Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Birthday Letters

Book CoverBirthday Letters by Ted Hughes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 208 pages.
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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.If the movie "Groundhog Day" had a true-to-life model protagonist, it would have had to have been the recently deceased English Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. Having in as many years authored more than forty volumes of verse, translation, belles lettres and critical prose, his was a life that but for one fateful star-crossing managed to ostensibilize the very trauma of uneventfulness marking many a writer's existence beyond the pale of literature. But such traumas, while painful to endure, are not in themselves the sort of nightmare endlessly relived by Bill Murray in the film whose core ritual is entrapment within an eternal recurrence that owes its slapstick to Beckett and its nosology to Nietzsche. Ted Hughes got to live--or relive--the real thing, from February 11, 1963, the date his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide, leaving him to care for their two small children, until the day of his own death, approximately thirty-five years later.
              Now, a certain jokiness (or irony, to make it seem a little less Bill Murray-ish) adheres to any trafficking the gods have with mortals; and Hughes, having translated Ovid's Metamorphoses, might well have arrived at a similar perception himself--or even perhaps been drawn to this Roman descent into the grand guignol precisely because he, more than almost anyone else, had occasion to know the repercussions of god-slight at first hand. If Nietzsche too wrestled the demons of yea and nay to a draw, his attempts to genealogize evenhandedness into the Punxatawny philology of eternal recurrence ended, as everyone knows, in terror at the sight of his own shadow. While there is precious little that is funny about such travails of Untermenschlichkeit-- no one has ever accused the gods of having a politically correct sense of humor-- there is much here that brings us back to Hughes in a contemporaneously pertinent way. On February 11, 1963 the leaves of the calendar ceased falling for the poet, who at the age of 33 entered the whirlpool of ignominy or of martyrdom, depending on how one reads the entrails of l'affaire Plath from that day forward. Not to put too fine a point on it, Hughes's Groundhog Day began in earnest the very moment his wife (still then the author only of The Colossus) exceeded, whether by inadvertence or misfortune, her pre-established margin of suicidal safety and emerged, though asphyxiated beyond all hope of resuscitation, the once and future author of Ariel, that Doomsday Book whose lines etch in crematorial verse the living ash of Plath herself as burnt offering.
    
         Birthday Letters, written over a space of twenty-five years and published a year or so before Hughes's own death in 1998, executes a final lunge at the spell that settled on him and everyone close to him that fateful February in 1963. A spell that wove a conjurer's web around the critical judgment of a generation of poets, reviewers, feminist ideologues, and fellow travelers and would not lift, no matter how often subjected to the rites of rational exorcism. Which is not to say that Ariel and the last ten or twelve poems Plath wrote just before her suicide-poems like "Mystic" that cry out, "Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?"--and clearly launch a salient into Paul Celan territory--are not worthy of the fuss that's consistently been made of them since their first publication in 1965. Poems that take off like "Gigolo"--

Pocket watch, I tick well.
The streets are lizardly crevices
Sheer-sided, with holes where to hide.
It is best to meet in a cul-de-sac,
A palace of velvet
With windows of mirrors-
can count on choosing the runway they land on.

         The trouble is--or at least Hughes's trouble was--that one could search the whole of his poetic output for lines of similar charge and zappability. Certainly there were some early efforts that showed remarkable promise, such as "The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar" from his first collection The Hawk in the Rain", but what followed was more of the same within shifting panoplies of competence.
     Lupercal, Wodwo and Crow were almost unanimously ajudged solid achievements by the literary establishment whose English arm included T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Hughes's poetry was praised, perhaps too heartily, for its refusal to re-hearse the worthily embalmed corpses of revolutionary modernism, or even worse, to leap on the bandwagon either of English Angry Young Socialist blokes or of American Beat and Whitmanic-oppressive Blakes, whose mooncalf droppings were everywhere in evidence on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather his verse seemed predisposed to bypass modernism and recover the lithe and spare idiom of such pre- and anti-Moderns as Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Walter de la Mare and D. H. Lawrence and lace it with additives appropriate to a postmodern cultural scene which, having presided over the deracination of language, then proceeded to hail it as a victory for multiculturalism and democracy.
              In the meantime Hughes's reputation as a poet was locked in a symmetrical curve with the feminist rise to prominence, which meant that, like it or not, he was compelled to ride the tiger of Sylvia Plath's exponentially burgeoning fame in martyr-like fashion ass-backward. Diversification of creative activities took the place of trying to flagellate himself into ever-fresh phases of poetic development. Translations of Seneca, Wedekind, and Lorca followed cheek by jowl with bouts of literary criticism, the writing of children's books, and "occasional prose" with teasingly aggressive titles like Winter Pollen (1994), until the appointment as Poet Laureate seemed almost anti-climactic when it cleared all relevant hurdles in 1984.
    
