It arrived as unobtrusively as a gift slipped under a pillow. There was no fanfare for Birthday Letters: no carefully placed bits of gossip in national magazines, no publicist calling to hype its market potential. In fact, no one seemed even aware it was in the works until the London Times ran excerpts of its stunning contents in a recent Saturday edition.
The underlying message was clear: This was a book that could create its own drama. It was as if, like E.F. Hutton, it had only to whisper - and everyone would listen.
And indeed, they have. Birthday Letters (Farrar Straus Giroux, 198 pages, $20) is a book of poems by Britain's poet laureate Ted Hughes.
Placed by some in the same class as Blake and Keats, Hughes is perhaps even more renowned for one sad fact of his life: He was married to poet Sylvia Plath at the time of her death. Despondent over Hughes leaving her for another woman, Plath set out glasses of milk and a plate of bread and butter for her two young children, who were sleeping in another room, then put her head in an oven. She was 30.
If the event was Plath's singular tragedy, Hughes did not go unscathed, either. Blamed and vilified by feminist groups for his wife's suicide (it didn't help that his mistress at the time of Plath's death later also committed suicide, in exactly the same grisly manner), he has lived under the silent recrimination of raised eyebrows - and worse. Among the less subtle attacks, his surname has been repeatedly chipped off of Plath's tombstone.
Now comes Hughes' response. Released to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Plath's death, Birthday Letters consists of 88 poems, all but two addressed to Plath. Hughes reportedly wrote them over the course of 25 years. In sum, presented chronologically, they provide an emotional summary of the literary couple's life together.
On first sight of Plath, Hughes writes: "It seemed your long, perfect, American legs / Simply went on up. That flaring hand, / Those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers. / And the face - a tight ball of joy." As their relationship develops, Hughes paints Plath as a vital, passionate, sometimes violent woman. She seems to tremble, on his pages, poised precariously between boundless enthusiasm and bottomless despair. He writes often of her fragile state: "a paralysis of terror-flutters / I hardly understood" or "What I remember / Is thinking: She'll do something crazy."
As for himself, Hughes is by turns protector, bystander, grief-stricken survivor, martyr. "You were the jailer of your murderer . . . / Your sentence was mine too."
Hughes' intense pain is obvious here, which is surprising since Hughes has seemed impervious to the tragedy, refusing to comment on Plath all these years. Even so, his critics will find plenty of room for skepticism: The poet doesn't take the blame for Plath's death so much as detail each person's private horrors. In all, the poems afford us a fascinating sort of voyeurism. But are they high art? Some say Hughes' agenda may also be his work's ultimate downfall.
"It is extremely difficult to read these poems as poetry," notes Bin Ramke, professor English at the University of Denver and author of five books of poetry. ". . . There are some interesting touches. But the moment a reader admires his writing - oh, that's very nice - the reader begins taking apart whether or not it is true, by that I mean true in quotes."
"It's not possible to pretend to read them as pure poetry," reports The Wall Street Journal, "- every reader knows too much.'' Indeed, one finds oneself analyzing each line as one might a fragment of pottery on an archeological dig: Where does each emotional shard fit into the facts of their lives? Ramke, like others, believes the poems will only reinforce preconceived ideas. For those inclined to think of Hughes as a villain, he will remain so. For those who think him unfairly maligned, the book will serve as vindication.
Whatever your conclusion - or opinion of the quality of Hughes' poetry - his unburdening is well worth witnessing, as sales might indicate. In its first week out, 50,000 copies had been snapped up, a number unheard of for poetry. (Most books of poetry are lucky to sell a scant 2,000.) In one of his poems titled 55 Eltisley, Hughes speaks of returning to the first home he shared with Plath. "How slight our lives had been / To have left not a trace,"' he writes.
If Birthday Letters proves anything, it is only this: In at least this small observation, the man couldn't have been more wrong. LIB3
Copyright 1998 Denver Publishing Co.
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