‘I was there, I saw it’

Ian Sansom

  • Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 198 pp, £14.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 571 19472 9

Captain Hook, ‘cadaverous and blackavised’, ‘never more sinister than when he is most polite’, lives in fear of the crocodile who ate his arm and swallowed a clock. ‘That crocodile,’ Hook announces in Act II of Peter Pan, ‘would have had me before now, but … before he can reach me I hear the tick and bolt.’ ‘Some day,’ retorts the bespectacled boatswain Smee, ‘the clock will run down, and then he’ll get you.’ In the end, of course, time runs out for the dastardly Hook. Ted Hughes makes use of the story in his poem ‘Tick Tock Tick Tock’, from Remains of Elmet (1979), though with two important differences: the timepiece is now alarmed, and it’s Peter who’s in danger.

Somebody else acted Peter Pan.
I swallowed an alarm clock
And over the school playground’s macadam
Crawled from prehistory towards him
Tick Tock Tick Tock the crocodile.

The poem’s speaker crawls forward towards the boy who would not grow up, time-bomb ticking inside. In Birthday Letters, one might say, the alarm has finally gone off.

There is no doubt that Hughes knows how to make a ‘heroic bang’, to borrow a phrase from his early poem ‘Famous Poet’, and that this did not go unnoticed by the gamine Sylvia Plath, who records being mesmerised, both by Hughes as a person and by his work. On 3 May 1956 she wrote to her mother to tell her that ‘Ted has written many virile, deep banging poems,’ and in her journal, describing their first meeting, she remembered: ‘And I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then kissed me bang smash on the mouth.’ The melodramatic publication of Birthday Letters has had exactly that kind of bang-smash, explosive effect, as Hughes presumably expected and desired (the jacket reproduces a painting by the poets’ daughter Frieda Hughes, of what looks like a lava-flow, a bubbling eruption of red and yellow on a background of blue and green). The great roar and hiss of publicity surrounding the book will soon subside – sufficient unto the day the newspaper thereof. But the shockwaves emanating from the poems themselves will be felt for some time.

The poems in Birthday Letters are ostensibly addressed to Plath. We already know the facts about Plath’s life with Hughes, and about her death by suicide in 1963. Or at least we think we do, since it is ‘the facts’ of the relationship that have often been in dispute between Hughes and various biographers and critics. ‘I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life,’ Hughes wrote in 1989, in another troublesome exchange of letters about his handling of the Plath estate. But like most of us, Hughes does not, in fact, own the ‘facts’ of his life, or of Plath’s: some of us might be said to be self-possessed, but none of us is in full possession of facts about ourselves beyond our reported date of birth, and – if we’re lucky – our parentage. In an essay in 1967 Hughes stated that ‘the struggle truly to possess his own experience, in other words to regain his genuine self, has been man’s principal occupation … ever since he first grew this enormous surplus of brain.’ Birthday Letters shows Hughes using his considerable brain-surplus in an attempt to possess, or re-possess, his own experience. The book has a clear and practical purpose – correcting distortions, setting the record straight, putting right the gossips and the speculators, the detractors and the critics – and it will have numerous consequences for readers of poetry. But it is by no means a final statement of ‘fact’.

