Douglas Barbour: Late thoughts on Ted Hughes's `Birthday Letters'

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes. Faber & Faber, 1998, 198 pp.

Preface of sorts:

I'm not sure how to put this. Although I've never been a huge fan of Hughes's work, I've not been one to dismiss all of it out of hand. Along with Larkin, if on the `other side,' he has been an icon of post World War Two poetry in Britain, his (self-proclaimed) desire to make a `heroic bang,' as he put it in an early poem standing against the quiet and hidden retreats of Larkin's poetic. For many of us on the other side of the Atlantic, dependent on the mainstream media, these two and the kind of poetries they stood for, seemed to be all that Britain had to offer. What was missing in the reports such media sent was any sense of an adventurous modernist strain (always there, to be found in the ignored Basil Bunting to take just one example). Still, there are poems of Hughes I admire, and have taught in courses on poetry of the past half-century. He has shown himself capable of hard, tough images, especially out of nature. Although Crow now seems more and more of its moment and over-valued even then, the anger and angst in his poems have occasionally forced something magnificent into being.

What most fascinated me when Birthday Letters appeared was the incredible popular(izing) reception given it. I have not seen many reviews, although the one in The New York Review of Books was especially fawning. There were some interesting articles on what the poems would do to both Plath's and Hughes's reputations. Stephen Glover, for example, in an article first published in The Daily Telegraph, pointed out the problems and difficulties of ever trying to read this book as just a collection of poems: `Moving though they are, these poems don't settle the central questions that Plath's death unleashed.' That is probably true. Nevertheless, what has struck me since the book appeared is how little the reviews I've seen have said anything about the poetry, the actual writing. My own review, for The Edmonton Journal, was aimed at that common reader who knows who both Plath & Hughes are, and who is interested in poetry. In the months since the book was released in Canada, there have been other reviews, including a laudatory one in Canada's weekly newsmagazine, Maclean's (in fact the only review of a book of poetry there in the past few years); and Birthday Letters sat on the national bestseller list for nearly a month. But that could be a giveaway in itself. If it's that popular it isn't because of the poetry.

As an example of an interesting review, I would point to Ian Sansom's in The London Review of Books, which did offer intriguing arguments concerning the poet's motives and success in realizing them, and which at least quoted quite a bit of verse. Nevertheless, although many reader/reviewers did say how much they were moved by the book, or how much they admired the poet for his `courage' in telling his side of the story, few actually said anything about the way the poems worked. To a degree, neither did I, as I had space constraints and felt a need to discuss the whole context as well as the book itself. My complete review (it was cut for publication) follows, and I will follow it with a few more comments about my later feelings about the book.

The original review:

Birthday Letters, the latest book from Britain's poet laureate, Ted Hughes, broke on the scene after no advance publicity and, according to a report on CBC's This Morning, sold 40,000 copies in its first week of publication. This did not happen because there has been a sudden upsurge of interest in poetry, of whatever kind, in Britain. It happened because these poems are clearly addressed to one of the most mythicized writers of the twentieth century, Sylvia Plath, from one of the central figures, along with her father, in that myth, the husband who has been demonized by Plath's supporters during the 35 years since she committed suicide (as Janet Malcolm points out in perhaps the finest study of this long relationship, The Silent Woman). Says Malcolm: "To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes's unfaithfulness." It is the continuing fascination with Plath's work and death that fuels the immense interest in this book of poems.

The question that arises, then, an impossible question, I suspect, is how to judge these poems as poems. Certainly, I can't pretend to do so at this early point. But one of the reasons I can't is that Hughes has chosen so clearly to write these poems as autobiography, and to address them to a "you" who can be no other person than Plath. Moreover, they insist on foregrounding an "I" who assumes at least as much importance as the figure addressed. These poems emerge from a long tradition of lyric elegy, wherein the speaker always gets the last word, whether meditating on a single death or applying the lessons of that death to humanity in general, yet most of them are narratives of memory, little stories of a love affair destined to destruction. Readers of Plath's biographies will recognize many of these moments, seen suddenly from a different perspective. One of my problems with these poems is that, even though many ask unanswerable questions, and even though Hughes (or his persona) accepts a lot of blame for failing to comprehend his beloved's manic/melancholic desperation, they all move to such a firm closure there seems to be no room for further questioning on our parts.

