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Birthday Letters

In 1963, American poet Sylvia Plath killed herself. Since then, her husband Ted Hughes has refused to respond to accusations that he was to blame for her death. Now, in Birthday Letters, his new book of poetry, the British poet laureate breaks his silence.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, Birthday Letters, a new book by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes about his relationship with the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco has more.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Sylvia Plath was 30 years old when she died. Since then, her published stories, letters, journals, and especially her uncompromising poetry have galvanized many women who found in her words an echo of their own extreme feelings. She became a heroine of the woman's movement of the 1970s and remains one of the best-selling women poets ever.

    Plath was a precocious young woman from Massachusetts who began publishing when she was 17, and won prizes for her poetry at Smith College. She met Hughes in 1956 while in England studying on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge. Some critics and biographers have laid the blame for Plath's death, directly or indirectly, at Hughes's door; and until now, he has said or published almost nothing in response. But in the new book he finally tells their story as he experienced it, addressing her as if she were still able to read or hear him. About their London wedding, he writes:

    In that echo-gaunt weekday chancel I see you Wrestling to contain your flames In your pink wool knitted dress and in your eye-pupils–great cut jewels Jostling their tear flames, truly like big jewels Shaken in a dice-cup and held up to me.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Judging from their writing, Hughes and Plath had a tempestuous relationship, but they also encouraged each other and published books of highly praised verse. Plath also wrote a slightly fictionalized autobiography, The Bell Jar, which described the shock treatments given for her depression and recounted her first suicide attempt in 1953. Her father had died when she was eight, and she struggled with fear and depression until her own death. She and Hughes had a daughter in 1960 and, in 1962, a son.

    Later that year, after much marital discord, Hughes left the family; and on February 11, 1963, Plath put milk and bread by her children's beds, sealed off their room, and then stuck her head in a gas oven. The poems she wrote in the last months of her life, sometimes at the feverish rate of two or three a day, were published under the title, Ariel, in 1996, to great acclaim. In one, she writes:

    I am inhabited by a cry. Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing That sleeps in me; All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her collected works, which Ted Hughes edited. He has published dozens of books, plays, children's stories, and translations and has received many accolades. He has been Great Britain's poet laureate since 1984.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Ted Hughes's new book is a best seller and is already in its third printing. Here to tell us more are Robert Hass, poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997, and Diane Middlebrook, professor of English at Stanford University and author of a biography of the poet Anne Sexton. Thank you both for being with us.

    Diane Middlebrook, poetry books are not usually best-sellers. Why is this one so popular?

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    I think that the attraction of this particular book is unique in my experience anyway of poetry because it's completing a story that got a lot of attention many years ago. And perhaps these poems are meant to be a reflection in middle age on the intimacy they share that has become a sort of fairy tale. I think it's a book that adds–I mean, people go to it–I've gone to it for information. And what I think I've found in it is an artist coming into contact with both his younger self, who was also an artist, and the art that his wife left behind her and is a legacy to him.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    But Bob Hass, there wouldn't be so much interest in it if there weren't so much interest in Sylvia Plath, is that right?

  • BOB HASS:

    Oh, yes.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    And why is there so much interest in her?

  • BOB HASS:

    Well, it's because she's a great and amazing poet. I was reading her journals over the weekend, and she said she wanted to write a book that amazed, that appalled the world. This was when she was 26, and at age 30, dead, she did just that. Ariel, which is one of the remarkable books of American poetry in this half century, got published after her suicide, and the first shock of it was simply in the power of the writing–can people say these things–and the feeling of fatality, and within a year whatever phase of the feminist movement was happening in America was happening, and not just poets, but readers in general discovered this book of a young woman with two babies, whose husband had left her, living in a cold house, trying to be a mom, trying to be a writer, trying to put her life together, who didn't make it–who killed herself–and wrote poems full of rage, bravery, and it electrified people. Ted Hughes in the book uses the metaphor of–he talks about her–paparazzo eye. You could say that he's been under investigation for the suicide of Sylvia Plath for 35 years.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    But that's why–another reason why there's so much interest, because although he did write introductions and a few letters about it, he hasn't really spoken out publicly.

