Friday, May 8, 2009

Themed Reading Review: Birthday Letters

There's something creepy about these poems. I don't know much about the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, but what I have read is unsettling.

Plath was an amazing poetic talent, very driven, and struggled with depression. The marriage was artistically compatible, but tempestuous. Plath published little during her life, although she wrote many poems. Hughes left her for another woman, and Plath committed suicide.

Hughes had control over Plath's literary estate and this control and his reticence have been interpreted as guilt--or at least defensiveness--about his role in her death. He burned Plath's last journal, which detailed the final few months of their life together. Feminists have seen Plath as an emblem of the oppression of women by patriarchal society. Her gravestone bears the name "Sylvia Plath Hughes" and periodically her supporters have chiseled off the "Hughes" part.

Against this background, these poems. They are addressed to Plath directly; the "you" in the poems is no mystery. It's nothing new for confessional poets to write to or about their spouses, lovers, parents, children, and other real people. But here, the "you" is not anonymous. I find it impossible to fairly evaluate the poems, knowing what I know.

If you want to read this one, you're on your own. For me, this book was like driving by an accident scene: I wanted to avert my eyes, but I just couldn't look away.

Excerpt (from "The Badlands"):

Right across America
We went looking for you. Lightning
Had ripped your clothes off
And signed your cheekbone. It came
Out of the sun's explosion
Over Hiroshima, Nagasaki,
As along the ridge of a mountain
Under the earth, and somehow
Through death-row and the Rosenbergs.
They took the brunt of it.
You weren't too logical about it.
You only knew it had come and had gripped you
By the roots of the hair
And held you down on the bed
And stretched across your retina
The global map of nerves in blue flames,
Then left you signed and empty. But already
You had got clear--
Jumped right out of your crackling cast
Through that hole in your cheekbone
And gone to ground, gone underground, into moonland
Somewhere in America.


  1. It's a frightening relationship, from here.

  2. Absolutely, Ruth. I tried to be objective about the poems, but I just couldn't.

  3. Something about Hughes has always creeped me out as well. The man seems like such a, more cannibalistic than that. The poem doesn't help.

  4. I'm no good with poetry in general, and your review has definitely put me off this book in particular.

    Hughes one back to back Costa awards, for this one and Tales from Ovid (hopefully just a translation????), so it is going to be hard for me to make it through the list.

    I added a link to your review here:


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