The ‘birthday’ of the book’s title seems to allude to those poems by Plath – ‘Morning Song’, ‘Stillborn’, ‘A Birthday Present’, ‘Three Women’, ‘Poem for a Birthday’ – in which birth is used as a metaphor for artistic creation and the birthday as a reminder and sign of self-renewal. The long, seven-part ‘Poem for a Birthday’ (1959) is undoubtedly crucial to Hughes’s schematic interpretation of Plath’s work, in which the Ariel poems figure as the pinnacle of her poetic achievement. In the Introduction to his edition of Plath’s Collected Poems (1981), Hughes says that he regards ‘Poem for a Birthday’ as a metaphorical record of the ‘first real breakthrough’ in her writing. Plath herself noted of the poem in her journal: ‘Ambitious seeds of a long poem made up of separate sections. Poem on her birthday. To be a dwelling on madhouse, nature: meanings of tools, greenhouses, florists’ shops, tunnels, vivid and disjointed. An adventure. Never over. Developing Rebirth. Despair. Old women. Block it out.’ Birthday Letters, too, might be regarded as a long poem in separate sections, recording a never-ending ‘adventure’ and a dwelling on madhouse, nature, tunnels, rebirth, despair and old (dead) women, and to this extent might be read as a response to Plath’s birthday poems. Indeed, by far the most disturbing poem in a book full of disturbing poems is ‘Suttee’, Hughes’s record of Plath’s terrible rebirth as a poet, in which he rewrites Southwell’s Christmas Day poem ‘The Burning Babe’, substituting Plath for the fiery Christ Child, a ‘Babe of dark flames and screams’, and figuring himself as a Frankensteinian midwife, delivering an ‘explosion/Of screams’ and then being ‘dissolved’, washed away in scorching fluid, ‘engulfed/ In a flood, a dam-burst thunder/Of new myth’. The flaming newborn Plath, ‘child-bride/On a pyre’ feeds on tears, rage, love and ‘cries for help’. The poem concludes with

Both of us consumed
By the old child in the new birth …
Babe of dark flames and screams
That sucked the oxygen out of both of us.

‘Suttee’ is not the only poem in Birthday Letters in which Hughes alludes to, confronts, contradicts or otherwise engages with Plath’s poetry; as ‘letters’, many of the poems function as replies. It has always been possible, and been thought instructive (despite Plath’s warning that ‘we write poems that are as distinct and different as our fingerprints themselves must be’), to read the two poets’ works off against each other, to search for tell-tale marks of one on the other – from school-childish cross-referencings of Plath’s ‘Sow’ and Hughes’s ‘View of a Pig’ to student-efficient studies of Plath’s influence on the psychodrama of Crow (1970) and on to full-scale grad-style crypto-biographical readings of ‘Song of a Rat’ and ‘The Howling of Wolves’ and ‘Skylarks’ – but these new poems offer fresh opportunities for rereading, counter-reading and misreading of an entirely different order.

Up until now readers of the poetry have been unwelcome spectators of the relationship – peering over Hughes’s shoulder, furiously reading between the lines of the poems with one eye, squinting at Plath’s private journals and letters with the other, straining to hear the buzz of tittle-tattle and rumour. In Birthday Letters Hughes shrugs off his irritation with the peepers and spies and turns round to face us. This is no snatched glimpse at private correspondence; if anything, it’s more like a mail-shot, or a press release: coming out of the blue and serialised in the cut-price Times, it is explicit, unapologetic and unashamed. These are public poems: not Laureate art, like the poems in Rain-Charms for the Duchy (1992), but another kind of public art – indignant, accusatory, evangelical. The appropriate comparisons are not with Douglas Dunn’s bliss-stained spousal Elegies (1985) or Sharon Olds’s fierce and sceptical The Father (1993); Birthday Letters comes close in tone and in purpose to Auden’s public elegies for Yeats and Freud. In publishing these poems Hughes is addressing not some obscure partner in an obscure partnership, but the great mass of his own and Plath’s readers. There is to be no mystification or flim-flam: we know who he’s writing about, and what he’s writing about. He wants us to hear his side of the story.

If Birthday Letters are public replies, their tone is often one of public rebuke. In a letter to Plath’s biographer Anne Stevenson, Hughes wrote: ‘She never did anything that I held against her. The only thing that I found hard to understand was her sudden discovery of our bad moments (“;Event”, “Rabbit Catcher”) as subjects for poems.’ He now repays Plath in kind. Ten pages into the new collection, in the poem ‘Sam’, which refers back to the runaway-horse incident described in Plath’s poem ‘Whiteness I Remember’, Hughes imagines himself as the stallion and writes:

When I jumped a fence you strangled me … Flung yourself off and under my feet to trip me
And tripped me and lay dead. Over in a flash.