There are 88 poems here, so how exactly they are "Birthday Letters" is not clear. Since Hughes has maintained a dignified silence about his relation to Plath for so long, the obsessive, repetitive, and overwhelming length of this book both repels and compels. Plath's anger, energy, fear, and pain - what he calls her "Panic" - inform his every memory, and his anguish is like a sore tooth he simply can't stop probing with his tongue. The poems circle around their relationship from the period when they first met to the present day (after all he has lived so much longer without her than with her, but he has lived those years with her inheritance, both the children and the writing). What can he say?

Hughes has always been a highly symbolic writer, engaged with the ancient mythic material of his birthplace, Yorkshire. In Birthday Letters, the very private mythology that finally overwhelmed Plath threatens to overwhelm him as well, and his only defence is to fight myth with myth. These poems are dark dreams, frightening faery tales, demented legends full of repeated themes and images, most of which can be found in Plath's poetry or his own earlier work. The Plath industry will have a field day deciphering them, but how well do they work as poems?

It's hard to say. Hughes has always been a poet of analogy, and the similes, the dark symbols, proliferate here. Although the poems appear to speak with heartfelt honesty, they are, in fact, highly rhetorical arguments. Portents abound, but often they descend into mere portentousness, as in "Epiphany," wherein Hughes, with a clear allusion to one of his own most famous poems, "The Thought-Fox," refuses to buy a fox cub on the street and then wonders what would have happened if he "had paid that pound and turned back / To you, with that armful of fox --."

If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage -
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.

Yes, he takes blame here, but in such a strange manner, and this seems true of all the poems where he does so. One of the most startling is the only poem in which the woman for whom he left Plath enters their home. He spends much of the poem explaining how "She fascinated you" and "Warily you cultivated her," thus making the argument that Plath was as responsible for her being there as he was, even if, at the end he admits that "I saw / The dreamer in her / Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it. / That moment the dreamer in me / Fell in love with her, and I knew it."

The arguments are with Plath herself as much as with the readers. Still, I responded most fully to those moments when he comes down to earth. A line like "Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck" strikes home. And in an early poem, he shows that he is aware that all that he is doing is offering another version, not the `true' or `real' one. He has been reading her journals:

Then, under the panic, the nightmare
That came rolling to crush you:
Your alternative - the unthinkable
Old despair and the new agony
Melting into one familiar hell.

And then he realizes: "You are ten years dead. It is only a story. / Your story. My story." This insight is important, but on the whole the poems keep forgetting its lesson and press their message unironically.

The real horror here, as far as their writer is concerned, is that Plath's famous "Daddy," the father she sought and fought in her poems, was a real presence in their lives, somehow: "While I slept he snuggled / Shivering between us." The writer's failure, as he sees it, is that he finally could not protect her from that ghost, nor free her from the misapprehension that he was but another avatar of that fearful Daddy. That the speaker of these poems loved, loves, the woman addressed throughout is clear. What that love meant or means is not.

There's another problem, though, one these references point to: are these Hughes's poems? Or are they somehow still Plath's? Many are so full of her imagery, her dark symbolism, if only because they are replies, that it's hard to read them as anything but collaborations with the (perhaps unwilling) dead.

There are many off-putting moments, including the oddly inflected description of her "monkey-elegant fingers" and "the African-lipped, laughing, thickly / Crimson painted mouth." There is the mean-spirited attack on the hyena-critics, especially those who have defended Plath against him, who will undoubtedly be spending so much time on these poems in years to come. There are poems that simply seem to be travelogues from the marriage and add little to the ongoing argument the poet is having with both his dead love and himself.

Nevertheless, although I originally felt that less would have been more in this case, and wished that the obsessive overindulgence of this book had been brought under control, I have to admit that whatever power it has derives from precisely its over the top sad, angry, self-explanatory, argumentative desire to return, over and over again, to the moments when their love and their mutual suffering threw such a strong light across their shadowed lives. But in saying this, I am responding more to the mythic gossip that has haunted contemporary poetic history since Plath's suicide than to any particular quality of Hughes's poems. Still, whether or not Birthday Letters is good poetry, it is a fascinating book.

