Of the great personal stories of 20th-century literature, few have endured like the one of Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at 30. She is recognized today, 35 years after her death, as one of America's most influential poets.
All but one of her poetry collections - "Colossus" - were published posthumously. That first published work is considered her worst; the later work, particularly the poetry collection, "Ariel" and the autobiographical novel "The Bell Jar" are among her best. Her diary excerpts and journals appeared in 1979 and 1982.
These books were edited and released by her executor - and, some charge, her murderer - her husband, Britain's poet laureate, Ted Hughes. The story is as timeworn as any soap opera - woman puts head in gas oven after husband leaves her for another woman.
(Strangely, that woman, Assia Wevill, dispatched herself in similar fashion in 1968.)
Hughes retreated behind a wall of silence, refusing to speak about his marriage.
Several biographers of Plath, particularly Robin Morgan, have long cast Hughes as the villain, a charge that has obscured his work in America while casting Plath as a victim, most conveniently by those now called feminists. Hughes also is suspected of changing and censoring Plath's work, even destroying one journal to protect their two children, he said. His critics charge that not only did he lead Plath to suicide, but also he continued to profit from her art.
Now, Hughes speaks, in a collection of 88 poems called "The Birthday Letters," published last week in Britain, and this week in America by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The publisher said the books have been shipped and should be available by the end of the week.
In the tiny literary world, the news is mammoth; unfortunately, the minds at People magazine and their imitators will reduce this event to cheap romance.
World of Hughes' book has interested and excited poets here. "I'm absolutely stunned," responded Gerry Costanzo, who also directs the Carnegie Mellon University Press and teaches literature. "Hughes' life has contained great tragedy. Two wives who killed themselves. How else could you respond, except by silence?"
Costanzo called Hughes a great influence on his own development as a poet and said he's "dying to know" what kinds of poems "The Birthday Letters" contains.
"Will this be `occasional verse' or great Ted Hughes poetry?" he asked. "His language has always been so incredibly dense and oblique. I'll be buying the book, that's for sure."
Pat Dobler, the poet who has directed Carlow College's Madwomen in the Attic writing program for nearly 12 years, calls Plath one of her major influences.
"She wrote poems about things I thought were forbidden to write about.
She gave me permission to write about them. She was a real liberating force, and what's great about her is that my young students - the 18-year-olds - find her as equally important to their lives. "I am very curious to read what Hughes has written about her, especially after what he has apparently done with her manuscripts. His handling of her work makes me very uneasy," Dobler said. "Will this thing be about the poetry or about the drama?" wondered poet Lynn Emanuel, who teaches poetry at the University of Pittsburgh and has published several collections.
"I think it will be tremendously hard for us to read Ted Hughes' poems with artistic objectivity. It's the family romance we're interested in. The sad thing is that it's become almost impossible to read Plath without reading her merely for content. "Everybody reads her as an unhappily married woman instead of the major poet she is," Emanuel said. "And that's tragic. She's influenced a generation of poets."
After reading excerpts of Hughes' new poems, Emanuel thinks Plath will continue to have the last word.
"Ted Hughes is a poet from the classical school while Plath is one of the original `confessional' poets. In his work, he keeps a distance from his subject; his poetry doesn't depend on life as transcript. "After reading a few of these poems, I think Plath seems to have won.
Hughes has finally given in and written the personal, the confessional poem."
Copyright 1998 PG Publishing Co.
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