         But enough about Hughes the Apollonian butt pursued by butch Eumenides and rubber-room wannabes. What of Hughes the fashioner of one of the more lucid and juridically circumspect indictments of blind fatality in modern literature in the form of a not infrequently jocular epitaph on the death of an emotion that took, quite literally, an age to die? Is it too much to stress the grotesquely comic nature of some of the Letters's divagations on the theme of Plath, set to rustic and even Breughelesque dancing on the page? Not when these birthday ruminations remind us that his wife in the throes of her prophetic soul was given to bovine solicitations of a sort not all that far removed from the similarly directed pastoral and love-struck ministrations of Faulkner's Ike Snopes in the novel The Hamlet:

'Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote...'

At the top of your voice, where you swayed on the top of a stile,

Your arms raised-somewhat for balance, somewhat

To hold the reins of the straining attention

Of your imagined audience-you declaimed Chaucer

To a field of cows....

         Or when describing the Cunard-like sheen of his wife at anchor, caught blindingly in the glare of the prolepsis his life was already being shaped by:

I had let it all grow.
I had supposed It was all OK.
Your life Was a liner I voyaged in.
Costly education had fitted you out.
Financiers and committees and consultants
Effaced themselves in the gleam of your finish.
You trembled with the new life of those engines.

         But of course not all is winsome or benign. There are sounds in these woods, and they range from terrible all the way to searing and never to be borne, as the poet's memories of his marriage coalesce into an overarching mantra of madness drenched in myth: 

...The moon, off her moorings,
Tossed in tempest.
Your bellowing song
Was a scream inside a bronze
Bull being roasted. The laughter
Of Sycorax was thunder and lightning
And black downpour. She hurled
Prospero's head at me. A bounding thunderbolt, a jumping cracker.
The moon's horns
Plunged and tossed. I heard your cries
Bugling through the hot bronze:
'Who has dismembered us?'...

         Much of this is good, some of it even very good. But none of it takes the top of your head off because quite frankly Hughes's gifts in these letters, though considerable, fail to accommodate the sibylline occasion they have so long been saving themselves for. Consequently, as poems they leave the reader to ponder (from the depths of a blue funk) just how roundly they fail to sound the depths of Ariel in extremis. Rather the overall effect is that of Caliban claiming (in the face of massive evidence to the contrary) an immunity to all magic that does not leave him whole and all other counter-magic unavailing. As in "Setebos," Hughes prefers the assignment of roles laid out by central casting in any version of The Tempest:

Who could play Miranda?

Only you. Ferdinand-only me,

And it was like that, yes, it was like that.

I never questioned.

Your mother Played Prospero, flying her magic in

To stage the Masque, and bless the marriage...

         While this may have been what it was like, this is not what it is like when one poetic voice tries to commandeer the reception of another-- especially when the voice under siege has already achieved translation to a further realm of accessibility and permanence. If Birthday Letters thrusts past its own gravitas and attains orbit, it will be as a Gemini flight and not as a solo tour de force. In death, as in death-in-life, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath remain visionary cell-mates joined forever at the lip-twindividuals sharing scope but not size. For Ariel and the dozen later poems put out to immortality in the Elm trump all lesser throbs and seizures, consign all lesser shades to the shade. In the keeping of an immoderate grace they will neither be shouted down nor excessively bid up. They have become conjoined, as one critic put it, as "a book unlike any other in the language: an equivocal work of genius; cunningly shaped, seemingly the long shrill cry from the white flame at the heart of the crematorium." Can a crematorium have a heart beyond that of stone? W. B. Yeats, who once occupied one of the flats in the London building Sylvia Plath died in on that February day in 1963, wrote that too much suffering can make a stone of the heart. The best--and worst--that can be said of Birthday Letters is that its discernments have but touched the stone of that suffering, wearing it slightly more smooth, more heartworn than before. Sometimes the touch of a gravestone can be healing, its lien on death a seeming amortization of fatality and indifference. Whether Hughes managed, when all is said and done, to have healed anything remains an open question, though one rendered moot by the poet's death last year. Certainly, it's hard to imagine the two children of their marriage, now both adults with doubtless a hunkered-down sense of what is heartfelt and what heartworn, arriving at a deeper understanding of what landed them, their father, and various other innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders in a most un-Bill Murrayesque reliving of Groundhog Day by spending time poring over Birthday Letters.
    
         But to expect such things of poetry, or of any work of art, is both specious and beside the point. For poetry, as Auden lectured us what now seems ages ago, makes nothing happen. At best, its memorabilities hang out with us, civilize the peripheries of those haphazardly woven emotional webs we call our selves, and allow us to move, crabwise, on to further removes of that seamlessness which is our life, together and apart. Accepting that--and how can we not?--time spent with Birthday Letters is time unlittered with the sort of regrets that only an immersion in scandal can leave us with. If indeed it was tabloid titillation that pushed the sales of Hughes's book into the ozone layer, that's too bad. But not entirely incomprehensible: you lie down with groundhogs, you wake up with fleas. And why not? Eternal recurrence is unthinkable without them: hair of the 'hog, so to speak.


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2001 Contemporary Poetry Review