Reading this account of a trampling throws a new light on Plath’s remarks about ‘The boot in the face’ in ‘Daddy’ and the ‘crunch of my man’s boot’ in ‘Ode for Ted’. The boot, it seems, was on the other foot.

Another of the new poems, ‘The Earthenware Head’, coolly deflates Plath’s poem ‘The Lady and the Earthenware Head’, criticising her compositional methods as strategies of evasion:

You ransacked thesaurus in your poem about it,
Veiling its mirror, rhyming yourself into safety…

A lot of the poems in Birthday Letters set about an unveiling of Plath’s real, hidden or other self. (In his Foreword to Plath’s Journals, published in the US in 1982, Hughes claimed that ‘though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody – except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.’) In ‘Trophies’ Hughes refines and refutes Plath’s famous poem ‘Pursuit’ (‘There is a panther stalks me down’), claiming that he, too, was pursued. In ‘Black Coat’ he responds sharply to Plath’s ‘Man in Black’ (‘I had no idea I had stepped/ Into the telescopic sights/Of the paparazzo sniper/Nested in your brown iris’). The list goes on: a prosaic poem, ‘Ouija’, contrasts with Plath’s aureate poem of the same name; ‘The Owl’ offers up the story behind ‘Owl’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ comments on ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ on ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ etc. In ‘Remission’ Hughes even sets about the task of reclaiming his children:

In a free-floating crib, an image that sneezed
And opened a gummed mouth and started to cry.
I was there, I saw it.

The last sentence might stand as epigraph to the book.

As Hughes’s critical engagement with Plath’s poems suggests, there is nothing simply sentimental or nostalgic about Birthday Letters. In fact, a lot of it is pretty unpleasant. It’s bad enough at the best of times to be a witness to other people’s arguments, like being sprayed with muck, or tasting someone else’s phlegm (an experience that Hughes knows only too well: in ‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’, he writes of those who ‘Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,/ Into your morning coffee’). Distilled into poetry, the concoction of passion and dispute is particularly hard to swallow. But then one of Hughes’s great strengths is that he does not sweeten, and he often makes his readers gulp.

None of the new poems is sugared with affection; Hughes renders very precisely what Janet Malcolm has called Plath’s ‘not-niceness’. In the opening poem, ‘Fulbright Scholars’, Hughes remembers disinterestedly surveying Plath’s photograph, her grin false ‘for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners’. A set of distances is immediately established – and the distances are measured: between Hughes and Plath, Plath and her ‘true’ self, Plath and her public. The first line of the poem puts the seemingly unimportant question, ‘Where was it, in the Strand?’, which establishes another crucial distance, between Hughes and his memories. All this gives the poet room to manoeuvre, scope to view Plath, for example, with impunity as a ‘Baby monkey’, with ‘monkey-elegant fingers’, her face ‘a tight ball of joy’, at best like a Cabbage-Patch doll, eyes ‘Squeezed in your face’, at worst completely formless, ‘A spirit mask transfigured every moment/In its own seance’, ‘a prototype face’, ‘molten’, unreal, ‘never a face in itself’, a ‘stage’. Even in passion and close proximity, in ‘18 Rugby Street’, Plath’s body becomes a continent (‘So this is America, I marvelled’), and in ‘9 Willow Street’, a machine (‘My bubbles/Wobbled upwards and burst emptily/In the reverberations of the turbines/Home and College had assembled in you’).

