Books: Disappointing Look at Life of a Poet; Ted Hughes -- the Life of a Poet. by Elaine Feinstein (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 25)

Article excerpt

Byline: Reviewed by Marianne Nault

Weeks before his death in 1998, Ted Hughes wrote to me about his regrets over publishing Birthday Letters, a series of heartfelt poems about his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, who died by her own hand at age 31.

Hughes had remained silent during the decades following her suicide, speaking only to censure those who distorted the facts he refused to reveal.

When his cancer was diagnosed as fatal, the poet laureate decided to publish the tribute he had been writing for 30 years.

His first biographer, the poet Elaine Feinstein, uses the poems in Birthday Letters as corroboration of feelings and events about which Hughes never spoke. Though his poetry is remarkably discursive in tone and at times both mundane and matter of fact, surely a poet/biographer/critic as skilled as Feinstein should not have assumed that the unexpurgated ``truth'' of the matter lies in those poems; surely 30 years on, much of Hughes' memories fall under the umbrella of ``poetic licence.''

Whenever the previously-unknown facts about the famous ``marriage of true minds'' are blocked, despite access to heretofore unseen Hughes letters and documents (housed in American universities) and testimony from his friend, Feinstein reverts to ``statements'' excised from Birthday Letters as if they were conclusive proof.

She also takes issue with past biographers who attempted to solve the Plath/Hughes myth.

Awkward interpolations from books by Anne Stevenson, Erica Wagner, KeithSagar and, finest of all, by Janet Malcolm, are set against her own attempts at truth-telling.

Feinstein's brilliant insights into the lives and poetic process seem to be reserved for her earlier work on the Russian poets, Pushkin and Tsvetayeva, as well as the marvellous portrait of the marriage of DH Lawrence -- along with his other liaisons --entitled Lawrence's Women. Sadly, this is a poor cobbled-together piece of writing that often gets even the facts available in archives at Smith College and Lilly Library muddled or misrepresented. For example, a well-known story about Hughes's mistress Assia Wevill (for whom he left Plath) is recounted erroneously, only to be cited elsewhere accurately, without cross-referencing.

Such lapses can only be attributed to the attempt to be the first biographer to make use of the Hughes material released after his death. In her introduction, Feinstein reveals she was asked to write the biography days after Ted Hughes's funeral, that she hesitated for a few weeks, then began the daunting task in February 1999. …