By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Ted Hughes is the Prince Charles of modern poetry, the man who spurned the woman women love. (He is also poet laureate to the queen.) Birthday Letters, a long, sometimes rambling series of poems recounting his six-year marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath, puts him in a uniquely difficult position. Imagine Charles writing a book-length sonnet-sequence about his marriage to Diana, starting with the courtship, the wedding, the honeymoon, and then continuing with life together in the palace, tours of duty, Diana's moods, Diana's rages (but not Charles' pouts), the Other Woman, divorce, tearful television interviews and, finally, death - her death. Could he re-create his own Diana in the glare of everyone else's? Could he convince the public that, cad that he was, he even had a right to his own version of Diana? What is it that vast sections of the public would be looking for as they pored over his words? Memorable imagery? Deft rhymes? Hardly. They'd be looking for Guilt. Admissions thereof. Endless variations on "I did her wrong" in neat ABBA ABBA packages.
This, more or less, is Ted Hughes' problem.
Hughes met Sylvia Plath in 1956. He was a 25-year-old poet and Cambridge graduate, she was a 23-year-old poet on a Fulbright scholarship to Oxford, with one suicide attempt under her belt. Their first meeting, at a party, is famous for its amor brujo passion. It began with the 6-foot-6-inch Hughes and the 5-foot-9-inch Plath circling each other warily like flamenco dancers. He stamped his feet, she stamped her feet. Then he kissed her "bang-smash on the mouth" (according to Plath's excited journal entry), helping himself to her head scarf and an earring (for souvenirs) in the process. Impressed by this vigorous opening gambit, Plath clamped her bright white American teeth on Hughes' cheek until the skin broke. Hughes then retreated, bleeding, to a doorway, where the girlfriend he had arrived with had started "hissing" - it's tough watching your date embark on one of the love stories of the century. According to Hughes' account in Birthday Letters, Plath's love bite was to "brand my face for the next month./The me beneath it for good."
They soon got married, and lived together for six years, first in America, then England. At first, Hughes was the more successful of the two (his first two books of poetry both won prizes), but Plath was rapidly catching up (that Hughes was unnerved by his wife's talent is one of the main bits of dirt his enemies look for). In 1962, shortly after the birth of their second child, Hughes left Plath for another woman, a Holocaust survivor named Assia Wevill. Over the next five months, Plath went on an extended writing spree that resulted in poems so immediately stunning they left Robert Lowell, for one, feeling as if "almost all other poetry was about nothing." Then she laid her head in a gas oven and killed herself. Five years later, Wevill (with whom Hughes had a child) also gassed herself in an oven, taking the child with her.
Is Hughes some kind of Bluebeard, or just an unimaginably unlucky husband? (His third wife, it should be noted, is still alive; they married in 1970.) Who knows? What's clear, though, is that Hughes has nothing but contempt for his accusers. "Let them/Jerk their tail-stumps, bristle and vomit/Over their symposia," he writes in one of Birthday Letters' final poems. Plath was only just becoming well-known when she died, but, on the strength of the extraordinary poems she'd written in the last few months of her life, her posthumous fame grew rapidly. Hughes, whom she referred to as a "vampire" in her most famous poem, and who destroyed the last volume of her journal (he couldn't stand having their children read it, he explained), suddenly found himself at the wrong end of a barbed feminist stick. When he left Plath, he was 32 years old and, after Philip Larkin, the most acclaimed English poet of his generation. When she killed herself, he suddenly became a Villain, the man responsible (or so his accusers claimed) for abandoning a brilliant, fragile wife in her hour of need and driving her to suicide. Rather than answer these charges, Hughes decided to remain silent.
"I preferred it," he later wrote in one of his rare comments on the situation, "to allowing myself to be dragged out into the bull-ring and teased and pricked and goaded into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia for the higher entertainment of . . . Engl Lit Profs and graduates." In the meantime, as the years went by, the Plath legend continued to grow. There were five biographies, a steady stream of articles and essays, most of them hostile to Hughes. His name was repeatedly hacked off Plath's gravestone, he was heckled on American campuses, greeted at airports by demonstrators calling him a murderer. Nonetheless, in England and, to a lesser extent, in America, his reputation as a poet flourished. In an editorial marking the publication of this book, the Times of London called him "our greatest living writer."