Ted Hughes's new collection of poems to his dead wife allows him to counter criticism of his own role in Sylvia Plath's tragic life. Cora Kaplan explores a literary war that has raged for 35 years.
For readers familiar with Sylvia Plath's poetry, the title Birthday Letters, which the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes has given to his latest, already celebrated, book of poems addressed to Plath - a lyric, tragic memoir of their life together - echoes both Plath's own choice of "birthday" as a motif in her verse, and recalls Hughes's earlier, deliberate emphasis on its significance.
In the introduction to his edition of Plath's Collected Poems (1981) Hughes identifies the seven poems in Plath's "Poem for a Birthday" sequence written in the October she turned as "the first real breakthrough in her writing". In the same introduction he notes that "A Birthday Present" was one of the alternative titles that Plath considered for the new collection of poems written between her first published book of verse, Colossus, and July 1962. "Only a short time before she died," he tells us, she reverted to her first choice of title, Ariel. These poems, carefully chosen and sequenced, Plath left behind when she committed suicide in the cold February of her 30th year. They were, however, re-edited by Hughes after her suicide - poems from the prolific creative months before her death were added, and, as Hughes says, some of the more "personally aggressive poems from 1962" were omitted.
Ariel and the books of poems that succeeded it made Plath's posthumous fame secure. All involved a necessary - if involuntary - collaboration between Plath and Hughes, Plath's literary executor, former husband and fellow poet. Birthday Letters, written across the intervening decades since Plath's death, continues that odd collaboration but, importantly, reverses the roles of living and dead authors. Hughes's editing and footnotes of poems and journals, his occasional essays and extensive unpublished commentary and critique of the biographical and critical literature on Plath have glossed - both helpfully and restrictively - her oeuvre. Now we are deliberately incited by Hughes's palimpsest of verse, its story written both over and in constant reference to Plath's version, to reach for our volumes of Plath to interpret his poetry.
In the 35 years since Plath's death, a protracted, high-profile and, in recent weeks, well-rehearsed dispute about the rights of the living and the dead in Plath's work and history has been going on between Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn on the one hand, the managers of Plath's literary estate, and Plath's readers, critics and biographers on the other. The early issues in this dispute were vulgarly about Hughes's implication in her death, a question still painfully alive at the thematic and affective centre of Birthday Letters. Yet such unanswerable questions about a particular relationship have been displaced, more recently, by wider philosophical themes about rights, truth and interpretation which the Plath-Hughes controversy has generated.
These prickly topics have been tackled in the two best books on Plath's legacy, Jacqueline Rose's The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) and Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman (1993). In the face of the Hugheses' tacit claim that they are the privileged authorities on the facts of Plath's life, and even - in one case at least - the legitimate censors of critical interpretation of her poetry, Rose, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, stands up for the freedom and open-endedness of interpretation. "Once a piece of writing has been put into circulation," she argues persuasively, "it ceases - except in the most material sense - to be the property of its author. Nor can it be controlled and limited by the views of any one individual, no matter how close to the subject they may have been, or still feel themselves to be."
Malcolm, while admiring Rose's book, does not quite accept this premise. In The Silent Woman, Malcolm meditates on the mixed motives and emotional ambiguities that make the issue of the "ownership" of an artist's life and work so messy for survivors and commentators alike, not least for investigative journalists like herself, opening old wounds, producing fresh antagonisms. In the end, Malcolm puts herself, with ambivalence, on the side of the living: in the "Plath-Hughes debate my sympathies are with the HughesesI like a lawyer defending a case he knows to be weak and yet obscurely feels is just".
As Malcolm and others have noted, Hughes's largely failed attempts, over many years, at greater control over what is said about Plath's work and life are deeply contradictory. For he himself has been the figure most active in circulating Plath's writing, the core texts, after all, on which the judgements he rejects are based. This conflict between his roles as editor and censor leads us to part of the answer to the question, why Birthday Letters? In these poems, Ted Hughes has found at last the appropriate public form to express related but conflicting desires. Birthday Letters allows him, through their peculiarly flexible form of memoir and elegy, to integrate uncompleted mourning as well as admiration for Plath's gift with the more mundane need to counter criticism of his own role in her life. This last aim is not negligible. Hughes, in a letter to Rose cited by Malcolm, attacks the "absolute power" of critics "to say whatever they pleased about the dead" and suggests that "the corruption that comes with it, very often, is an atrophy of the moral imagination". Yet the living, he implies, are equally victims. In another striking passage in the same letter he suggests that Rose's book is not "about a writer dead 30 years" but a "book largely about me".
What Hughes says as an accusation, one might, in retrospect reframe as a wish: one that Birthday Letters has now realised - that there come into being a book about the poets' years together that is largely about Hughes himself. If so it is an autobiography with a difference, and that crucial difference is in his resort to poetry of a particular kind. In the introduction to his prize-winning Tales from Ovid Hughes suggests that "The act of metamorphosis, which at some point touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane." "Ovid," he says, "locates and captures the peculiar frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed." That description fits very well the process in Plath's and Hughes's own poetry in which the everyday and the natural undergo, over and over again, just such a terrible and magical translation.
Metamorphosis at points of "unendurable intensity" is the touchstone of the joined young lives whose good and bad times we follow in Birthday Letters. The poem "9 Willow Street", for example, picks out the bleak and comic details of a year the couple spent in Boston. Hughes rescues a rabid and savage baby bat on the common, only for it to bite him and escape with a "rearguard snarl" as an amused crowd watches. Speaking in the present, he asks: "How could Fate/Stage a scenario so symbolic/Without having secreted the tragedy ending/And the ironic death?" "Alone," he writes, "Either of us might have met with a life./Siamese-twinned, each of us festering/A unique soul-sepsis for the otherI.We struggled/Quietly through the streets, affirming each other,/Dream-maimed and dream-blind."
In biography facts can always be contested. Fiction has its own ring and rule of truth: poetry also - in one register we treat its inventions as its facts. However, Birthday Letters is a lyric memoir whose constant reference point is a story not only etched in poetry and prose three and a half decades old, but also out there and in our face in multiple biographical and critical accounts. If some of the recent reviews of Birthday Letters are indicative, that story will continue to bleed through the ring fence of protection that literary form provides, and be read as a definitive answer to "real" historical questions. There might, however, be a more interesting way of approaching the poems.
In Plath's poem "A Birthday Present", the mystery gift the speaker yearns for is the "deep gravity" of "death", asking only that it "not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty/By the time the whole of it was delivered,and too numb to use it." Plath's iconography of death has, in the years she failed to live out, become deeply embedded in our late 20th-century language of mortality, part of a poetic mythography some have grown up with. Birthday Letters, the survivor's story, is an unexpected gift. To be sure it plays endlessly on the reader's familiarity with Plath's mortal thoughts, at once acknowledging and contesting their tragic power to kill. But it refuses to let the accreted scandal and tragedy of "spilt lives congeal and stiffen to history" as Plath feared they might, trying instead for Ovid's poetic act of metamorphosis. Altering, as it must, the way we now read both Hughes and Plath, the appearance of Birthday Letters can never resolve, but only open for wider scrutiny those disturbing, ever-insistent questions about the meaning of memory, history, responsibility, creativity and interpretation, as urgent in the century's declining years as in its postwar prime.
Cora Kaplan is professor of English, Southampton University.