Anyone with the slightest interest in 20th century poetry, and many who have none, know about the turbulent relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Defined by both passionate love and bitter fights the relationship has been cultivated into a modern Greek tragedy. Whatever its actual contact, it absolutely fueled both of their creative fires, leading Plath to write Ariel, considered her best work and a defining moment in modern poetry. Ariel was published posthumously after Plath’s 1963 suicide. Since its release set the literary world on fire there has been an intense fascination with the Plath/Hughes relationship. Numerous articles, books, and even a 2003 film starring Gwenyth Paltrow have explored this theme. Many Plath enthusiasts directly blame her suicide on Hughes’s infidelities. Feminist writer Robin Morgan published a poem entitled Arraignment where she outright accused him of murder.
Despite the flurry of critical and popular interest Hughes remained stonily silent on the subject. It was not until the poet knew he was dying from cancer in 1998 that he finally published Birthday Letters, a collection of poems devoted to their relationship written from shortly after her suicide to the end of his life.
Even outside of Plath/Hughes fantasia the collection is a fantastic work. The most striking part of the work is Hughes’s exploration of memory. He deftly explores what happens to memory when it is so blackened by tragedy and accusation. He neither enshrines nor vilifies Plath, seeing her both as a passionate young poet and as a severely sick woman who never got over the death of her father. The poems occasionally are direct responses to poems in Ariel, showing his own point of view in the situations Plath drew upon. For example, his version of Rabbit Catcher recounts the same ill-fated trip to the sea as Plath’s, with Hughes desperately trying to assuage a temperamental and disappointed wife. Hughes weaves beautiful and heartbreaking images that haunt the reader, drawing them into his ghost world.
I would highly recommend this book. Its emotional poignancy and importance in the 20th century canon make it a must have.