Book Reviews - Winter 2009

Cal & Liz & Ted & Sylvia

The corresponding prose of midcentury poets

By Sudip Bose | December 1, 2008


Letters of Ted Hughes, Selected and Edited by Christopher Reid, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Few other tragedies have given rise to as much rumor and gossip as the suicide of Sylvia Plath on February 11, 1963. Perhaps it was the particularly gruesome nature of her death—she killed herself using the gas oven in her kitchen while her two children, Nicholas and Frieda, lay sleeping—that gripped the popular imagination. But as Plath became a martyr to legions of readers who seized upon her brilliant canon as if the writings were holy texts, her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, was increasingly portrayed as the villain in a sensational plot, the person mainly responsible for his wife’s psychic distress. Every prying eye in the literary world was cast upon Hughes and the children just when they should have been left alone to grieve.

Hughes remained silent on the matter for much of his life, and it is for this reason, more than any other, that his letters are essential reading. As literature, they are magnificent pieces of prose—intense, beautiful, lyrical, passionate, wise. What makes them all the more striking, however, is how nakedly they confess, how honestly they lay bare the writer’s soul—how utterly different they are from most of his verse. Like Yeats, Hughes believed that confession alone does not constitute art, that one must shine personal experience through a prism of metaphor and symbol for it to be transformed into something meaningful.

Hughes’s poetic sensibilities emanated from a resonant personal mythology grounded in nature, folklore, and shamanism. His su­perb early poems, collected in The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal, drew frequently upon the animal kingdom (foxes, hawks, horses, fishes, and bulls)—as well as the west Yorkshire hillsides of his boyhood, an unforgiving landscape of immensity and grandeur—in order to render a complex inner world. In a letter to Plath, sent shortly after their marriage in 1956, Hughes memorably described a solitary foray made while his wife had been away:

At dusk the sky was pure washed stretched green, still wet and runny, with brilliant illumination on the landscape. Then from the north, covering the whole breadth of the sky, came a lid of black cloud, and under it the land black. It drew slowly over the whole sky. At one stage a great advance of it overhung the green west sky, and hanging from it, black against the green were great trailing swaths of falling rain, like a long black fine mane. Or like many manes hanging down between the side by side pressed bellies of cloud. . . . Anyway I’d just got fairly down into the wood when it began to hail. I stood under a leaning tree and watched the hail, for an hour, filling the valley up. Leaves were coming off, the wood was sodden and seeping.

The passage calls to mind several of Hughes’s early poems: “Wind,” which begins by describing a house seemingly adrift in a torrential storm; “The Hawk in the Rain,” whose opening lines depict the speaker struggling across a stretch of waterlogged farmland; and “The Horses,” a cosmically beautiful lyric in which a man, climbing through the woods on an unbearably chilly morning, encounters 10 statuesque horses, perfectly still.

Almost from the beginning, Hughes was a famous poet, and though Plath herself successfully placed several poems in prominent magazines, she seemed to play the part of the pupil, and he the wiser teacher. Plath’s many insecurities, including those about her poetry, have been well documented, but Hughes was always encouraging and a close, careful critic of her work. In letter after letter (to Plath and to others), he championed her visionary talent, her “startling poetic gift,” with not the slightest hint of rivalry or jealousy.

Although the early days of their relationship seem heady and blissful, the marriage would eventually crack as Plath be­came more volatile and as Hughes gravitated to­ward other women. In 1962, Hughes met and fell in love with Assia Wevill, and the two began an affair, deepening Plath’s paranoia. “Marriage,” Hughes wrote, to his friend Daniel Weissbort, “is a nest of small scorpions, but it kills the big dragons.” Only temporarily was it so, for Hughes soon abandoned his wife, explaining his reasons to his brother, Gerald:

The one factor that nobody but quite close friends can comprehend, is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality. In many of the most important ways, she’s the most gifted and capable & admirable woman I’ve ever met—but, finally, impossible for me to live married to. . . . The main grief for me is that a life that had all the circumstances for perfection, should have been so intolerable, and that little Frieda loses a father & I lose little Frieda. She’s been my playmate for 2 years & become absolutely a necessary piece of my life.

Within a year, Plath would be dead, and a disconsolate Hughes was left to blame himself for not perceiving the signs of trouble. “She asked me for help, as she so often has,” he wrote to his sister, Olwyn. “I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states & demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it.” To Plath’s mother, