Ted Hughes's angry poems tell us almost nothing original about Sylvia Plath. But they do reflect his own self-image as calm, antique England to Plath's excitable American innocenceby James Wood / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Ted hughes’s poems are bullied almanacs in which the natural world is forced through a calendar of dark myth and astrological glower. The pike, the stillborn lamb, the aborted piglet, the thistles as vengeful as Vikings, the otter that existed “before wars or burials,” the jaguar “like a thick Aztec disemboweller”: these exist in a Manichean world in which “Life is trying to be life” but “Death also is trying to be life.” This notion of death is entirely unmetaphysical; it is a pre-moral struggle. This may be why Hughes’s poems appeal to adolescents, deep in their eclipses of reason. This verse is accusatory. The metaphors of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath are threats. They challenge the world not to be like this.
Here are more animal poems. The Sylvia Plath who is the subject of Birthday Letters is little different from one of Hughes’s lambs or otters. She wriggles through a hostile element. She swims back to that estuary which has waited for her from the beginning, the pool of Death. Hughes, the massive farmer, watches this natural progress like a horoscope. “That day the solar system married us/ Whether we knew it or not.” The poems stream with omens. In Boston, the young Hughes rescues a bat which has fallen from a tree. But he can do so only by giving the bat (ie Plath) his finger to hold on to, letting “the bite lock.”
The aura of predestination is this book’s strongest texture. The Plath of these poems is a suicide-bomb, ticking through a doomed marriage, waiting to make good on the botched attempt she made as a teenager. Hughes, who is “Siamese-twinned” to her, can only “sleepwalk” (a verb used several times) towards her death. Sometimes it is Plath’s father who is responsible. At other times it is poetry itself (“we/ Only did what poetry told us to do”). But neither poet can do anything about it: “Then the script overtook us.”
The poems spawn with premonitions. “I had not understood/ How the death hurtling to and fro/ Inside your head, had to alight somewhere.” Death and fear, as in Plath’s own poems, are grotesquely anthropomorphised. Death is a panther, or “your Ogre lover.” Or death is poetry, which “followed you,” “with its blood-sticky feet.” Many of Hughes’s later poems seem strongly influenced by Plath’s last death-heady poems:
This fear was the colour of your desk-top,
You almost knew its features,
That grain was like its skin, you could stroke it.
You could taste it in your milky coffee.
It made a noise like your typewriter.
Poems such as these, by Plath and Hughes, in which death is granted a domestic animism, are rarely affecting; and they are often comic. If fear is in Plath’s “milky coffee” and sounds like her typewriter, then why not in her seat cushion or toilet cistern or cake tin? The unwitting comedy, which sometimes achieves a conscious irony in Plath’s late verse, lies in the fertility, even the jauntiness, of the poet’s noticings. Death may be closing in, but the damned poem is unstoppable.
Once Plath gives birth to her two children (to whom this book is dedicated), destiny is fortified by the emergence of new potential sacrifices. Hughes seems to imply that the birth of children is like adding prompters to Fate’s script. The gods had to be appeased. Now the two poets become “puppets” in a “Fable.” When Hughes is first tempted by Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he left Plath, he writes: “She was helpless too./ None of us could wake up.” In the book’s angriest poem, “Suttee,” a work of astonishingly poor taste, Hughes plays on the idea of Plath as a mother who gave birth not to children, but to the evil baby of her own fragile survival from her suicide attempt. Like a good father, Hughes must look after not his children, but the death-baby that his wife has become. (This kind of recklesssness is also to be found in Plath, who likens failed poems to aborted foetuses, and in “Thalidomide,” likens her talent to a mutilated child.)
“Suttee” should remind us, if we were in any doubt, that this is a book of anger and grief. Revenge and self-justification are inherent in this enterprise. I do not believe that Hughes, as an editor of Plath’s work, “silenced” her; quite the opposite. But Birthday Letters must amount to a kind of silencing because it is like listening to one half of a telephone call. (Both poets have written hysterical poems against the telephone. For Hughes, in “Do not Pick up the Telephone” it is a “plastic crab,” a “plastic Buddha” that “jars out a Karate screech”; for Plath, in “Words heard, by accident, over the phone,” it is “Muck funnel, muck funnel…”)
It is hard to ignore Hughes’s bitterness. His poems are little epidemics of blame. This book is the progress of a hysteric, recorded by a husband who was not hysterical enough to comprehend his wife. This is how Hughes puts it: “Your gushy burblings-which I decoded/ Into a language, utterly new to me/ With conjectural, hopelessly wrong meanings.” Any reader of Plath’s Journal and Letters Home is likely to concede the justice of Hughes’s complaint. But it is unpleasant, as well as oddly boring, to have to endure the husband’s repetitious version, especially when the husband is wont to praise himself for his hard, dry-eyed, unhysterical European vision.
