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Reason Anew to Reexamine the Sylvia Plath Tragedy

January 21, 1998|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Each of us was the stake

Impaling the other. We struggled

Quietly through the streets, affirming each other

Dream-maimed and dream-blind.

From "9 Willow Street" A poem by Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath included in "Birthday Letters"

It is a love story, after all.

After 35 years, dream-maimed Ted Hughes, Britain's poet laureate, has come in from the silence, his voice suffused with passion and pain.

In February 1963, his estranged American wife, Sylvia Plath, one of the century's great poets, left milk and cookies for her two children in their London apartment and stuck her head into a gas oven.

Plath, who has posthumously become an international feminist icon, was 30 when she died. Hughes has been relentlessly accused by Plath apostles of being the cause--a brutal, heartless husband living with another woman (who later also killed herself) while his wife writhed in suicidal despair.

Publicly, Hughes has never responded to condemnation that has ranged from shouts of "Murderer!" at his poetry readings to having vandals chip the name "Hughes" off Plath's gravestone in northeast England six times.

Privately, Hughes has been writing astonishing poetry addressed to Plath for decades, a celebration and a lament of the love and tempestuous union of two poets dream-blind with each other and with their art.

"Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 88 poems by Hughes, 86 of them to Plath, burst with earthquake shock on literary London this week. Foundations are shaking, because the powerful poems are an urgent summons to reexamine the Plath-Hughes tragedy and to reevaluate the figure of Hughes the man and Hughes the poet.

Hughes' celebration of flawed love and human misery is unlikely to end the three-decade debate over their relationship. Was he a husband with an emotionally crippled wife and poetry to write, or did he callously walk out on a fragile genius when she needed him most?

"Ted Hughes has had a bad deal at the hands of critics, biographers and, I'm sorry to say, feminists," said novelist Margaret Drabble, who is editing a new edition of the "Oxford Companion to English Literature."

"The fact that he has now produced something about Sylvia Plath is remarkable," Drabble said. "I hope it will put the record straight, elevate the debate to a higher plane."

But Katharine Viner, features editor of the Guardian, writes in the British newspaper: "Plath lovers will never forgive Hughes for failing to ensure that [her poetry] continued to flow. . . . 'Birthday Letters' contains much tenderness. . . . But they do not explain his 35 years of silence . . . his abuse of the Plath estate; and they mean, of course, that Ted Hughes has the last word. His dead wife cannot speak."

Viner, however, said in an interview that there seem to be fewer feminists around today who still brand Hughes as the villain of the story.

*

No one had any idea that Hughes, now 67, had been writing poems to Plath across the decades until he turned up at his publisher, Faber & Faber, this past summer carrying a clutch of manuscript pages. And there was never any hint of the secret verses until the Times of London began serializing them over the weekend.

"Anyone who thought Hughes' reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves. This is a book by someone who is obsessed, stricken and deeply loving," poet Andrew Motion said. "You can't read this book without being absolutely swept away by his feelings for her."

The Plath-Hughes relationship exploded the night they met in 1956 when he was an aspiring poet in baggy corduroys and she was on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge University. Hughes remembers the first time they made love: "You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish / You were a new world. My new world / So this is America, a marvel / Beautiful, beautiful America!"

What is remarkable about the poems is not only the power of their language but also the information they convey. A reader tightropes from poem to poem through the stormy seven-year relationship watching bright love pale toward impending tragedy. In style, notes poet Jason Wilson at the University of London, the poems are more loosely structured and more narrative than Hughes' usual work.

Critic Al Alvarez said, "The poems don't give me the impression that he is trying to rewrite history. They strike me as an attempt to recapture what happened."

Hughes, who was named Britain's poet laureate in 1984, remembers their 1956 London wedding, Plath tremulous and radiant in a pink wool-knit dress. He remembers how "all the prison animals had to be patient" while a sexton preparing children for a trip to the zoo was commandeered as best man: "You were transfigured / So slender and new and naked / A nodding spray of wet lilac / You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth / Brimming with God."

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