Remembering Sylvia: Ted Hughes evokes a legend and her demons

from: Maclean's - April 27, 1998

by John Bemrose

It is now 35 years since the brilliant young American poet Sylvia Plath killed herself by putting her head in a gas oven. Yet her tragic act, mythologized in scores of books about her, has kept a terrible freshness. Proof lies as near as the latest best-seller lists, where for several weeks a remarkable book of poems called Birthday Letters has appeared alongside the latest John Grisham and Toni Morrison. The book is by Plath's husband at the time of her death, English poet Ted Hughes. That it is being listed among works of fiction should mislead no one. Birthday Letters is Hughes's account of his troubled six-year marriage to Plath, and an attempt to come to grips with the gifted artist and woman who, in her final months, produced the darkly hypnotic poems of her landmark collection, Ariel. Hughes himself is one of the best poets writing today, and Birthday Letters contains some of his finest work. Yet its merits will probably be overshadowed by the controversy that still swirls around him and Plath.

Over the years Plath's supporters, including many feminist writers, have built up a picture of Hughes as a heartless egotist who precipitated Plath's final depression when he left her for another woman. They also criticize him for destroying one of Plath's diaries, which may have contained crucial information about the writing of Ariel. Hughes, who is currently England's Poet Laureate, has explained that he destroyed the book because he did not want their two children to read its troubling contents. Meanwhile, his own supporters have long insisted that life with the high- strung, unstable Plath was insupportable.

At times, this feud has reached cruel extremes. Plath's gravestone in Yorkshire has been defaced and even stolen by feminists who dislike her designation on it as "Sylvia Hughes" (her name, in fact, at the time of her death). Hughes himself remained publicly silentÄuntil the release of Birthday Letters. Doubtless, many readers have already combed the book for biographical evidence, as well as for proof of the guilt or innocence of the involved parties. But it contains less new factual information than many may be hoping for (for example, it says nothing about the suicide itself, and very little about Hughes's infidelity). Hughes is writing poetry, not biography, and clearly feels he owes nothing to the simply curious.

Yet there is no denying that these 88 poems are deeply personal. In most of them, Hughes addresses Plath as "you," and there is a feeling throughout the book that he is wrestlingÄoften in great painÄto understand a vital connection with a woman he has never, in some sense, ceased to love. The poems follow their time together in rough chronological order, starting with their fabled first meeting in 1956 at Cambridge, where Plath, then 23, had recently enrolled as a Fulbright Scholar. In the poem "St Botolph's," Hughes recalls being smitten at 25 upon first sight of the long-legged American student at a party. While talking to her, he suddenly snatched her hairband as a souvenir. When he bent to kiss her on the neck, Plath bit his cheek, leaving "a swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks."

They were married a few months later. And it would seem that Hughes got more than he bargained for. Plath so bright, personable and competent on the surface was haunted by deep bouts of depression, mania and panic, traceable, at least in part, to her father's death when she was 8. Birthday Letters catches her complex, fractured personality more skilfully than anyone else is ever likely to. Hughes has a genius for invoking the presences of nature, and in these poems he uses his gift to embody the deep and often contrary psychic currents in his wife.

In lines of rough, sketch-like freedom and spontaneity, he mirrors his own and Plath's fears and longings in terms of panthers, serpents and other beasts. Sometimes these animals are drawn directly from the couple's experience. The wonderfully entertaining "The 59th Bear" recalls their scrape with a man-killing bear during a 1959 camping trip to Yellowstone park. But Hughes delves even deeper when he transforms ordinary domestic activities into a zoology of distress. In the masterful poem "The Rag Rug," Hughes watches Plath make a rug whose coils become a snake that, like the one in Eden, comes ominously between husband and wife.

The same poem hints as so many others do at the fate lying in wait for Plath. Hughes believes that her creativity and self-destructive impulses were deeply entwined. Yet her search to get beyond the preciousness of her early poetry and find her true voice seems to have begun innocently enough. In "The Minotaur," Hughes recalls her rage she destroys an heirloom table with a hammer when he is a few minutes late for his turn at babysitting. "'Marvellous! (he tells her) Go on,/Smash it into kindling./ That's the stuff you're keeping out of your poems!' " Eventually, Plath learned to put her dark side into her poetry, but at least in Hughes's vision that also meant giving in to her obsession with her dead father, Otto the figure who plays such a pivotal, villainous role in Ariel. In "The Minotaur," Hughes goes on to lament that, in helping Plath find her poetic voice, he has given her "the bloody end of a skein" that will ultimately lead to the destruction of her marriage and her life.

The psychology of all this is, of course, debatable. Yet the book's final worth may not come clear until some future date when the passions of Hughes's contemporaries no longer cloud the view. For quite beyond their biographical value, these poems offer a profound counterweight to the current, shallow notion of human beings as consumers, wedded to a growing cornucopia of material delights. Birthday Letters says something else: that any attempt at authentic living must take into account the gargantuan, controlling forces of our psyches, of nature and of fate. This is, finally, a tragic vision, but one partially redeemed by the rare skill, honesty and tenderness of a poet determined to engage his pursuing ghosts.

Caption: Photo: Hughes, Plath in 1956: wrestling often in great pain to understand their vital connection
Photo: The author: the poems suggest an enduring love for Plath

Copyright (c) 1998 MACLEAN HUNTER LTD.

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