In Paris, for example, where the couple honeymooned, Plath was full of her American idea (“Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein”), while Hughes was more realistic:
My Paris was a post-war utility survivor,
The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes,
Collaborateurs barely out of their twenties…
But for Plath, “all that/ Was the anecdotal aesthetic touch/On Picasso’s portrait/Of Apollinaire…” In Spain, it is a similar tale. The American flees from realities. “Spain frightened you. Spain/ Where I felt at home… Your panic/ Clutched back towards college America.” In Hughes’s vision, Plath is sometimes the spoiled American college kid, spoiled with illusions and luggage: “Your shorts, your short-sleeved jumper-/One of the thirty I lugged around Europe.” Hughes struggles to soften England’s postwar harshness, to make Plath-“Homesick, exhausted, disappointed, pregnant” -feel at home. But even an English beach is drab by comparison with the Cape Cod of Plath’s childhood, a place of light and American money: “The slew of horse-shoe crabs/ And sand-dollars.”
When, in “The Rabbit Catcher,” Plath comes across a set trap, she is appalled, but Hughes, in grim unison with nature’s danse macabre, sees her as merely sentimental. Plath throws the trap into the woods:
I was aghast. Faithful
To my country gods-I saw
The sanctity of a trapline desecrated.
You saw blunt fingers, blood in the cuticles,
Clamped round a blue mug. I saw
Country poverty raising a penny,
Filling a Sunday stewpot. You saw baby-eyed
Strangled innocents, I saw sacred
Hughes is calm, antique England to Plath’s excitable American innocence. Hughes is like the pool he looks into in his poem “Pike”: “Stilled legendary depth:/ It was as deep as England.” His only desire is to act as “midwife” to Plath’s sanity: “A house of our own/ Answering all your problems was the answer/ To all my problems.”
The turbulence of Plath’s hysteria grows: “Your dreams were of a sea clogged with corpses,/ Death camp atrocities, mass amputations.” Plath is “Inaccessible /In your dybbuk fury.” “Each night you descended again/ Into the temple-crypt.” The reader’s uneasiness has less to do with the veracity of Hughes’s picture than with its reliance on an intimacy unsecured by literary means. These poems are bandages torn off a marriage and tossed to us. Very few of them seem free-standing poems, capable of surviving posterity.
The only literary question should be whether Hughes succeeds in evoking his subject. The answer is, only rarely. Plath has become a celebrity to Hughes as well as to his readers. We were all married to her. Although these poems abound in the acutest intimacies, Hughes makes little effort to transmit them to us as if they were intimacies, as if they needed the hard literary work of expansion, aeration and universalisation. Instead, they have been broken up by our own curiosity, and Hughes clearly feels this. In some sense these details are no longer private to him, and he cannot animate them for a public which has already spun them around and around. This explains why Birthday Letters manages to devote almost 200 pages to Plath, while giving us almost nothing original or fresh about her.
Occasionally a few lines ignite the old Lawrencian Hughes, the poet who sees nature with great strong delicacy. Although his lines are loose and unpressured, his line breaks are dramatic and good. (Both Plath and Hughes got this talent from Emily Dickinson; their verse, which is frequently end-stopped, reads like Dickinson without her end-of-line dashes.) But his beauties are always of the natural world, never about Plath:
November fen-damp haze, the river unfurling
Dark whorls, ferrying slender willow yellows
Elsewhere, he sees “gloom-rich water.” He still has a superb ear for kinesis, for the energy and the surprise of the land. Walking towards the sea, Hughes and Plath “crossed a field and came to the open/ Blue push of sea-wind.” The language is here like a wind itself, the line-break like a cliff. At such moments, one waits excitedly for Hughes’s portrait of a woman he loved, as the Shakespeare of the sonnets promised that “Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain/ Full charactered with lasting memory.”
But Plath is not “full charactered” in this book. Before long, the blood-soaked curtain comes down, and the poet feeds once again on his own paganism. Certain readers, noticing Hughes’s fond marriage to fate, have charged him with self-absolution. But Hughes was not responsible for Plath’s death, and so has no need to absolve himself. That is not the problem. His pagan doom, the suckling gods and bloody crypts, do not absolve but dissolve. A real, particular Plath disappears; and a real, particular Hughes disappears too, drowned in a sud of images borrowed from their own poetry, or from the most familiar dirty magics. Particularity is secular, and these dank poems show us why. Birthday letters
Faber and Faber 1998, ?14.99