Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

March 1, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; 4; 1; Review Desk &nbsp

LENGTH: 1800 words

HEADLINE: Peering Into the Bell Jar

BYLINE: Katha Pollitt, a poet and a columnist for The
Nation, is the author, most recently, of "Reasonable Creatures. "

Birthday Letters
By Ted Hughes.
198 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $20.

It isn't often that the publication of a book of poems is announced on the
front page of newspapers on two continents. But then Ted Hughes is not just
Britain's poet laureate and the author of more than 20 books, some quite
remarkable -- poetry, fiction, plays, children's stories and most recently a
much-praised version of Ovid's "Metamorphoses. " He's also the widower of
Sylvia Plath, and that makes him, with the possible exception of Xanthippe,
the most notorious literary spouse in history. He's the villain of some of
Plath's best poems: the self-centered, domineering jailor-husband stifling
her true, creative self. For many, he's a real-life villain, too, who
precipitated Plath's suicide by gas in 1963, when he left her and their two
small children for another woman -- who killed herself and their child by
the same method five years later. His management of Plath's literary estate,
which he inherited as her not-quite-ex husband, has been bitterly criticized
-- with some justice, I think, especially his destruction of her last diary.
It was to protect the children, he said, as if they would never grow up and
wish to make their own decision, and as if explosive but precious documents
were not routinely sealed in vaults and archives for posterity.

According to its publishers, "Birthday Letters " marks the breaking of a
35-year-long silence. This isn't quite true -- a few of the poems have
appeared in previous Hughes collections. I suspect, too, that the claim that
these 88 poems were written secretly over a 25- year period is also an
exaggeration: except for a handful in slant-rhymed quatrains, the poems are
identical in style and perspective. What is undeniably true is that
"Birthday Letters " presents itself as an unambiguous rebuke to those who
saw Sylvia Plath as Ted Hughes's victim. Here, we are to believe, is The
Truth About Sylvia, which can be summarized as: she was beautiful,
brilliant, violent, crazy, doomed; I loved her, I did my best to make her
happy, but she was obsessed with her dead father, and it killed her.

The first poem, "Fulbright Scholars, " adumbrates the disasters to come: the
young Hughes, strolling about London, passes a news photograph of incoming
Fulbright scholars, idly wonders which ones he will meet and buys from a
sidewalk stall "the first fresh peach I had ever tasted. / I could hardly
believe how delicious. " He has not even noticed Plath's face in the
pictured crowd of privileged Americans (she was beginning a year in
Cambridge, having graduated with spectacular honors from Smith the previous
spring), but his fate is sealed: unlike timid Prufrock, he has dared, in
mingy postwar l955 Britain, to eat a peach -- one that is also Adam's apple
of knowledge and Persephone's pomegranate, which married her to death. A few
poems later comes their famous meeting at a literary student party:

Swaying so slender
It seemed your long, perfect,
American legs
Simply went on up. That flaring hand,
Those long, balletic, monkey-
elegant fingers.
And the face -- a tight ball of joy.
I see you there, clearer, more real
Than in any of the years in its shadow --
As if I saw you that once, then never again.

The mingled tenderness and pathos and bewilderment of these lines is quite
moving, despite the low-energy writing (legs simply went on up?). It makes
one want to warn both of these very young people to run away and never look
back. But even as Ted bit that peach, Sylvia bites him (according to her
journal, but not his poem, after he kisses her aggressively and rips off her
headband and earrings): he leaves with a "swelling ring-moat of tooth- marks
/ That was to brand my face for the next month. / The me beneath it for good. "

This tone -- emotional, direct, regretful, entranced -- pervades the book's
strongest poems, which are quiet and thoughtful and conversational. Plath is
always "you " -- as though an old man were leafing through an album with a
ghost. Remember that pink dress you wore at our wedding? ( "You were
transfigured. / So slender and new and naked, / A nodding spray of wet
lilac. ") Those 40's show tunes you played on the piano? Visiting Marianne
Moore, and how devastated you were when she sent you that catty note about
your poems? The births of our children? Our house in Devon?

Remember how we picked the
Nobody else remembers, but I

It would be a hard heart and a tin ear that could remain impervious to lines
like these. The trouble is, if you added them all up, you'd have a 20-page
chapbook, instead of a volume of nearly 200 pages in which that intimate
voice, insisting on its personal truth, is overwhelmed by others: ranting,
self-justifying, rambling, flaccid, bombastic. Incident after incident makes
the same point: she was the sick one, I was the "nurse and protector. " I
didn't kill her -- poetry, Fate, her obsession with her dead father killed
her. The more Hughes insists on his own good intentions and the
inevitability of Plath's suicide, the less convincing he becomes. One starts
to wonder what it means to blame a suicide on Fate, or on a father who died,
after all, when Plath was 8 years old, or on "fixed stars. " Inadequate as
it is to see Plath's life in wholly sociological, political terms -- the
plight of a young female genius in the prefeminist era -- it makes more
sense than astrology. Poem after poem has the same plot: an effort at
ordinary happiness, pleasure, closeness -- a camping trip to Yellowstone, a
day at the beach -- turns ominous as a symbol (an owl, a bear, a cloud of
bats, worms, thunder, a Ouija-board message, a cursing gypsy, a sinister
doll) appears on the scene to foreshadow the terrible future. Plath used
many of these familiar metaphors herself, of course, but the aura of the
uncanny with which she refreshed them is replaced in "Birthday Letters " by
an earnest overexplicitness, as if these metaphors were not ways of
suggesting all that is dark and unknowable about another person, tragic
about the future and malign about the cosmos, but a literal explanation.

