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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
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
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.
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
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
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
'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.