Mar 8, 2014
Regina Marler on Ted Hughes’ Letters
Posted on Nov 21, 2008
The story of Hughes’ helpless entanglement in Plath’s afterlife—as ripping a yarn as the tale of their marriage—was first told by Janet Malcolm in “The Silent Woman” (1994) and by Diane Middlebrook in “Her Husband” (2004), a study of the two poets’ intertwined creative lives, the “call and response” that characterized their intimate collaboration. Readers of either book will relish the “inside dope” in Hughes’ letters that he had been at such pains to suppress during most of his lifetime, and also perhaps empathize with his impossible position as the gatekeeper to Plath’s memory. “I seem to have been populated by the deceased,” he wrote to an old friend, Peter Redgrove, a year after Assia Wevill’s suicide, “who go on requiring God knows what of me & permit me very little.”
Hughes came to believe that Plath’s fame and his quiet collusion in her complicated legend had made it impossible for him to process her loss “naturally”—for a poet—by letting it fade enough to write about symbolically. Thrumming beneath his “Letters” is the toll exacted on him by his own silence, his determination not to parade his private dramas before the eavesdroppers and filchers that are the reading public. “My high-minded principal [sic] was simply wrong—for my own psychological and physical health,” he told Keith Sagar in 1998, a few months before Hughes’ death. “It was stupid. The public interference later was just bad luck.”
The most poignant letters in the book are those in which Hughes realizes that finally publishing “Birthday Letters” (1998), the informal verses he had been writing about Plath for 25 years, did not bring down the sky: “So I did it, and now I’m getting the surprise of my life. What I’ve been hiding all my life, from myself and everybody else, is not terrible at all.” With these poems off his back, his last months were full of a “sense of gigantic, upheaval transformation.”
In “The Silent Woman,” Malcolm confessed to “a feeling of intense sympathy and affection” for Hughes as she read a letter he had written the Plath biographer Anne Stevenson: “Other letters of Hughes’s that have come my way have had the same effect, and I gather that I am not alone in this reaction; other people have spoken to me in awe of Hughes’s letters. Someday, when they are published, critics will wrestle with the question of what gives them their peculiar power, why they are so deeply, mysteriously moving.”
Part of the appeal of Hughes’ letters is that he has no small talk. He plunges immediately into candid, shapely, vigorous discussion of his writing, others’ writing, the fishing conditions on his last trip. His personal warmth translates immediately on the page. Poetry is the most concentrated medium, and Hughes clearly enjoys expanding on those few words. Reading what Plath called his “elaborate metaphysical explanations” of his work—in letters to friends, critics, collaborators—is like watching a big shaggy dog bounding around a field of gopher holes. These are high-spirited, voluble letters, stuffed with his theories and enthusiasms. They give the impression he had all the time in the world to write them, in fact that the meeting on the page between himself and his correspondent was the best thing that could have happened to him that day.
The twin threads running through these letters are Hughes’ poetic concerns—his money-making schemes as a young writer, his interest in translation (he was one of the founders of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation), his verse plays, his writing for children, his collaborations with Leonard Baskin, Peter Brook and others—and, after “the events of ’63 and ’69,” as he refers to them, his attempt to come to terms with the tragedies. Students of his work will find rich material here: not only the recounting of Hughes’ childhood and education in York and at Cambridge, but explications of his complex mythologies in “Crow” (1970) and “Gaudete” (1977), his attraction to astrology and the occult, and his experiments with language.
Considering how anxiously he guarded his every public utterance, Hughes was remarkably open to biographical exegesis of his work. An important 1990 letter to his friend Moelwyn Merchant on animals, folklore and shamanism could serve as an introduction to almost any collection of Hughes’ verse. “It occurred to me—fairly recently—that my preoccupation with animal life, which was obsessively there waiting for me when I became conscious, was a natural gravitation towards whatever life had escaped the cultural imprint,” Hughes explains. “Because everybody else ignored it (in those days, I couldn’t have felt the same now) I felt I had the animal world absolutely to myself. I could indulge a total self-identification with all wild-life. … I made the association, somehow, between the world of animals, which is excluded by culture, & persecuted (killed & eaten) & the ‘real thing’ in human beings—the part which our own culture tortures, i.e. sacrifices, crucifies.”
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