Reason Anew to Reexamine the Sylvia Plath Tragedy

from: The Los Angeles Times - January 21, 1998

by William D. Montalbano
Each of us was the stake Impaling the other. We struggled 
Quietly through the streets, affirming each other 
Dream-maimed and dream-blind. 
-From "9 Willow Street" A poem by Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath included in "Birthday Letters"

It is a love story, after all. After 35 years, dream-maimed Ted Hughes, Britain's poet laureate, has come in from the silence, his voice suffused with passion and pain. In February 1963, his estranged American wife, Sylvia Plath, one of the century's great poets, left milk and cookies for her two children in their London apartment and stuck her head into a gas oven. Plath, who has posthumously become an international feminist icon, was 30 when she died. Hughes has been relentlessly accused by Plath apostles of being the cause--a brutal, heartless husband living with another woman (who later also killed herself) while his wife writhed in suicidal despair. Publicly, Hughes has never responded to condemnation that has ranged from shouts of "Murderer!" at his poetry readings to having vandals chip the name "Hughes" off Plath's gravestone in northeast England six times. Privately, Hughes has been writing astonishing poetry addressed to Plath for decades, a celebration and a lament of the love and tempestuous union of two poets dream-blind with each other and with their art. "Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 88 poems by Hughes, 86 of them to Plath, burst with earthquake shock on literary London this week. Foundations are shaking, because the powerful poems are an urgent summons to reexamine the Plath-Hughes tragedy and to reevaluate the figure of Hughes the man and Hughes the poet. Hughes' celebration of flawed love and human misery is unlikely to end the three-decade debate over their relationship. Was he a husband with an emotionally crippled wife and poetry to write, or did he callously walk out on a fragile genius when she needed him most? "Ted Hughes has had a bad deal at the hands of critics, biographers and, I'm sorry to say, feminists," said novelist Margaret Drabble, who is editing a new edition of the "Oxford Companion to English Literature." "The fact that he has now produced something about Sylvia Plath is remarkable," Drabble said. "I hope it will put the record straight, elevate the debate to a higher plane." But Katharine Viner, features editor of the Guardian, writes in the British newspaper: "Plath lovers will never forgive Hughes for failing to ensure that [her poetry] continued to flow. . . . 'Birthday Letters' contains much tenderness. . . . But they do not explain his 35 years of silence . . . his abuse of the Plath estate; and they mean, of course, that Ted Hughes has the last word. His dead wife cannot speak." Viner, however, said in an interview that there seem to be fewer feminists around today who still brand Hughes as the villain of the story.

No one had any idea that Hughes, now 67, had been writing poems to Plath across the decades until he turned up at his publisher, Faber & Faber, this past summer carrying a clutch of manuscript pages. And there was never any hint of the secret verses until the Times of London began serializing them over the weekend. "Anyone who thought Hughes' reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves. This is a book by someone who is obsessed, stricken and deeply loving," poet Andrew Motion said. "You can't read this book without being absolutely swept away by his feelings for her." The Plath-Hughes relationship exploded the night they met in 1956 when he was an aspiring poet in baggy corduroys and she was on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge University. Hughes remembers the first time they made love:

You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish
You were a new world. My new world
So this is America, a marvel
Beautiful, beautiful America!

What is remarkable about the poems is not only the power of their language but also the information they convey. A reader tightropes from poem to poem through the stormy seven-year relationship watching bright love pale toward impending tragedy. In style, notes poet Jason Wilson at the University of London, the poems are more loosely structured and more narrative than Hughes' usual work. Critic Al Alvarez said, "The poems don't give me the impression that he is trying to rewrite history. They strike me as an attempt to recapture what happened." Hughes, who was named Britain's poet laureate in 1984, remembers their 1956 London wedding, Plath tremulous and radiant in a pink wool-knit dress. He remembers how "all the prison animals had to be patient" while a sexton preparing children for a trip to the zoo was commandeered as best man:

You were transfigured
So slender and new and naked
A nodding spray of wet lilac
You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth
Brimming with God.

Timed for the 35th anniversary of Plath's death, the book apparently takes its title from Hughes' belief that Plath was "reborn" in death.

Dedicated to their children Frieda, 37, and Nicholas, 36, the slim volume is published without preface, without explanations. The cover of the book is the abstract painting of a fire by Frieda Hughes. The American edition should begin reaching stores this week, publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York said Tuesday. "I always thought that the relationship would turn out to be more complex than as first portrayed," said Susan Bassnett of Warwick University in England, who wrote a 1980s biography of Plath. "I think this will add to Hughes' reputation. Over the past 10 years, there has been a lot of sneering at him by critics who didn't think he was moving in new directions. In fact, he was moving with immense power." * The union of two supremely talented poets was restless, unsettled from the beginning. They traveled and moved house repeatedly, seeking elbow room for each other and for their shared calling. Hughes remembers:

Right across America
We went looking for you. Lightning
Had ripped your clothes off
And signed your cheekbone.

There is a lot of America in "Birthday Letters": Boston, poet Marianne Moore's Brooklyn, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, where two rookie campers, an urban American woman and her countryman English husband, were hilariously imperiled by a hungry brown bear. As they rambled by car across America, Plath was as ever haunted by the specter of her dead father, but she was also newly and happily pregnant with their daughter.

The morning we set out to drive around America
She started with us. She was our lightest
Bit of luggage. And you had dealt with Death
You had come to an agreement finally:
He could keep your Daddy and you could have a child.

Back in Britain with two children, however, the marriage went sour; tenderness eroded by restless and moody disaffection. He also depicts his own frailties and uncertainties while the highly strung Plath, who had attempted suicide at 20, veered between "raving exhilaration" and deep depression. Once, Hughes writes, he made Plath a

solid writing table that would last a lifetime. . . . I did not
Know I had made and fitted a door
Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave.

Poet Motion, given an early copy of the book by The Times to analyze, was struck by the intensity of Hughes' unexpected work. "You feel it's written in a burning, continuous process, like she's just left the room," Motion wrote. "Reading it is like being hit by a thunderbolt. Its power is massive and instant." This poetry is the stuff of literary legend, British critics say. "Never has Hughes revealed his whole tale, his whole heart, in such a way. Never was he even expected to," said critic Erica Wagner. And it is the sort of poetry that Sylvia Plath, probably the better of two great poets, would have understood. As she wrote, "The bloodjet is poetry / There is no stopping it."

PHOTO: Sylvia Plath

Copyright 1998/ The Times Mirror Company


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