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Birthday Letters: Poems Paperback – March 30, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 kittenish
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.
Other 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.

From Publishers Weekly

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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st Edition Thus edition (March 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374525811
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374525811
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #122,315 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, is the author of more than forty books of poems, prose, and translation. He has received the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and now the W. H. Smith Award for his Tales of Ovid. However, what first brought him into the limelight was the death of his poet wife, Sylvia Plath - an incident that sent shock waves through literary circles in1963 and had all the radical feminists up in arms against the man who had allegedly driven his wife to a self-inflicted death. Ever since, Hughes has been at the centre of controversies.
Condemned to live on as a survivor, for many years Hughes wrote nothing but children's verse. At the same time he concentrated on bringing out Sylvia Plath's poems, letters (edited by her mother, Aurelia Plath) and journals. And then, when he did turn back to poetry, not surprisingly, he focused on the negative side of life, the darker forces in the universe which are forever threatening man. He did not write of personal experiences. He did not write of his wife's suicide, or of emotional and other disasters he surely must have suffered. And yet the sense of doom crept into his poetry through symbols from the animal world: the jaguar, the the hawk, and the crow - masks from the world of nature that the poet donned to hide the pain he lived through. Meanwhile the Plath myth has grown. It has all the makings of a cult: the love and the hate, the betrayal and the anger, with the sensationalism climaxing in self-destructive violence.
The present volume of poems, Birthday Letters, is very different from the earlier collections. Whereas earlier Hughes liked to assume the role of a sort of wild man of the woods surrounded by his animals and birds, here we have Ted Hughes the man, the husband and the lover, without his mask.
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By A Customer on May 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have done extensive research on Sylvia Plath. I never saw her as the poor, defenseless victim many feminists portray her as, but reading about her struggles with Ted Hughes did not make him my favorite person. Reading "Birthday Letters" was quite a shock for me. The powerful emotions of grief, sorrow, and tenderness cast Mr. Hughes in a new light. I felt almost as if I were intruding on an intimate moment between him and his late wife. I was captivated by this work, but I feel knowledge of his history with Plath is essential for a full understanding of the work.
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By A Customer on November 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have read countless books about the life and works of Sylvia Plath, and in doing so, have attempted to uncover whatever real truths exist about the love affair between Sylvia and Ted. I think this book of gorgeous narrative poems is testimony that often, there is no 'simple answer' or 'person to blame' in a relationship that has failed. It is also testimony to Hughes's undying, colossal love for his former wife, however he may have wrecked it in their youth. It is a beautiful and moving read, particularly if you have read some background material beforehand. All his subtle references take on a much deeper meaning when one knows the details behind them, and the details according to Sylvia. The poetry is lush and shimmers with a sincere, burning love for a troubled woman who left us much too soon.
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By A Customer on April 10, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Having just read readers' reviews I am shocked at how judgemental people are, after all this time. The poetry seems to count for so little. Nobody makes someone commit suicide, it was Plath herself who chose that route. Hughes didn't murder her, he simply didn't want her any more. Anyone out there ever had someone commit suicide on them? It is those who are left behind who suffer, especially children. Any money Hughes made from this book will go straight to the Hughes-Plath children, not to Hughes for God's sake. The poetry is searing, to anyone who knows the unhappy tale of this marriage especially. The poems are like journal entries in places, and they are also powerful, disruptive narratives in what has been a very one-sided debate. I adore Plath's work, and still think it vastly underrated, but here we see the image of Hughes the Iceman having melted, to reveal the damaged human being underneath.
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Format: Paperback
As another relative newcomer to Plath/Hughes history, I found myself fascinated by Hughes ability to capture the emotional textures of a relationship. It is fairly obvious there is a self serving quality to these poems, but it is impossible to deny the power within his lines. "Epiphany" alone is worth reading this collection, with its stunning imagery of a fox club for sale to an eye opening evaluation of what it takes to be successful in marriage and how he has failed. When it comes to Plath, Hughes is very open in dealing with the two sides of her nature; the beautiful free spirit and the mind that so easily drifted into anger and despair, often in the same poem; but he is far from forthcoming about himself, always keeping an emotional distance from the reader, occasionally allowing a glimpse of his inner being but only enough to move the images along. It is this distance that makes the collection a bit cold despite the heat of Plath's presence.
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By Lauren on February 10, 2007
Format: Paperback
I have to admit that morbid curiosity drove me to buy this book. I was fascinated with learning more about a man who lost two wives to suicide. And, being an English major in the US, I read A LOT of Plath but was never exposed to Hughes' work. I think there is a prejudice against him, especially by female poets/scholars.

But, this quickly became my favorite collection of poetry. Hughes uses Plath's own mythology to eulogize her--her father obsession, her suicide attempts. But he also weaves the familiar into it--her attempt at making rag rugs and at domesticity in general. Any married person can understand his imagery and his heartbreak. Of course, my favorite is Dreamers, when Ted realizes he loves another woman. She seems as exotic to him as his marriage seems dull.
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