Birthday Letters

( 3 )

Overview

Formerly Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, the late Ted Hughes (1930-98) is recognized as one of the few contemporary poets whose work has mythic scope and power. And few episodes in postwar literature have the legendary stature of Hughes's romance with, and marriage to, the great American poet Sylvia Plath.

The poems in Birthday Letters are addressed (with just two exceptions) to Plath, and were written over a period of more than twenty-five years, the first a few years ...

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Overview

Formerly Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, the late Ted Hughes (1930-98) is recognized as one of the few contemporary poets whose work has mythic scope and power. And few episodes in postwar literature have the legendary stature of Hughes's romance with, and marriage to, the great American poet Sylvia Plath.

The poems in Birthday Letters are addressed (with just two exceptions) to Plath, and were written over a period of more than twenty-five years, the first a few years after her suicide in 1963. Some are love letters, others haunted recollections and ruminations. In them, Hughes recalls his and Plath's time together, drawing on the powerful imagery of his work—animal, vegetable, mythological—as well as on Plath's famous verse.

Countless books have discussed the subject of this intense relationship from a necessary distance, but this volume—at last—offers us Hughes's own account. Moreover, it is a truly remarkable collection of pems in its own right.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An extraordinary book . . . [Hughes's] subject is Plath herself—how she looked and moved and talked, her pleasures, rages, uncanny dreams, and many terrors, what was good between them and where it went wrong."—A. Alvarez, The New Yorker

"The critics who are urging us to regard these poems as masterpieces are right. Their intensity of feeling, the clarity of their imagery, the precision, energy, simplicity, and fluidity of their language are still striking."—Paul Levy, The Wall Street Journal

"An emotional, direct, regretful, and entranced [tone] pervades the book's strongest poems, which are quiet and thoughtful and conversational."—Katha Pollitt, The New York Times Book Review

"Most of the poems in Birthday Letters have a wonderful immediacy and tenderness that's new to Hughes's writing, a tenderness that enables him to communicate Plath's terrors as palpably as her own verse, and to convey his own lasting sense of loss and grief. . . . They should be read because they constitute the strongest, most emotionally tactile work of Hughes' career."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"The publication of Birthday Letters is the most sensational event I can think of in the recent history of English-language poetry."—Christopher Benfey, Slate

"The book comes like a thunderbolt from the blue. And reading it is like being hit by a thunderbolt. Its power is sometimes tender, sometimes funny, sometimes anguished, and always springing from a burning, continuous present. Anyone who thought Hughes's reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves. This is a book written by someone obsessed, stricken, and deeply loving. There is nothing like it in literature."—Andrew Motion, The London Times

Jones
"By the time of her death on 11 February, 1963, Sylvia Plath had written a large bulk of poetry," writes Ted Hughes in the introduction to Plath's The Collected Poems . You'd never know from reading that sentence that Hughes was Plath's husband, the father of her children; there isn't an inkling of feeling in those words. This is the fashion in which Hughes has chosen to treat Plath since her suicide 30-plus years ago: as an academic subject, not as an emotional one.

Maybe that's what makes Hughes's Birthday Letters such an immediate pleasure. Public catharsis is so essential these days that it's broadcast on TV; much of the entire world watched for the proper people to weep during Princess Diana's funeral last year. After Plath's suicide, Hughes refused to give the public the catharsis it demanded, choosing instead to write his typically icy introductions to new editions of his wife's work. But these 88 poems are proof that Hughes did indeed endure a catharsis, albeit privately. Birthday Letters reveals that Hughes, who died last fall at the age of 68, was very much human after all.

Hughes was himself to blame for the cold portrait he presented to the public. He chose to live in seclusion. He did not grant interviews. He appointed his sister, Olwyn Hughes, as gate-keeper to himself and to Plath's works (Ted Hughes controlled every word of Plath's oeuvre). Olwyn's legendary temperament hasn't helped matters, earning her the reputation of a Cerberus set to harry the heels of potential Plath biographers. It is also well known that while Plath was home with her gas cooker, Hughes was off with his mistress. Hughes-bashers also like to point out that Hughes allowed The Bell Jar to be published posthumously in the U.S. because he needed money to buy a third house. Total up these actions and one begins to understand why the followers of St. Sylvia the martyr have tried to scratch the Hughes name from Plath's headstone in Yorkshire on three separate occasions.

