Birthday Letters – Ted Hughes.
Today’s Sit Down Sunday is Birthday Letters, a book of poetry. This collection of poems by Ted Hughes was published in 1998, not long before he died. For years and years he had kept very quiet about the life he shared with Sylvia Plath, and their parting. He had been unfaithful and they had separated. Feminists rallied around Plath and rallied against Hughes, blaming him for her subsequent suicide. This book is an outpouring and emotional history of his relationship with her, as well as a testament to the complex nature of intimate relationships and the way they develop. What we discover as we read, is that Plath’s demons were very real. The poem The Machine throws light on the needs (sometimes unspoken) Plath had and the emotional turmoil she felt. Hughes sometimes had no knowledge of this and the difficulty of two people remaining together, when any feeling could be so strong, so intense and so internal, becomes evident. While Hughes’ infidelities still remain a fierce betrayal of Plath, our understanding of their relationship paints the picture more grey, than black and white.
Hughes is probably my favourite poet. I loved his first collection Hawk In The Rain and Crow: From The Life And Songs of Crow. I once listened to an interview with Hughes who described how he tried to keep a journal and ended up writing poems instead of diary entries. It feels like this was a contributory method of collating his poems about his relationship with Plath. With a combination of memory and poems written over the years about her, Birthday Letters is beautiful and haunting in its articulation of their life together. It follows the arc of their time as a couple and won many awards – deservedly so, in my opinion. I leave you with a poem I really enjoy, encompassing the promise of their relationship to the very end and sad emptiness of it.
Lucas, my friend, one
Among those three or four who stay unchanged
Like a separate self,
A stone in the bed of the river
Under every change, became your friend.
I heard of it, alerted. I was sitting
Youth away in an office near Slough.
Morning and evening between Slough and Holborn,
Hoarding wage to fund a leap to freedom
And the other side of the earth – a free-fall
To strip my chrysalis off me in the slipstream.
Weekends I received
Into Alma Mater. Girl-friend
Shared a supervisor and weekly session
With your American rival and you.
She detested you. She fed snapshots
Of you and she did not know what
Inflammable celluloid into my silent
Insatiable future, my blind-man’s-buff
Internal torch of search. With my friend,
After midnight, I stood in a garden
Lobbing soil-clods up at a dark window.
Drunk, he was certain it was yours.
Half as drunk, I did not know he was wrong.
Not did I know I was being auditioned
For the male lead in your drama,
Miming through the first easy movements
As if with eyes closed, feeling for the role.
As if a puppet were being tried on its strings,
Or a dead frog’s legs touched by electrodes.
I jigged through those gestures – watched and judged
Only by starry darkness and a shadow.
Unknown to you and not knowing you.
Aiming to find you, and missimg, and again missing.
Flinging earth at a glass that could not protect you
Because you were not there.
Ten years after your death
I meet on a page of your journal, as never before,
The shock of your joy
When you heard of that. Then the shock
Of your prayers. And under those prayers your panic
That prayers might not create the miracle,
Then, under the panic, the nightmare
That came rolling to crush you:
Your alternative – the unthinkable
Old despair and the new agony
Melting into one familiar hell.
Suddenly I read all this –
Your actual words, as they floated
Out through your throat and tongue and onto your page –
Just as when your daughter, years ago now,
Drifting in, gazing up into my face,
Where I worked alone
In the silent house, asked, suddenly:
‘Daddy, where’s Mummy?’ The freezing soil
Of the garden, as I clawed it.
All around me that midnight’s
Giant clock of frost. And somewhere
Inside it, wanting to feel nothing,
A pulse of fever. Somewhere
Inside that numbness of the earth
Our future trying to happen.
I look up – as if to meet your voice
With all its urgent future
That has burst in on me. Then look back
At the book of the printed words.
You are ten years dead. It is only a story.
Your story. My story.