Ted Hughes wrote Birthday Letters
across his life and published it shortly before his death. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had once been married and divorced before Plath committed suicide. This anthology of poetry is as a result a collection of poems addressing Plath as 'you' like a letter, a response to her Ariel
(as seen in the references to 'ariel' and 'bees' in various poems. One problem of criticism of the poetry however, is a criticism that haunts many books unfairly. That this is merely about Plath and Hughes relationship and can only be enjoyed, or has only been successful due to the 'inside glimpse' at a fascinating character of literary fame. However I personally dislike labels for anything and to put this anthology into a box as 'merely about Plath' limits the potency of each poem. I cannot deny that they focus on Plath but that said, as poems they are brilliant on their own.
Take the following extract from The Blue Flannel Suit
as an example of the simple elegance of Hughes' work."What assessors
Waited to see you justify the cost
And redeem their gamble. What a furnace
Of eyes waited to prove your metal. I watched
The strange dummy stiffness, the misery,
Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly
Half-approximation to your idea
Of the properties you hoped to ease into,
And your horror in it. And the tanned
Almost green undertinge of your face
Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited
Head pathetically tiny."
I particularly love the virtuosity of the above poem. The phrasing of "what a furnace / Of eyes waited to prove your metal" in this particular poem is particularly fascinating. The imagery is vibrant and evocative while also dissociative. A reader would not normally link furnaces and eyes but in the way Hughes does this it makes you think about the heated stares, the molten emotion of those eyes looking to find fault.
Each poem is individual and addresses different elements of daily life with Plath or who Plath was as a woman. Yet each poem fits neatly into the anthology as part of a whole. I have not read any other anthology that maintains such a constant style, as I mentioned while reading there is a unique symmetry in this poetry.
I am a fan of various mythologies and references to those mythologies litter Hughes' work here. The Minotaur
is only one of those and uses mythology to refer to the breakdown of their marriage: "The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth."
That poem speaks for itself, as does this from The Badlands
:"Right across America
We went looking for you. Lightning
Had ripped your clothes off
And signed your cheekbone. It came
Out of the sun's explosion
Over Hiroshima, Nagasaki,
As along the ridge of a mountain
Under the earth, and somehow
Through death-row and the Rosenbergs.
They took the brunt of it."
On the whole while I may have liked several poems more than others (The Badlands
, The Blue Flannel Suit
, The Moonwalk
, The Rabbit Catcher
and The Minotaur
for example) I found this to be a great whole collection of poetry. There were no obvious flawed poems to say the least. I certainly recommend this as one of the better poetry collections I have read. And I would finish by noting that it certainly does not deserve to be passed off as 'merely talking about Sylvia'. It is a magnificent work of planned and lyrical poetry.