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    Well, he did edit the complete poems, and, in fact, I think that Hughes's continual intervention in Plath's career is very problematic, since he made many interventions. As the world knows, he burned one of the journals that were left behind because he felt that it would not be good for her children to see them. People have always seen that as an effort to cover up his own guilt, because Plath was very forthcoming in the journals. They were her record to herself of her and her life. And, in fact, for me one of the pleasures and surprises of this book is feeling that Ted Hughes has been reading what I have been reading, and I've felt that this book of letters, "Birthday Letters" is, in fact, a man who can now, having lived so long, can afford to recognize and, in fact, deal with it in an artistic mode, something that was probably too painful at the time that it was happening, or that he couldn't even take in.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    What do you think? What struck you about the poems, themselves, as a poet?

  • BOB HASS:

    What struck me actually was the whole business of the autobiographical mode; that is–I noticed in the lead-in that you said now we're going to get the story as he experienced it. Of course, that can't be true. You know, anybody in the audience who's ever been through a divorce or grief over a loss, knows that with most intense experiences we hardly know what we're feeling. We can reflect on it later and put it together. So I thought here–like everyone else–here is this story. This man has been silent about it for this long time. What was his side? And of course, what we're getting is an older man's attempt to reconstruct and get into dialogue with an extraordinary body of work, I mean, they were so young. He was–

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Read something that particularly struck you.

  • BOB HASS:

    Here's something that gives some of the hauntingness of this. It's an early poem. In fact, it's about his first meeting her at Cambridge in the spring of 1956 at a party.

    "Ten years after your death, I meet in a page of your journal as never before the shock of your joy, then the shock of your prayers, and under those prayers your panic that prayers might not create a miracle, then under the panic, the nightmare that came rolling to crush you. Suddenly, I read all of 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, mystified 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 the 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, the printed words, you are 10 years dead. It is only a story, your story, my story."

    So this must have been written-

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    In 1973.

  • BOB HASS:

    1973. It's possible that they're Birthday Letters because he wrote each year on her birthday.

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    Oh, that's true.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    What else strikes you about that? What are you hearing?

  • BOB HASS:

    The problem for a writer with writing personal, autobiographical poetry about those parts of your life that involve other people–a mate, or a parent, a child–is how do you do it without making yourself look good? Ted Hughes has been accused of the death of his wife. I mean, there were poems for years, "you killed her." There's an–there are 50 books on this subject. It's an industry of scholarship, and now we come to this voice, impossible not to justify yourself at some level.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    So you're hearing him justifying himself.

  • BOB HASS:

    Oh, yes.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Are you?

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    Not exactly. There's a story that I believe Hughes tells in some notes in the collected poems about how when Plath was stuck for subjects, he would set her problems. He would say, why don't you write a poem about this, and some of her best poems–I think "The Moon" and the "Yew Tree," brilliant poem– Plath–that I believe is owing to an exercise of this kind. It was liberating to her to have a problem come–a formal problem sometimes, or topical problem come and be the problem. She has set his problem. Now she is in charge of the dialogue. She has just simply laid things out, and for years people have been writing not only poems but papers and books and explanations and diagnoses about this. And he enters it, I believe, with a very large generic problem here. He's got to find a way to say something to her. And I believe this is a book written by a man in his prime who knows that this is a subject that he's got to deal with and he's dealing with it as a poet. I see it as a poem attempting to be–a set of poems attempting to be in dialogue with those problems.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    In the few seconds we have left, do these poems in the Ted Hughes book, which is a best-seller, stand on their own, or are they only of great interest because of the biographical material they have?

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    All poems should have that problem. This is a book for us, and who knows how long it can last, but right now it makes it possible not only to think about Plath and Hughes but I think to think about the marriage of two people who are immensely talented and at war.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    What do you think?

  • BOB HASS:

    I think that the art, not the gossip part of this, is that these two writers make people come to terms with the ways in which we can know it all and make an account of our experience.

  • ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH:

    Okay. Thank you both very much.

  • DIANE MIDDLEBROOK:

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

  • BOB HASS:

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

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