Throughout the book, Hughes depicts himself as a passive figure, a stand-in
for Daddy in Plath's lurid psychodrama: "Your life / Was a liner I voyaged
in. " His own psyche is left curiously unexplored, as if nothing deep in his
nature drew him to Plath, shaped their relationship, helped bring it to its
disastrous end. But could this really be the way it was? It may be that
suicide only takes one -- even if Plath hadn't attempted suicide and had a
mental breakdown before she met Hughes, it would be simple-minded to accuse
him of causing her death -- but surely marriage takes two. There's a
striking lack of inward reflection here. "A Pink Wool Knitted Dress " tells
us much more about Plath's emotions on their wedding day than Hughes's --
he's a "utility son-in-law " elated by her elation and heading into a
"spellbound future. " The love affair that ended his marriage is presented
in completely fatalistic terms:

We didn't find her -- she found us.
She sniffed us out. The Fate she carried
Sniffed us out
And assembled us, inert
For its experiment. The Fable she carried
Requisitioned you and me and her,
Puppets for its performance.

This poem, which depicts Assia Wevill, a Holocaust survivor, as a
nightmarish femme fatale ( "slightly filthy with erotic mystery -- / A Ger-
man / Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon / Between curtains of black
Mongolian hair "), manages to hit the nadir of taste and the zenith of
self-delusion, while cloaking his own feelings in Plath's imagery (avenging
Jew, sinister childless woman, evil mongrel Europe).

This use of Plath's poems is not an isolated case. Hughes frequently employs
Plathian language, and several poems ( "Ouija, " "The Rabbit Catcher, "
"Brasilia, " "Black Coat, " "Night-Ride on Ariel ") are written as if to
answer, or contextualize, poems of hers. But Plath's poetry is one of
intense compression and musicality, its imagery complex and ambiguous,
whereas "Birthday Letters " is lax and digressive, the symbolism all on the
surface, so these allusions, quotations and re-renderings serve mostly to
remind us of what a great poet she was.

Inevitably, given the claims that these poems set the record straight, the
question of truth arises. Plath's letters and journals present her as
struggling hard to be a dutiful literary wife -- typing her husband's poems,
promoting his work, rejoicing in his success and also resenting it. The
difficulties -- practical, social and, most of all, psychological -- of
being a woman of burning literary ambition preoccupied her from earliest
adulthood. None of this struggle is reflected in "Birthday Letters. " Nor
does Hughes engage the fury that suffuses Plath's late poems -- and with
which so many women have identified -- about being stuck at home with the
babies and the housework and the boring neighbors. On the contrary, in "The
Minotaur, " Plath, "demented by my being / Twenty minutes late for
baby-minding, " smashes an heirloom table "mapped with the scars of my whole
life, " and Hughes responds (loyally? infuriatingly?), " 'Marvellous!' . . .
'That's the stuff you're keeping out of your poems!' "

The storm of publicity surrounding "Birthday Letters " has turned into a
kind of marital spin contest, an episode in the larger war between the
sexes. Feminists have long been blamed for demonizing Hughes. (Actually,
only one name is ever attached to this putative army, that of Robin Morgan,
who published a dreadful poem in l972 accusing him of killing Plath). But
Hughes's partisans -- Anne Stevenson, for example, whose biography "Bitter
Fame " was written with the cooperation of Hughes's sister Olwyn -- portray
Plath as unsparingly and moralistically as Plath's partisans portray Hughes:
one or the other is narcissistic, deceitful, impossibly demanding,
oblivious, a user.

But here's a thought: What if, as in many bad marriages, both partners were
driven to the extremes of their personalities, did all sorts of awful
things, including some that might look to outsiders like acts of saintly
forbearance and others that might look totally mad but had a kind of
intuitive rightness, and what if his poems and her poems each represent the
limited, self-justifying perpective of a terribly injured and injuring
spouse who wants all the friends to rally round and murmur their support? If
we were friends, we might have to take sides. But since we are readers, we
can have both, whatever the biographers say, as long as the poems make the
hair stand up on the back of our necks.

With "Birthday Letters, " what's hair-raising is not the poetry, but the
ghost of Sylvia Plath.

GRAPHIC: Drawing


LOAD-DATE: March 1, 1998

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