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.”
For 35 years, Hughes has stuck to his guns and kept silent on what happened between him and Plath. Now, as out of a hat, he's produced 88 poems charting, in roughly chronological order, their life together, from when he first met her (“I was/Just hanging around, courting you/Afloat on the morning tide and tipsy feelings/Of my twenty-fifth year”) to when, 35 years after her death, he is left only with memories and what traces of her remain. “Remember how we picked the daffodils?/Nobody else remembers, but I remember,” he writes in one poem. And in another: “I remember your fingers. And your daughter's/ Fingers remember your fingers/In everything they do.”
In general, the poems are intimate and open when the relationship was good or at least still viable; they become increasingly hermetic as the relationship turns bad – which, of course, is the part everyone's interested in. Hughes knows this, and has no intention of giving satisfaction. Birthday Letters is Hughes' portrait of a marriage. It isn't legal testimony, it isn't a memoir, and it's certainly not a mea culpa. The book's most remarkable aspect may well be, in fact, that, having finally broken his silence, Hughes never really talks about Plath. Instead, he talks to her, as if she were still here and we, the readers, didn't exist at all. The effect of this is oddly moving, because Plath clearly remains a vivid part of Hughes' life.
According to the book, Hughes spent much of his marriage in the passive role, a kind of nursemaid to Plath's moods and rages. “I simply/Trod accompaniment, carried babies,” he writes at one point; elsewhere he describes himself as “the male lead in your drama.” To Hughes, clearly, the marriage was more about Plath than about him. His detractors will claim that he simply isn't examining himself very closely, and they may well be right. Nonetheless, Birthday Letters does succeed in revealing how the marriage felt to him – which, I guess, is the point. Unfortunately, for those not already clued in to the Plath/Hughes story, a lot of the book is not going to be very meaningful. Another, more serious, problem is that some of these poems aren't up to Hughes' own standard – too many of them feel like vaguely worked-up diary entries.
It was May. How had it started? WhatHad bared our edges? What quirky twistOf the moon's blade had set us, so early in the day,Bleeding each other? What had I done?
By the time Hughes finally gets around to answering all these questions, a lot of readers, I suspect, will have lost interest. There are many wonderful passages in Birthday Letters, but fewer fully achieved poems, and the book itself feels increasingly vague as it goes on, more a photograph album of random impressions (honeymoon in Spain, trip to the Grand Canyon, return to England, etc.) than a taut, fully realized work. It feels as if these were poems Hughes needed to write for therapeutic reasons rather than for poetic ones. What Birthday Letters could have done with is a bit of Plath's electricity.