Frieda Hughes' verse lacks parents' genius

from: The Houston Chronicle - December 6, 1998

by Robert Phillips

Genius is not usually inherited. It is true that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach were fine composers and did credit to their father, Johann Sebastian Bach. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

In the modern literary world we have seen a book of stories by David Updike, several novels by Susan Cheever and Benjamin Cheever, and nonfiction by Susan Sontag's son David Reiff - and now we have a first book of poems by Frieda Hughes, daughter of the late poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I repeat, genius is not usually inherited.

Hughes' attempts to follow in her parents' footsteps begin with her title, Wooroloo, odd, at least to these American ears. Then we recall Ted Hughes has a book title Wodwo.

Next are her subjects: foxes (Ted Hughes wrote Fox Hunt), birds and a birdman (Hughes' best work is Crow), fish (Hughes has several on salmon), surgery (Plath has The Surgeon at 2 a.m. and Face Lift), ghosts (Plath's Man in Black), and of course attempted suicide (Plath's Lady Lazarus).

This is not to say Frieda Hughes shouldn't write a poem about a fox or a fish or a suicide attempt if she wants to. But given the public's familiarity with her parents' work, to do so is a risky act - especially since she doesn't treat those subjects as well as her parents. There are not many arresting images or rhythms in her book. When she attempts rhyme, it is clumsy:

Dead-headed, her withered lump Has been separated from its stump . . .

She seems obsessed with the word "kookaburra," a neat enough word but one that seems everywhere.

The two best poems are on a Caesarean birth and a hysterectomy. Again like her parents, she presumably wishes to shock. Even the book's dedication, "For Daddy with love," unfortunately recalls Plath's most famous poem, Daddy.

We are told Hughes is an award-winning painter and author of six books for children, including Getting Rid of Aunt Edna and Waldorf and the Sleeping Granny. I wish her continued success in those fields of endeavor.

Graphic: Mug: 1. Frieda Hughes; Photo: 2. "Wooroloo" book cover

Memo: Robert Phillips' awards for poetry include a CAPS Grant from the state of New York, a Pushcart Prize and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.

Copyright (c) 1998 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company

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