Luckily, the public has an insatiable appetite not only for catharsis but also for redemption (just consider the resurgence of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry).

Hughes's reputation, for better or worse, is in the midst of being redeemed. In 1980 he was named Poet Laureate of England, a position he held until his death. After five biographies that have fingered Hughes as the bad guy, Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman strives mightily to restore Hughes to a position of honor. Malcolm goes so far as to compare Hughes to Prometheus, "whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes [also] has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists." And now, with the surprise publication of Birthday Letters , Hughes's redemption is nearly complete.

The 88 free-verse poems of this collection trace the arc of Hughes and Plath's tempestuous relationship. The book begins with a poem inspired by a photograph that Hughes had seen in a newspaper in 1956 of that year's Fulbright scholars. Plath was among those pictured. Hughes realizes the enormous strength in small moments. He remembers a night during their courtship when, arriving at Plath's window late at night, he throws clods of dirt at the panes, trying to wake her ("Aiming to find you, and missing, and again missing"). On their marriage day, it is Plath's gown that Hughes remembers -- the pink wool knitted dress -- in the poem of the same title.

In Birthday Letters , Hughes seems to make an effort to remove every trace of poetic convention from his verse. The poems aren't preoccupied with rhyme and meter but are rough on the surface. "Maybe I noticed you," he writes of his young self looking at that photograph of Fulbright scholars. "Maybe I weighed you up." You can see from these lines that Hughes isn't interested in prosody so much as he is in keeping the voice credible and getting the details right.

Plath fans can also bear witness to Hughes's unique perspective on many of her infamous preoccupations, including her father ("Til your real target / Hid behind me. Your Daddy / The god with the smoking gun") and her private fears ("The dark ate at you. And the fear of being crushed. A huge machine").

Still, other poems ironically fulfill our expectations about Hughes. In "Fate Playing," Hughes tells a story about an incident where Plath had come to meet him at a bus station. When Hughes doesn't arrive on the designated bus (he has taken a train instead), Plath goes into a frenzy, scrambling across London, searching for him. Isn't this what the reader expected all along? A portrait of Plath going berserk, contrasted with a calm Hughes, sitting comfortably on a train, both on an inevitable collision course? And when Hughes writes, "There I knew what it was/To be a miracle," after his reunion with an overjoyed Plath, the reader thinks, "Oh no." Despite the powerful frankness of Birthday Letters , and despite the glimpse readers have been allowed into the private life of one of the most famous literary marriages in history, we cannot forget that it is still Hughes who is in complete control.