After words:

I confess to trying very hard to be as fair as possible in that review. What seems most interesting to me as a reader these many months later is how my feelings have changed, or perhaps only deepened. I have often had the experience of reading a poem, or a collection, and finding it difficult, unengaging, whatever, and then realizing that I have continued to think about it, and as I have continued that engagement even against my will, the work has come to seem more and more important to me, more and more something I needed. With Birthday Letters I have had the opposite experience. I did think about the book after I had finished my review, but the more I thought about it the less interesting, certainly the weaker as poetry, it came to be. I would now disagree with my final comments. Although the point I was making has a certain validity, this sequence desperately needed heavy editing. The book should have been cut to about a third of the size, and almost every poem could use some careful trimming.

What sticks in my memory (and in my craw?) is the flaccid quality, the flatness and rhythmic sloppiness of so much of the verse. The best example of this is the opening of `Visit,' a poem about a close friend. Listen to the slow, molasses movement of the opening lines:

Lucas, my friend, one
Among those three or four who stay unchanged
Like a separate self.
A stone in the bed of the river
Under every change, became your friend.

But what's interesting is how much this flattens out and demeans the original it alludes to (which Mark Baker pointed out in a note to the Poetics List from Buffalo), those famous lines from Yeats's `Easter 1916':

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
The stone's in the midst of all.

Aside from the fact that Yeats is creating an argument that works both personally and philosophically, he also works the metaphor, hard. Hughes slows it down, towards the weaker simile, and shifts off to contemplate himself once more in the following lines. And that is one of the problems with this collection: that it is essentially lyric, always centred, despite its protests to the contrary, on the speaker and his feelings, and how important they are. The whole travelogue of their trip across the US is too unfocused and prosaic; definitely the weakest part of the whole book, but also a huge chunk of it.

That `African-lipped' mouth remains a problem for me, as does its later echo:

And I became aware of the mystery
Of your lips, like nothing before in my life,
Their aboriginal thickness. And of your nose,
Broad and Apache, nearly a boxer's nose,
Scorpio's obverse to the Semitic eagle
That made every camera your enemy,
The jailer of your vanity, the traitor
In your Sexual Dreams Incorporated,
Nose from Attila's horde; a prototype face
That could have looked up at me through the smoke
Of a Navajo campfire.

I don't quite know what to make of all this. A kind of honesty some might argue. A strange kind of representation. Once again, it is all `his' perception, and a diary-like obsession with having the last say, even putting her in her place (`your Sexual Dreams Incorporated'), is the engine of narration. At least the obsessiveness gives this passage some force. One of the strangest moments occurs in `The Table,' where `Your Daddy resurrected' enters into a weird menage-á-trois with them:

While I slept he snuggled
Shivering between us. Turning to touch me
You recognized him. 'Wait!' I said. 'Wait!
What's this?' My incomprehension
Deafened by his language - a German
Outside my wavelengths.

This poem also reveals just how fully Plath's poems take over Hughes's: his every attempt to utilize them for his own arguments only demonstrates the depth of this posthumous collaboration. I think one of the most interesting projects for `the industry' will be trying to figure out how much her poetry resists his attempts to take it over.

I realize that what I have written here does not add that much to my original review. I recognize my own resistance. There are poems, books of poetry, I want to reread. Birthday Letters is not one of them. The more I thought about it the more I felt its stolid conventionality. Thinking about writing an addendum to my original review I came to see how much I did not want to reread the whole thing. I went after certain moments that remain, however acidly, in mind, and have left it at that. I also realize that readers who like Hughes's poetry will likely find something of value in the very lines I find so lacking. Personally, I can only wonder at a world of readers who throng to this book while continuing to ignore so many collections that give me much more pleasure and stimulation (in a world where Susan Howe's scholarly stringent and formally amazing encounters with the texts of literary and historical forebears inspire awe and delight, what are these petty self-serving attempts to rewrite the record really accomplishing?). Finally, I am saddened by a critical establishment that so uncritically praises Birthday Letters even as it continues to ignore the often extraordinary poetry of those whose writing continues the grand modernist experiment to `make it new.'