Magazine article The Spectator

They Learn in Suffering What They Teach in Song

Magazine article The Spectator

They Learn in Suffering What They Teach in Song

Article excerpt

BIRTHDAY LETTERS

by Ted Hughes

Faber, L14.99, pp.197

I remember wondering vaguely why the Faber catalogue was shy of poetry this season. The first I heard of the shotgun publication of Birthday Letters, the Poet Laureate's 88 poems to and about his first wife, Sylvia Plath, was during the final judging session of the T. S. Eliot Prize. Newsnight rang up to ask if the winner, Don Paterson, could come to the studio to talk about Plath. I understood how Hughes himself must have felt over the last 35 years. No matter what he said, there she was waiting. The mystery is how he held off until now. He must have known he had a potential world-beater at his fingertips.

The publicity, eked out daily in the Times last week in the manner of the latest Diana revelations, can do Hughes nothing but good this time around because the poems themselves live up to the wildest expectations. Just how good they are may take longer to emerge. At the moment, the sensational element works strongly in their favour, like an accompanying film running through your mind. The fact that you already know the actors and the tragic outcome of the story adds greatly to the fascination. As one relives the doomed seven years of their marriage, from Cambridge in 1956 to London, Paris, Cape Cod, London again, Spain, then finally Devon, the sense of prying is ameliorated by the beauty and difficulty of the writing and the knowledge that something good has come of it at last, for this is certainly Hughes's magnum opus.

In September 1958, following Plath's term of teaching at Smith, both writers attended Robert Lowell's poetry seminars at Harvard. Lowell's influence on Hughes was never as evident as it was on most writers of his generation, but he has called on it here to help him cope with a subject Lowell knew all about: mania, madness, mayhem. The handout tells us that the poems were written over a period of 25 years, the first a few years after Plath's suicide in 1963. We know that at least seven were written before 1994, because they were included, without much notice, in his New Selected Poems of that year. But the experience of reading them all together, while totally overpowering in the Hughes manner, suggests more of a sudden outpouring than the many (unhappy) returns evoked by the title and blurb. His method is the Lowell method of the Notebook period: tantalising documentary footage intercut with sudden visionary comment and interpretation from a bewildering variety of disciplines, from astrology to psychopharmacology. Mostly he follows the classic formula of leaning a particular experience up against a strong visual image, then letting them fight it out on the page under his tolerant umpireship. Dress: casual, come-as-you-are, heat-ofthe-moment, get-it-down-quick, which provides the essential air of vulnerability and spontaneity, as well as a very Nineties modernity. For instance, in the very first poem, he remembers seeing, before he even met Sylvia, a photograph of the Fulbright scholars for 1955 in a window in the Strand and matches the memory with that of buying a peach on the same day: `It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.'

An incidental fascination of the book is the post-war Britain, dark and austere, which Hughes is so much part of and which so infuriated and depressed his clean-cut bobby-soxer wife: `England/ Was so poor! …

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