--Scott C. Jones

Michiko Kakutani
Most of the poems in Birthday Letters have a wonderful immediacy and tenderness that's new to Mr. Hughes's writing, a tenderness that enables him to communicate Plath's terrors as palpably as her own verse, and to convey his own lasting sense of loss and grief.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kept under tight wraps by the terms attached to a high-priced serialization in the London Times as well as by Hughes's notorious secrecy, the British Poet Laureate's collection of verse-letters to Sylvia Plath is already being heralded as one of the century's literary landmarks. The legend that has grown up around Plath, her poems, her life with Hughes and her suicide in 1963 has been tended by several generations of devoted scholars and readers, and made all the more insurmountable by Hughes's silence on anything relating to Plath other than her work. It is thus astonishing to have this near-narrative of the entire span of their relationship, from Hughes's first glimpse of Plath in a photo of arriving Fulbright scholars, to Hughes's anguish, until now an emotion not widely credited to him, since her death. At once the record of a Yorkshireman's collision with America and American-ness ("You stayed/ Alien to me as a window model,/ American, airport-hopping superproduct") and of a baffled husband's jealousy and despair at his wife's obsessive pursuit of her dead father, the poems arc through the poet's struggles — and joy — with the facts of his younger self's married life. Even tender recollections, such as Plath reciting Chaucer to a field of cows, are tinged with foreboding or, elsewhere, with the intensity of their writing lives: "The poems, like smoking entrails,/ Came soft into your hands." Throughout, Hughes's muscular, controlled free verse, familiar from his previous collections and recent Tales from Ovid, is well suited to the task of wrestling his memory of Plath back to earth, vividly rendering their past while allowing space for a present reckoning. Hughes's occasional snipes at the Plath faithful ("And now your peanut-crunchers can stare/ At the ink stains.../ Where you engraved your letters...") may lead some to accuse him of an elaborate attempt at revisionism, at remaking Plath in his own image. But the strength of the poems simply renders the charge moot, compelling us to accept this masterwork's sincerity, depth of feeling and force of language.
Library Journal
A distinguished poet, essayist, and translator who serves as poet laureate of England, Hughes is probably still best known as the husband of Sylvia Plath. Since her suicide in 1963, he has resolutely refused to speak about her, and he has been accused of abandoning her and driving her to her death. Now, for the first time, he discusses their relationshipmost appropriately in verse. Though he describes himself and Plath as "Siamese-twinned, each of us festering / a soul-sepsis for the other," this is not a book of wrenching revelations or vigorously mounted defense; it is, rather, a painful and painstaking exploration of just what went wrong in the poets' relationship 35 years ago. In his sometimes deceptively accessible verse, Hughes moves from initial encounterlike "the first fresh peach I ever tasted" through courtship, marriage, death, and regret ("Who will remember your fingers?/Their winged life"); throughout, these aptly named "letters" — written mostly in the second-person to Plath — are filled with foreboding. In the end, Hughes comes across as neither victimizer nor victim but as an ordinary human being too dazed — or too dense? — to recognize the lightning bolt that passed through his life. Essential for all literary collections.
— Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal
A distinguished poet, essayist, and translator who serves as poet laureate of England, Hughes is probably still best known as the husband of Sylvia Plath. Since her suicide in 1963, he has resolutely refused to speak about her, and he has been accused of abandoning her and driving her to her death. Now, for the first time, he discusses their relationshipmost appropriately in verse. Though he describes himself and Plath as "Siamese-twinned, each of us festering / a soul-sepsis for the other," this is not a book of wrenching revelations or vigorously mounted defense; it is, rather, a painful and painstaking exploration of just what went wrong in the poets' relationship 35 years ago. In his sometimes deceptively accessible verse, Hughes moves from initial encounterlike "the first fresh peach I ever tasted" through courtship, marriage, death, and regret ("Who will remember your fingers?/Their winged life"); throughout, these aptly named "letters" — written mostly in the second-person to Plath — are filled with foreboding. In the end, Hughes comes across as neither victimizer nor victim but as an ordinary human being too dazed — or too dense? — to recognize the lightning bolt that passed through his life. Essential for all literary collections.
— Barbara Hoffert
Katha Pollitt
[An] emotional direct, regretful, entranced [tone] pervades the book's strongest poems, which are quiet and thoughtful and conversational.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374525811
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/30/1999
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 343,254
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ted Hughes died in October 1998, having received acclaim in the last year of his life: the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize for Tales from Ovid, the Forward Prize for Birthday Letters, and the British Order of Merit. He was Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II.

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Read an Excerpt

This Reader’s Guide is meant to help you think and talk about Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. The new book by Britain’s Poet Laureate has been twenty-five years in the writing and has been acclaimed as the consummate achievement of his career. In it critics have discerned the qualities for which Hughes is famous-powerful metaphorical language, an unparalleled eye for the natural and animal worlds, and a tragic vision that owes as much to Darwin and D.H. Lawrence as it does to Aeschylus or Sophocles. But Birthday Letters also represents a radical departure, for its eighty-eight poems are more accessible, more emotionally resonant, more dramatic and personally revealing than any Hughes has written before. "Reading it," poet and biographer Andrew Motion remarks in The Sunday Times of London, "is like being hit by a thunderbolt . . . There is nothing like it in literature" (January 17, 1998).

As anyone who has skimmed the voluminous press coverage already knows, Birthday Letters is Hughes’s account of his marriage to Sylvia Plath, which began as a love match between two gifted and ambitious young poets and ended with Plath’s suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty, after Hughes had left her for another woman. The book thus makes up the untold portion of one of the great tragic love stories of our time, one so laden with myth and acrimony that at times it resembles a post-feminist Romeo and Juliet. Up until now we knew that story only as it had been related by Plath herself, in Ariel, the book of poems published after her death, and by her biographers and hagiographers. The latter have cast Plath as a literary saint and martyr, driven to kill herself by her husband’s faithlessness and then silenced by his stringent control over her papers. Hughes’s refusal to discuss his first wife publicly, or to assist the inquiries of most journalists and scholars, has left this version of the Plath legend virtually unchallenged.

