By Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
198 pp., $20
When the young poet Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963, she became, for many, an icon of American letters. Her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, became a villain for almost as many.
Now, 35 years after her death, the man often accused of stifling Plath and pushing her toward suicide is breaking his self-imposed silence. In his new book, "Birthday Letters " - which made front-page news on both sides of the Atlantic and was an immediate bestseller in Britain and the US - Hughes offers a collection of 88 poems written secretly over 25 years. In it, he speaks as if directly to Plath.
In this one-way conversation, Hughes examines the stormy relationship that ended when he left Plath for another woman, who also committed suicide. As one might expect, Hughes reveals a wide range of emotions: moments of passion, tenderness, confusion, and pathos. It's difficult not to be moved by poems like "Daffodils," which begins:
Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy,
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
She cannot even remember you....
and ends with
But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Through the sod - an anchor, a cross of rust.
His best poems present an endearingly honest voice, and, more interesting to both scholars and lay readers alike, portray a Plath who has not been seen elsewhere. This is the kind of contribution one would hope "Birthday Letters" could make.
But while Hughes doesn't hide the tension in their seven-year marriage, he also doesn't allow himself many unguarded moments. There is little self-examination on Hughes's part, little surprise, and too many poems where he tries to tell Plath what she was feeling. As a result, "Birthday Letters" provides little insight into either poet's experience, nor is it great, or even consistently good, poetry. Certainly, the poems will not exonerate Hughes in the minds of readers who won't forgive him for destroying her last journal.
"Birthday Letters" has a strange passivity, considering that Hughes (Britain's poet laureate since 1984) became famous for work that is charged, almost brutal at times. There are two big problems with this collection. First, much of the writing is proselike, almost pedestrian. Hughes tries so hard to be conversational and to build his case that he leaves out the artistry.
Lines like these from "18 Rugby Street" are typical:
You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish.
You were a new world. My new world.
So this is America, I marvelled.
Beautiful, beautiful, America!
Second, and perhaps more troubling, is the way Hughes explains away what happened in his marriage. In poem after poem, he makes it clear that he can't possibly be responsible for Plath's death because it was "preordained." Her fate (he always played her protector) was written in the stars, determined by poetry and spirits, he says. The influence of Plath's dead father, not Hughes, drove her to despair. Hughes was largely an innocent bystander, as in "Visit":
Nor did I know I was
For the male lead in your
Miming through the first
As if with eyes closed,
feeling for the role.
As if a puppet were being
tried on its strings,
Or a dead frog's legs
touched by electrodes.
Even the woman he left Plath for is explained away in simplistic terms in "Dreamers":
...The Fate she carried
Sniffed us out
And assembled us, inert ingredients
For its experiment. The Fable she
Requisitioned you and me and her,
Puppets for its performance.
The fatalism in these poems becomes tiresome quickly. The predictable perspective makes the speaker seem so uninsightful that even when he deals with a serious issue - Plath's relationship with her father, for example - the reader isn't satisfied. Hughes reduces everything to glaring simplicity and skirts too many legitimate issues.
"Birthday Letters" becomes more interesting when it captures the energy of Plath's forceful poems, her intensity, her tight, almost visceral imagery. But the strongest work comes when Hughes stops trying to explain Plath's emotions and allows himself to get in touch with his own.
That is when Hughes steps out of Plath's shadow and writes truly memorable poems. Too bad he didn't have the wisdom to let "Birthday Letters" consist of only the 20 or 30 best pages. He would have resumed his silence sooner, but his words would have lasted longer.
* Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.