Though Ms. Plath may assume the role of woman scorned, most would agree that, in her writing and his, she wore her gloom as surely as skin, her torture a public confession and personal caveat. The most important figures in her life - the stern, enigmatic father made famous in "Daddy" and other poems; her children, who for her were a brief stay of execution; and Mr. Hughes himself - did not doom her. They were external to the demons residing within.
And to suggest that any man alone could have saved her seems counter to the purpose of Mr. Hughes' most ardent accusers. For their brief, intense time together, gifts were exchanged. Mr. Hughes fed her ambition and encouraged her poetic soul; he learned from his wife's keen observation and tragic vision. If it can be called blame, what Mr. Hughes assigns in Birthday Letters to Ms. Plath and to himself in a way belongs to each of us, cogs in a greater wheel that spins outside human understanding. We are fortunate to have these scenes in which the two poets together played out their drama.
The complexities of human life are rarely as simplistic as good or bad, black or white, and these poems, I believe, fairly provide color for readers to fill in as they choose. The end of Mr. Hughes' silence with Birthday Letters is significant, and we are richer for its illumination. For what the dead know belongs to them alone.
Memo: Betsy Berry is a poet and author living in Austin. Her novel Continental Desire: An Academic Romance, co-written with Don Graham, is forthcoming next spring from Boaz Publishing.
Caption: PHOTO(S): 1. (The Dial Press) FATAL ATTRACTION: One of Ted Hughes' poems notes that he ignored an inner voice warning him to steer clear of Sylvia Plath, shown here in a 1954 photo. 2. Ted Hughes.
Copyright (c) 1998 The Dallas Morning News Company
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