With Birthday Letters, Hughes does not so much dispel the myth as compose one of his own. "It is only a story," he writes. "Your story. My story" ("Visit"). Although he sometimes addresses his and Plath’s children (to whom he also dedicates the book) and, in at least one instance, the more fanatical of Plath’s champions, Hughes’s story is aimed primarily to Sylvia Plath herself: Plath the poet, whose lines he often echoes and whose themes he reworks or resets as one resets a watch when traveling into another time zone; and Plath the woman he loved and to all appearances has not ceased loving thirty-six years after he left her. It is a complex love, an amalgam of passion, tenderness, respect, and awe, along with anger, frustration, pity, and despair, and its complexity makes Birthday Letters more convincing than any straightforward elegy would be. Among Hughes’s signal accomplishments in this book is the way he compresses all the emotional anarchy of the conjugal bond into his account of his own marriage. He has endowed that account with a narrative momentum that has been largely absent from English-language poetry since the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and T. S. Eliot. And Hughes has conjured up Plath, his subject and antagonist, with an immediacy that makes us feel that he is addressing someone who has just walked out of the room-and that he may still be waiting for her to answer him.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

A Short Film

It was not meant to hurt.
It had been made for happy remembering
By people who were still too young
To have learned about memory.

Now it is a dangerous weapon, a time-bomb.
Which is a kind of body-bomb, long-term, too.
Only film, a few frames of you skipping, a few seconds.
You aged about ten there, skipping and still skipping.

Not very clear grey, made out of mist and smudge.
This thing has a fine fuse, less a fuse
Than a wavelength attuned, an electronic detonator
To what lies in your grave inside us.

And how that explosion would hurt
Is not just an idea of horror but a flash of fine sweat
Over the skin-surface, a bracing of nerves
For something that has already happened.

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

 

This Reader’s Guide is meant to help you think and talk about Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. The recent book by Britain’s late Poet Laureate was twenty-five years in the writing and was acclaimed as the consummate achievement of his career. In it critics discerned the qualities for which Hughes was famous—powerful metaphorical language, an unparalleled eye for the natural and animal worlds, and a tragic vision that owes as much to Darwin and D.H. Lawrence as it does to Aeschylus or Sophocles. But Birthday Letters also represents a radical departure, for its eighty-eight poems are more accessible, more emotionally resonant, more dramatic and personally revealing than any Hughes had written before. “Reading it,” poet and biographer Andrew Motion remarked in The Sunday Times of London, “is like being hit by a thunderbolt . . . There is nothing like it in literature” (January 17, 1998).

As anyone who has skimmed the voluminous press coverage knows, Birthday Letters is Hughes’s account of his marriage to Sylvia Plath, which began as a love match between two gifted and ambitious young poets and ended with Plath’s suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty, after Hughes had left her for another woman. The book thus makes up the untold portion of one of the great tragic love stories of our time, one so laden with myth and acrimony that at times it resembles a post-feminist Romeo and Juliet. Up until now we knew that story only as it had been related by Plath herself, in Ariel, the book of poems published after her death, and by her biographers and hagiographers. The latter have cast Plath as a literary saint and martyr, driven to kill herself by her husband’s faithlessness and then silenced by his stringent control over her papers. Hughes’s refusal to discuss his first wife publicly, or to assist the inquiries of most journalists and scholars, left this version of the Plath legend virtually unchallenged for three decades.

With Birthday Letters, Hughes does not so much dispel the myth as compose one of his own. “It is only a story,” he writes. “Your story. My story” (“Visit”). Although he sometimes addresses his and Plath’s children (to whom he also dedicates the book) and, in at least one instance, the more fanatical of Plath’s champions, Hughes’s story is aimed primarily to Sylvia Plath herself: Plath the poet, whose lines he often echoes and whose themes he reworks or resets as one resets a watch when traveling into another time zone; and Plath the woman he loved and to all appearances has not ceased loving thirty-six years after he left her. It is a complex love, an amalgam of passion, tenderness, respect, and awe, along with anger, frustration, pity, and despair, and its complexity makes Birthday Letters more convincing than any straightforward elegy would be. Among Hughes’s signal accomplishments in this book is the way he compresses all the emotional anarchy of the conjugal bond into his account of his own marriage. He has endowed that account with a narrative momentum that has been largely absent from English-language poetry since the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and T. S. Eliot. And Hughes has conjured up Plath, his subject and antagonist, with an immediacy that makes us feel that he is addressing someone who has just walked out of the room—and that he may still be waiting for her to answer him.

