When poet Ted Hughes offered Birthday Letters for publication in 1997 after an unyielding silence since his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, those involved were "amazed and somewhat fearful," writes Wagner, literary editor of the London Times. In this fascinating study, part explication of the poems and part biography of a doomed relationship, Wagner alternates Hughes's almost diarylike poetry with the journal entries, letters, and poems by Plath that often describe the same people and events. The contrast is stunning and often horrifying: remembering a walk in which the two poets come across some girls pulling up flowers in a park, Hughes writes, "What did they mean to you, the azalea flowers?/ The girls were so happy . . . ," while Plath's journal says, "I can kill myself or I know it now even kill another. . . . I gritted to control my hands, but had a flash of bloody stars in my head as I stared that sassy girl down, and a blood-longing to [rush] at her and tear her to bloody beating bits." With the publication of Birthday Letters, Hughes managed to honor Plath and simultaneously polish his own record as the long-suffering husband of one of our major poets, who was apparently incapable of living with anyone, even herself.
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