Ted Hughes is perhaps best known for being the husband of Sylvia Plath. He’s sort of the Yoko Ono of the poetry world. For 35 years after Plath’s suicide, Hughes said nothing of the relationship, and many a feminist accused of him of driving his wife to kill herself (the fact that his second wife also killed herself didn’t help his case). He broke his silence three months before his death, knowing he was terminally ill, and published “Birthday Letters.”
In short, this work is amazing.
I’ve never read a more palpable confirmation of love. It fulfills one tenet of great literature in being shockingly sincere.
Of course the paparazzi behind their relationship makes their relationship highly visible to contemporary readers. Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the 2003 film “Sylvia.” Lady Gaga references Plath in “Dancer in the Dark.” Psychology majors may have heard of the “Sylvia Plath Effect.”
The couple was attractive, ambitious, and well connected. The persona amplifies the reader’s feeling, but even if we knew nothing about their relationship, formally, this is a powerful book.
The first poem begins where their relationship did, in college. Hughes was a Fulbright scholar from England when he met Plath in Boston.
“Birthday Letters” is more of a narrative than a collection of poems with loosely related themes. The theme is Plath, and his retrospective evaluation of what happened during their eight years of marriage.
The poems tell how they travel the world. She loved Paris but hated Spain, where he felt at home. They do cool things. She cities Chaucer to a herd of cows, they visit the home of Emily Bronte, they’re caught in a storm near Cape Cod.
Hughes was fascinated with America. He pairs deep emotions with products like Nescafe and Kleenex. Remembering his honeymoon with Plath, he writes, “you were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish./ You were a new world. My new world./ So this is America, I marveled. Beautiful, beautiful America!”
If pages were to reflect the time required for a bit of comprehension, “Birthday Letters” would be 600—not 200, pages. Not that the language is complex—for poetry it’s rather straight-forward, and you’d get a lot from just one reading. But Hughes is so subtle and rich that should you spend some time reading the poem again, your reward is inevitable.
Here is an excerpt of a poem that exemplifies most of “Birthday Letters.” Good to know going into this that “Daddy” refers to Plath’s most famous poem of the same title.
The Shot (excerpt)
Till your real target
Hid behind me. Your Daddy
The god with the smoking gun. For a long time
Vague as mist, I did not even know
I had been hit,
Or that you had gone clean through me—
To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.
In my position, the right witchdoctor
Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,
Godless, happy, quieted.
A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.