 

About the Marriage

 

When Ted Hughes met Sylvia Plath at a party in Cambridge in 1956, she was a twenty-fouryear-

old Fulbright Scholar at Newnham College, a tense, lovely girl with long American legs and a small scar on her face. The tall, dourly handsome Hughes, Plath wrote, was “the only man I’ve met yet here who’d be strong enough to be equal with” (Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, p. 36). Their attraction was immediate and volcanic. Their first kiss ended with Plath biting Hughes on the cheek so hard that she drew blood. “The swelling ringmoat of tooth-marks,” he writes in “St Botolph’s,” “. . . was to brand my face for the next month. The me beneath it for good” (p. 15).

Four months after their first meeting, Hughes and Plath were married. While she completed the second year of her Fulbright, he taught at a secondary school in Cambridge. The following year they moved to Boston, not far from where Plath had grown up and gone to college. Plath taught at Smith College and studied poetry with Robert Lowell. Hughes got a teaching job at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They traveled in the United States and Europe and in 1959 returned to England. In 1960 they had their first child, a girl named Frieda Rebecca. A son, Nicholas Farrer, was born in 1962.

Although Plath’s first book of poems, The Colossus, was published in 1960, in those years Hughes was the public partner in their marriage. He wrote tirelessly, courting his muse with everything from astrology to Jungian psychology. Plath had not yet found the voice that would burst forth triumphantly and alarmingly in her last book, Ariel. She was haunted, groping, and unstable, bitterly obsessed by her father, a German-born entomologist who had died when she was eight. The scar that Hughes had so tenderly remarked was the souvenir of an earlier suicide attempt. Plath recorded that attempt and her ensuing confinement in a psychiatric hospital in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel that was published in England in 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

By then the marriage was over. In 1962 Hughes had left Plath for another poet, Assia Wevill. In February 1963 Plath killed herself by putting her head in a gas oven while her two children slept. She had sealed their bedroom against gas fumes and left milk and bread for them to find when they awoke (Malcolm, The Silent Woman, p. 7). In the years that followed—particularly after the posthumous publication of Ariel—Plath became a tragic icon for a generation of women, while Hughes was recast as the ogre in their fairy tale. Plath’s advocates denounced Hughes as a murderer. (He had married Wevill, who killed herself and their daughter in 1969, employing the same method that Plath had used.) His readings were disrupted by angry demonstrators. Hughes’s name has been repeatedly chipped off Plath’s gravestone (Sarah Lyall, “A Divided Response to Hughes Poems,” The New York Times, January 27, 1998).

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2003

    True and painfully beautifully poetry

    Despite the sense I have that as a human being Ted Hughes truly was not alright in his relation to his then wife, I found these poems ( when I understood them,or felt I sensed their meaning ) powerful and beautiful. I feel in writing these poems he went to the heart of his relationship with her, and the heart of his own life experience. His gift as a poet is great, and it is in the music of his poetry also. There is a richness of experience and of its transmission in feeling in language. The pity and the pain are here so deeply intertwined that the reader cannot help but being moved by this work. It raises again as does so much great literary work( I think of Dostoevsky) the question of the contradiction between the personal morality and life of the creator and the greatness of the creation, the apparent injustice in this fact that it is such a troubling and tormenting soul which brings forth great work. In any case those who love poetry in the English language would do well to read this work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2002

    A BEAUTIFUL BOOK

    Since Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, Ted Hughes had been unfairly demonized by Plath's largely feminist following as an unfaithful domineering bully who allegedly drove his wife over the edge. To his credit, Hughes had always kept a dignified distance from his detractors. He finally broke his silence shortly before his own death in 1998 with this beautiful collection of poems which appear in chronological order as letters of reminiscence about their life together, written in reply to Sylvia Plath's published diary account of their marriage. You only have to read Birthday Letters in conjunction with the Journals of Sylvia Plath to realise how deeply Ted Hughes loved and missed his first wife. Touching and heartbreakingly sad, and very moving.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2000

    for the lover of sylvia plath

    a deep look into the life of sylvia plath and how she affected her husband, ted hughes.

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