The end of a controversial silence

from: U.S. News & World Report - February 9, 1998

by Tom Geier

The lofty world of poetry has long relished a bit of scandal with its scansion. And the new collection Birthday Letters from British poet laureate Ted Hughes lives up to its billing. Publisher Farrar Straus Giroux sold its first 25,000 copies and has rushed another printing of equal size.

This notoriety stems from Hughes's subject: his late wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 after completing such masterpieces as The Bell Jar and Ariel. Many admirers of Plath have scapegoated Hughes, both for abandoning Plath for another woman and for mishandling her literary effects (including the destruction of her journal from her final, tumultuous years).

Now, Hughes breaks 35 years of silence about Plath with a poetic call-and-response. He quotes her poems and offers his version of events, often spinning his role more favorably. In "A Dream," Hughes implies that he fed Plath one of Ariel's most famous lines. He writes: "Not dreams, I had said, but fixed stars / Govern a life."

"That's an incredibly arrogant and falsifying thing for him to say," complains Susan Van Dyne, a Plath scholar at Smith College. Plath's early drafts, written after Hughes had left her, clearly show the "fixed stars" imagery is hers, says Van Dyne. "The posture of the whole [Hughes] volume is 'I knew her better, and I have the last word.' " Jonathan Galassi, the book's editor and president of the Academy of American Poets, disagrees. "This book is a poetic response to a personal tragedy," he says. "It's not an apologia or self-defense." The debate has just begun.

PHOTOS (BLACK & WHITE): Having his say: Ted Hughes responds to the poetry of the late Sylvia Plath

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