Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters--88 tantalizing responses to Sylvia Plath and the furies she left behind--emerge from an echo chamber of art and memory, rage and representation. In the decades following his wife's 1963 suicide, Hughes kept silent, a stance many have seen as guilty, few as dignified. While an industry grew out of Plath's life and art, and even her afterlife, he continued to compose his own dark, unconfessional verses, and edited her Collected Poems, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, and Journals. But Hughes's conservancy (and his sister Olwyn's power as Plath's executrix) laid him open to yet more blame. Biographers and critics found his cuts to her letters self-interested, and decried his destruction of the journals of her final years--undertaken, he insisted, for the sake of their children.
In Birthday Letters we now have Hughes's response to Plath's white-hot mythologizing. Lost happiness intensifies present pain, but so does old despair: "Your ghost," he acknowledges, "inseparable from my shadow." Ranging from accessible short-story-like verses to tightly wound, allusive lyrics, the poems push forward from initial encounters to key moments long after Plath's death. In "Visit," he writes, "I look up--as if to meet your voice / With all its urgent future / that has burst in on me. Then look back / At the book of the printed words. / You are ten years dead. It is only a story. / Your story. My story." These poems are filled with conditionals and might-have-beens, Hughes never letting us forget forces in motion before their seven-year marriage and final separation. When he first sees Plath, she is both scarred (from her earlier suicide attempt) and radiant: "Your eyes / Squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds, / Incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears..." But Fate and Plath's father, Otto, will not let them be. In the very next poem, "The Shot," her trajectory is already plotted. Though Hughes is her victim, her real target is her dead father--"the god with the smoking gun."
Of course, "The Shot" and the accusatory "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother" are an incitement to those who side (as if there is a side!) with Plath. Newsweek has already chalked up the reaction of poet and feminist Robin Morgan to the book: "My teeth began to grind uncontrollably." But Hughes makes it clear that his poems are written for his dead wife and living children, not her acolytes' bloodsport. He has also, of course, written them for himself and the reader. Pieces such as "Epiphany," "The 59th Bear," and "Life After Death" are masterful mixes of memory and image. In "Epiphany," for instance, the young Hughes, walking in London, suddenly spots a man carrying a fox inside his jacket. Offered the cub for a pound, he hesitates, knowing he and Plath couldn't handle the animal--not with a new baby, not in the city. But in an instant, his potent vision extends beyond the animal, perhaps to his and Plath's children:
Already past the kittenishOther poems are more influenced by Plath's "terrible, hypersensitive fingers," including "The Bee God" and "Dreamers," which is apparently a record of Plath's one encounter with Hughes's mistress: "She fascinated you. Her eyes caressed you, / Melted a weeping glitter at you. / Her German the dark undercurrent / In her Kensington jeweller's elocution / Was your ancestral Black Forest whisper--" This exotic woman, "slightly filthy with erotic mystery," seems a close relation to Plath's own Lady Lazarus, and the poem would be equally powerful without any biographical information. This is the one paradoxical pity of this superb collection. These poems require no prior knowledge--but for better or worse, we possess it. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
But the eyes still small,
Round, orphaned-looking, woebegone
As if with weeping. Bereft
Of the blue milk, the toys of feather and fur,
The den life's happy dark. And the huge whisper
Of the constellations
Out of which Mother had always returned.
Kept under tight wraps by the terms attached to a high-priced serialization in the London Times as well as by Hughes's notorious secrecy, the British Poet Laureate's collection of verse-letters to Sylvia Plath is already being heralded as one of the century's literary landmarks. The legend that has grown up around Plath, her poems, her life with Hughes and her suicide in 1963 has been tended by several generations of devoted scholars and readers, and made all the more insurmountable by Hughes's silence on anything relating to Plath other than her work. It is thus astonishing to have this near-narrative of the entire span of their relationship, from Hughes's first glimpse of Plath in a photo of arriving Fulbright scholars, to Hughes's anguish, until now an emotion not widely credited to him, since her death. At once the record of a Yorkshireman's collision with America and American-ness ("You stayed/ Alien to me as a window model,/ American, airport-hopping superproduct") and of a baffled husband's jealousy and despair at his wife's obsessive pursuit of her dead father, the poems arc through the poet's struggles?and joy?with the facts of his younger self's married life. Even tender recollections, such as Plath reciting Chaucer to a field of cows, are tinged with foreboding or, elsewhere, with the intensity of their writing lives: "The poems, like smoking entrails,/ Came soft into your hands." Throughout, Hughes's muscular, controlled free verse, familiar from his previous collections and recent Tales from Ovid, is well suited to the task of wrestling his memory of Plath back to earth, vividly rendering their past while allowing space for a present reckoning. Hughes's occasional snipes at the Plath faithful ("And now your peanut-crunchers can stare/ At the ink stains.../ Where you engraved your letters...") may lead some to accuse him of an elaborate attempt at revisionism, at remaking Plath in his own image. But the strength of the poems simply renders the charge moot, compelling us to accept this masterwork's sincerity, depth of feeling and force of language.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
This is a painful book. Hughes poetry shines although dim compared to Plath's, but it also chronicles that marriage's failure as well as Hughes' faults as a man. Read morePublished 14 days ago by C. D. Varn
Ted Hughes threnody for his former wife Sylvia Plath published 35 years after her death by her own hand. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Garth R. Mailman
Readers familiar with the dynamic, forceful romance of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath will find rich reading in Birthday Letters. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Brooke Summerlin
I like his poetry OK, there is a lot of depth. However, he seems to make himself the good husband and describes Sylvia throughout as very ill and off balance. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Robbie Byrd
Well worth having for anyone who is fascinated by Hughes poetry.Published 2 months ago by Janice Shapiro
Every Poem is a treasure to the eyes and heart. Over 80 poems and not any two are similar!! Lovely book that I will be re reading many times!!Published 4 months ago by Ada Castle
A book by Ted Hughes, this is a true accounting of letters written to Sylvia Plath, by Hughes and by Plath to Hughes, who were married and had two children together. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Cindee Goodspeed
I can't go further than 3 stars. I'm tempted to give one. I bemoan Hughes lack of sensitivity to feminism and politics and his obdurate obscurity- it's hard to tell what he is... Read morePublished 10 months ago by moby pablo
Outstanding verse from painful relationship, Hughes breaks his silence about his marriage to Sylvia Plath. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Arthur W. Turfa