Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Happy Birthday

I'm a bit late with this one, but I am currently reading Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, published in 1998. I've always been a fan of the poet, since reading Pike at school: I love his unsentimental, 'red in tooth and claw' depiction of nature.

This book - and this is not news - is a reflection on and a dedicated remembrance of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. Any stalker would be proud of the 200 pages or so of poetry he wrote/collected in the last year of his life. The poems follow their first meeting, marriage, honeymoon and life together and form a very readable narrative. The poems are in free verse, seemingly loosely structured, but the imagery - as you would always expect from Hughes - is as powerful and as thought-provoking as ever.

Sylvia Plath emerges from these snapshots in a number of ways: sharply intelligent as she recites Chaucer's Wyf of Bath to a field of interested cows; timid and alone as she awaits her first teaching day (I think) in The Blue Flannel Suit; sweet and in love in Paris. Throughout the poems, and often sneaking in to the final lines (like a shiver down the spine or the realisation of the truth when one awakes from sweet sleepy dreams) comes the memory which mostly inspired this epitaph, Plath's suicide. References to the dead eyes, seemingly still bright as they were in life, references to her cool porcelain skin in death...pervade the poems. The book is not, as some have rather simplisticly claimed, an apologia: deathbed confession, a last request for forgiveness - what rubbish.

Throughout his life, Hughes was fiercely quiet in the face of intense criticism of his 'treatment' of Plath. A relationship, however, is not something that can be picked apart and understood by outsiders. Literary types, psychologists, journalists, biographers and so on have all tried to claim an answer and therefore ownership over the famous marriage and of Plath. The simple truth to all of this is, however, that they never could. Plath will only ever be owned and known by those who knew her. Her daughter, Freida, in an interview told the story of visiting her mother's grave in Heptonstall recently. A well-meaning stranger, without asking, immediately directed her to its place, mistaking Freida for yet another fan or tourist. Freida Hughes explains the annoyance she felt at this, and who can blame her?

Hughes was a haunted man, clearly, and the book feels like an exorcism of sorts. Not a Catholic one - all gargoylic symbols and garbled Latin - but instead twisting, turning memories, stopping here and there at small but significant points in time, trying to figure it all out, like a complicated maths equation. The stories are funny: Yellowstone Park is a long but very lively account of the young couple's encounter with a hungry bear; the stories are rich and inciteful: Wuthering Heights shows Plath's fannish side as they hunt for Emily Bronte on the wild, tourist-trodden moors. Hughes distaste for the USA is clear, as is Plath's for Britain (she called it a place of nursing homes and graveyards).

Reading Birthday Letters feels like a privileged look into a private world. But it is also more than that. The subject is first and foremost one woman, but as one reads, one's own life and experiences began to feel significant. The events described are not the lofty pursuits of great dead poets, speaking in archaic tongue and acting out melodramatic scenes. Rather they are ordinary, everyday experiences: Hughes nurses Plath through a bout of food poisoning in Fever; Plath takes a picture of her husband on a beach in Black Coat...ordinary moments which have developed important significance retrospectively. Hughes invites us into his world and his memories but, at the same time, leaves plenty space for us to consider our own.

No comments: