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A Portrait of Plath in Poetry for Its Own Sake

Critic: Michiko Kakutani

Source: "A Portrait of Plath in Poetry for Its Own Sake," in The New York Times Book
Review, February 13, 1998.
Criticism about: Ted Hughes Birthday Letters
No literary couple has been so mythologized as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. In
her own fierce, slashing poems, Plath dramatized herself as a terror-stricken victim, a
doomed Electra, a ''Lady Lazarus,'' eating ''men like air,'' and she depicted her husband
alternately as her ''savior,'' as her ''muse and god-creator'' and as her ''jailer'' and
betrayer. In the years since her death--in 1963, she stuck her head inside her kitchen
oven and turned on the gas--feminist critics have canonized Plath as a martyr while
reviling Mr. Hughes as a villain: the callous husband, who left her for another woman,
the ogre who drove her to suicide and took over her literary estate in an effort to shape
her memory.
Throughout all this, Mr. Hughes has remained silent, turning aside inquiries
from biographers and reporters while editing posthumous collections of Plath's various
writings. With Birthday Letters, his astonishing new volume of poems, he finally
shatters that silence, giving us an extraordinarily intimate portrait of their relationship,
from their first meeting in 1956 through their marriage and her suicide.
Written over the last few decades, the poems seem remarkably free of self-pity,
score-settling and spin; rather, they draw a deeply affecting portrait of the couple's
marriage while attesting to Mr. Hughes's own impassioned love for Plath. Poems,
however, are not biography, and these should not be read simply for the light they shed
on the Hughes-Plath relationship. They should be read because they constitute the
strongest, most emotionally tactile work of Mr. Hughes's career.
Urgent, tensile and harrowing, these poems recapitulate all the major themes that
have animated Mr. Hughes's earlier work--violence, death and survival, a Darwinian
view of nature, a Hobbesian view of the world--while revealing just how rooted this
appetite, in Helen Vendler's words, "for naming and ornamenting disaster'' was in his
own experience of life. At the same time, the poems in Birthday Letters evince a new
directness and vulnerability. Burned free of the detachment, condescension and
contrivance that cramped much of his earlier work, they dazzle not only with verbal
dexterity but also with clear-hearted emotion. They are clearly the work of a poet
writing out of the deepest core of his being.
Almost every poem in the volume is written as a letter addressed directly to
Plath, and many allude to Plath's own favorite images (the sun, the moon, the sea) and
her vocabulary as a poet. In fact, one of the things that is so fascinating about Birthday
Letters is how persuasively Mr. Hughes grapples with the memory of his former wife,
both with his own remembrances of their experiences together (their wedding, their
honeymoon, a trip to the United States, the birth of their two children) and with the
mythologized versions of those experiences as they have come down to us in Plath's
own poems, journals and letters.
Mr. Hughes gives us his own version of the first kiss famously mythologized by
Plath ("he kissed me bang smash on the mouth . . . And when he kissed my neck I bit
him long and hard on the cheek''). He remembers her eyes, "a crush of diamonds,
incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears,'' and her tooth marks that were "to brand my
face for the next month./The me beneath it for good.'' He conjures her up on their
wedding day, ''so slender and new and naked,/A nodding spray of wet lilac.'' And he

describes her "exaggerated American/Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the
As Plath's own writings attest, there were at least two faces she showed to the
world: the sunlit American girl, a straight-A student, the picture of friskiness and
vitality and ambition; and the shadow side, the haunted woman, trapped in a bell jar,
plagued by nighttime terrors and quickening rages, and drawn ineluctably, like
Persephone, toward an underworld of despair and death. Mr. Hughes gives us both
Plaths: the magical, kinetic girl he fell in love with and the sad, frightened woman he
felt he could no longer reach.
Mr. Hughes, for his part, plays Ferdinand to her Miranda, and later Leonard to
her Virginia. He feels unworthy marrying her, "the Swineherd/Stealing this daughter's
pedigreed dreams/From under her watchtowered searchlit future,'' but embraces their
marriage as a fated match dangling the promise of Edenic bliss.
There are quick, bright snapshots of their very ordinary happiness -- playing at
being tourists in Paris, setting up house together, picking daffodils in the garden--but
there are hints, too, of strain and stress. The pressure of living with another poet--all that
observing and annotating, all that extrapolating of the ordinary into metaphor--begins to
take a toll.
We see in these poems, as we saw in Plath's most famous "Ariel'' poems, Plath's
growing obsession with her father, Otto, who died when she was 8, and we are also
made to feel Mr. Hughes's own growing sense of helplessness, his inability to save or
soothe his wife. In "The Table,'' he writes, "I wanted to make you a solid writingtable/That would last a lifetime'' but found instead that he had "made and fitted a
door/Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave.'' In poem after poem, Otto is
depicted as the Minotaur, a rough, dark beast waiting to snatch Plath away from
happiness and youth, while Plath, in turn, is seen as a maiden, intent on entering his
labyrinth and meeting her self-appointed fate.
There are verses in this volume where Mr. Hughes's penchant for parables and
animal metaphors can feel forced: especially strained is one poem that tries to find an
omen of the author's marriage in his encounter with a wounded bat. These, however, are
the exceptions. 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.
"But then I sat, stilled,'' he writes, ''Unable to fathom what stilled you/ As I
looked at you, as I am stilled/ Permanently now, permanently/ Bending so briefly at
your open coffin.''
Source Citation: Kakutani, Michiko, "A Portrait of Plath in Poetry for Its Own Sake," in
The New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1998. DISCovering Authors. Online
Edition. Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 05 February 2006