Ted Hughes' account, in Birthday Letters, of his seven-year marriage to Sylvia Plath and of her suicide has become one of the decade's most notorious publishing events. Imagine any other current poetry title garnering The New York Times' front page, 12 pages in The New Yorker, and 10 minutes on PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Since Ted Hughes declines interviews, the coverage has speculated about why he chose to break his 30-year silence. To tell his side of the story? To answer those who criticize his role in Plath's death and his handling of her literary estate? Or simply because, as his publisher explained to The New York Times, "He felt a compulsion to write on the subject, but that the compulsion had gone, and he said all he wanted to say." Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20) Reviewers have characterized this book as the latest volley in an ongoing debate between feminist literary scholars, who question Hughes' iron control of her literary estate (he destroyed the final volumes of her journals to protect their children), and British literary colleagues, who believe the feminists victimize Hughes. Reduced to these choices, critics have simplified the theoretical issues and avoided evaluating the work's literary merits. As poet Colleen McElroy pointed out in a recent conversation, "What are these flurry of articles reviewing: his book or her death?" So: Is the book any good? That depends on how you're reading it. Because Birthday Letters provides numerous, intimate details about Plath's and Hughes' lives—the kinds of empty-calorie details about the famous that our culture feeds on—it invites evaluation as a version of those lives. (These kinds of details are nearly absent from Plath's work because she, unlike Hughes, succeeded in transmuted them into art and myth.) This invitation to read the poems as biography, not poetry, is reinforced by the book's structure. The poems are arranged chronologically and record in plodding progression the memorable events of their marriage: first lovemaking, wedding, honeymoon in Europe, year in America, trip across the West, move to Devon, birth of their children, disintegration of their marriage, her suicide, and aftermath. Within this too-lengthy narrative (cutting the book by a third would have vastly strengthened its coherence and power) are many wonderful poems and lines. Some capture the raw energy and intimacy of indelible memories of an early, passionate love affair and its disintegration. In "St. Botolph's," Hughes recounts their first meeting at a London literary party: First sight. First snapshot isolated Unalterable, stilled in the camera's glare. Taller Than ever you were again. Swaying so slender It seemed your long, perfect, American legs Simply went on up. That flaring hand, Those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers. And the face—a tight ball of joy. I see you there, clearer, more real Than in any of the years in its shadow— As if I saw you that once, then never again. The loose fall of hair—that floppy curtain Over your face, over your scar. Chronology solves two problems for Hughes. Its ready-made structure accommodates poems about Plath written over a 30-year period—eliminating the need to invent a thematic structure. And the narrative arrangement fictionalizes Plath and their relationship, yet rarely does Hughes make himself or his own personality traits the subject matter. Instead, his role in the marriage is presented as largely determined by Plath's depression. Thus, despite the apparent historicism, one feels suspect of Hughes' purpose. The poems' strength, and Hughes' poetic strength, lies in his ability to transform the personal and contemporary into myth, and mythic and literary figures into the personal. In "A Pink Wool Knitted Dress," a poem about their wedding day, he becomes a swineherd's son "stealing this daughter's pedigree dreams." Plath, the daughter, is characterized in this and other poems as what America is to England: brash, exuberant, and new. The book's predominant myth is that Hughes is Plath's temporary rescuer and an unwitting escort to her inevitable fate, a kind of deux ex machina role in which her suicide is viewed as unavoidable. . . . I deferred for a night Your panics, your fevers, your worst fear— . . . I had no idea How I was becoming necessary Or what emergency surgery Fate would make of my casual self service. (from "18 Rugby Street") In Hughes' version, what led Plath inexorably toward suicide was her unresolved relationship with her exacting Prussian father who died when she was 8. Hughes became his replacement and then an escort to her grave. He makes a writing table for her, which becomes "a door/Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave" (from "Table"). Even when he suggests that help might have foiled her suicide, he uses the term "witch doctor," which is hardly a vote of confidence in the mental health profession: In my position, the right witchdoctor Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands. (from "The Shot") Elaine Showalter, a professor of English at Princeton University, believes Hughes' "very determinist view" of Plath is a mistake: "That it was because of her father, and that she was doomed to die and there was nothing he could do to stop her. I don't believe in this kind of determinism. That is not to say that Ted Hughes drove her to suicide, but it seems to me that it was a tragic match, a very tragic romance that comes to a violent end." Presenting Plath's suicide as a fait accompli makes me question Hughes' intent: Did he seek through writing to truly understand the complexity of their relationship, or to create a fiction in which he and Plath are conjoined victims of a sealed fate? Because he so carefully constructs his case, I assume his purpose is to persuade others and free himself from any personal responsibility. Finally, the book is just too long and too lazy. While there are memorable strong poems, and while Hughes' direct, conversational style makes for quotable lines, the book contains too many flat lines and poems. The informal language is simply not up to conveying the intensity of the subject matter. We feel manipulated because Hughes does not poetically earn the sympathy his readers naturally feel when reading about Plath's life and suicide. Moreover, his repeated quotes and allusions to poems of Plath's plays on our familiarity—like a politician playing "Home Sweet Home" during a speech—and invites a comparison between their work that he would have been wiser to avoid. He ends a poem about a private celebration of what would have been Plath's 60th birthday with these clunky references: Your Daddy Laughs deep in his coffin. And the stars, Surely the stars, too, shake with laughter. And Ariel— What about Ariel? Ariel is happy to be here. Only you and I do not smile. (from "Freedom of Speech") The publication of this book follows a trend in which juicy autobiography disguised as poetry generates more attention than other types of poetry. In a twist on this formula, Plath's madness and suicide propel Hughes' mediocre work into the limelight. If this book hadn't been about Plath, few poetry readers would choose it over other recent collections, such as Derek Walcott's The Bounty, or another poem that was 30 years in the making, Thomas McGrath's "Letters to an Imaginary Friend," or sadly, Hughes' earlier and decidedly more commendable work. Emily Warn is the author of the poetry collection 'The Novice Insomniac' (Copper Canyon Press).