With the surprise publication of Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes breaks his long-standing silence on the life and suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. These 88 free-verse poems, written over a period of 25 years and addressed almost exclusively to Plath, trace the arc of Hughes and Plath's tempestuous relationship and provide a candid and intimate glimpse into one of the most famous literary marriages of this century.
"By the time of her death on 11 February, 1963, Sylvia Plath had written a large bulk of poetry," writes Ted Hughes in the introduction to Plath's The Collected Poems . You'd never know from reading that sentence that Hughes was Plath's husband, the father of her children; there isn't an inkling of feeling in those words. This is the fashion in which Hughes has chosen to treat Plath since her suicide 30-plus years ago: as an academic subject, not as an emotional one.
Maybe that's what makes Hughes's Birthday Letters such an immediate pleasure. Public catharsis is so essential these days that it's broadcast on TV; much of the entire world watched for the proper people to weep during Princess Diana's funeral last year. After Plath's suicide, Hughes refused to give the public the catharsis it demanded, choosing instead to write his typically icy introductions to new editions of his wife's work. But these 88 poems are proof that Hughes did indeed endure a catharsis, albeit privately. Birthday Letters reveals that Hughes, who died last fall at the age of 68, was very much human after all.
Hughes was himself to blame for the cold portrait he presented to the public. He chose to live in seclusion. He did not grant interviews. He appointed his sister, Olwyn Hughes, as gate-keeper to himself and to Plath's works (Ted Hughes controlled every word of Plath's oeuvre). Olwyn's legendary temperament hasn't helped matters, earning her the reputation of a Cerberus set to harry the heels of potential Plath biographers. It is also well known that while Plath was home with her gas cooker, Hughes was off with his mistress. Hughes-bashers also like to point out that Hughes allowed The Bell Jar to be published posthumously in the U.S. because he needed money to buy a third house. Total up these actions and one begins to understand why the followers of St. Sylvia the martyr have tried to scratch the Hughes name from Plath's headstone in Yorkshire on three separate occasions.
Luckily, the public has an insatiable appetite not only for catharsis but also for redemption (just consider the resurgence of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry).
Hughes's reputation, for better or worse, is in the midst of being redeemed. In 1980 he was named Poet Laureate of England, a position he held until his death. After five biographies that have fingered Hughes as the bad guy, Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman strives mightily to restore Hughes to a position of honor. Malcolm goes so far as to compare Hughes to Prometheus, "whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes [also] has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists." And now, with the surprise publication of Birthday Letters , Hughes's redemption is nearly complete.
The 88 free-verse poems of this collection trace the arc of Hughes and Plath's tempestuous relationship. The book begins with a poem inspired by a photograph that Hughes had seen in a newspaper in 1956 of that year's Fulbright scholars. Plath was among those pictured. Hughes realizes the enormous strength in small moments. He remembers a night during their courtship when, arriving at Plath's window late at night, he throws clods of dirt at the panes, trying to wake her ("Aiming to find you, and missing, and again missing"). On their marriage day, it is Plath's gown that Hughes remembers -- the pink wool knitted dress -- in the poem of the same title.
In Birthday Letters , Hughes seems to make an effort to remove every trace of poetic convention from his verse. The poems aren't preoccupied with rhyme and meter but are rough on the surface. "Maybe I noticed you," he writes of his young self looking at that photograph of Fulbright scholars. "Maybe I weighed you up." You can see from these lines that Hughes isn't interested in prosody so much as he is in keeping the voice credible and getting the details right.
Plath fans can also bear witness to Hughes's unique perspective on many of her infamous preoccupations, including her father ("Til your real target / Hid behind me. Your Daddy / The god with the smoking gun") and her private fears ("The dark ate at you. And the fear of being crushed. A huge machine").
Still, other poems ironically fulfill our expectations about Hughes. In "Fate Playing," Hughes tells a story about an incident where Plath had come to meet him at a bus station. When Hughes doesn't arrive on the designated bus (he has taken a train instead), Plath goes into a frenzy, scrambling across London, searching for him. Isn't this what the reader expected all along? A portrait of Plath going berserk, contrasted with a calm Hughes, sitting comfortably on a train, both on an inevitable collision course? And when Hughes writes, "There I knew what it was/To be a miracle," after his reunion with an overjoyed Plath, the reader thinks, "Oh no." Despite the powerful frankness of Birthday Letters , and despite the glimpse readers have been allowed into the private life of one of the most famous literary marriages in history, we cannot forget that it is still Hughes who is in complete control.
--Scott C. Jones