At the same time, Plath is portrayed as a lively and enthusiastic director of her own drama. Hughes complains in the poem ‘Visit’,

Nor did I know I was being auditioned
For the male lead in your drama …
As if a puppet were being tried on its strings,
Or a dead frog’s legs touched by electrodes.

confirming exactly what the speaker in Plath’s poem ‘Soliloquy of the Solipsist’ long ago said about herself: ‘my look’s leash/Dangles the puppet-people’. Much of the book describes Hughes’s being stunned, trapped and manipulated by Plath the puppet-master. About the famous first meeting, in ‘St Botolph’s’, he writes, ‘You meant to knock me out,’ and speaks of being branded and, not unhappily, identified by Plath’s vampiric kiss/bite:

And the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks
That was to brand my face for the next month.
The me beneath it for good.

In ‘The Shot’ Plath is compared to a ‘high-velocity bullet’, ‘gold-jacketed, solid silver,/ Nickel-tipped’, powering through the air; Hughes is ‘hit’. He is under attack again in ‘18 Rugby Street’; and in ‘The Machine’ he is ‘yawned’ into Plath’s dark ‘otherworld interior’, where, again, not without pleasure and relief, he finds his home, his children and his life.

There is no doubt that the voice in some of these poems is disturbingly like that of the hungry deity described in Stevie Smith’s great poem, ‘God the Eater’, consuming ‘Everything I have been and have not been … Eating my life all up’. But the charge of rapaciousness is an occupational hazard of the elegist. A more serious objection might be that in suggesting that fate and supernatural forces determined the course of his relationship with Plath and impelled her towards her end, Hughes is being evasive or is simply wrong. He makes it clear from the beginning of Birthday Letters that he regards the relationship as one of mythic and epic proportions; a terrible drama of misrecognition; a tragedy. In ‘Fulbright Scholars’ he eats a peach as bitter-sweet as the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.
I could hardly believe how delicious.
At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh
By my ignorance of the simplest things.

The couple then fall through the poems, deep into labyrinths, catacombs and temple crypts, with Hughes in the darkness often mistaken by Plath for her father. In the complicated symbolism of the book Plath is a priestess, a dybbuk, Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin; her mother is a kraken, an unnamed rival, a ‘Lilith of abortions’, while Hughes is ‘Not quite the Frog-Prince. Maybe the Swineherd’, and there is a vast supporting cast of ogres, genies and demon slaves. There is more than one reference to the Titanic. In ‘Fidelity’, Hughes remembers two temptresses, one ‘stark naked beside me’, the other who ‘Did all she could to get me inside her’, and he writes of sacrificing them, ‘Lifting/Each of those naked girls … I laid them/Under the threshold of our unlikely future.’ The marriage ceremony described in ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ is like a cross between the Transfiguration and a painting by Chagall: Plath, ‘Brimming with God’, ‘saw the heavens open’, while Hughes ‘levitated’ beside her. Fate continually overrules these star-crossed lovers, and when they seek knowledge of their future from oracles, ouija and astrology, that knowledge is a fatal gift:

Maybe you’d picked up a whisper that I could not,
Before our glass could stir, some still small voice:
‘Fame will come. Fame especially for you.
Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes
You will have paid for it with your happiness,
Your husband and your life.’

Hughes has a great spiritual imagination – he is truly a visionary and a modern primitive – but as Marianne Moore remarked, ‘one cannot discern forces by which one is not oneself unconsciously animated,’ and it is sometimes difficult for the merely orthodox in belief or for the sceptic to accept that he is sincere in all his confusing talk of omens and spirits. To its credit, Birthday Letters doesn’t go in for sentimental moralising, but it does open itself up to a kind of sentimental mysticism, which is just as bad. Plath and Hughes, it seems necessary to insist, were not ‘destined’ to meet, or ‘destined’ for anything.

Readers should not be fooled into thinking that Birthday Letters, for all its detailed and intense rendering of an extraordinary relationship, will tell them much more about it than they knew already. Indeed, it seems possible that there is another purpose to the book, aside from the obvious; Hughes’s big bang may be a distraction. Robert Frost once confided to his friend Sidney Cox that ‘I have written to keep the over-curious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters to such as you.’ With his verse and his letters it may be that Hughes, too, has satisfied the over-curious, and kept the secret places to himself.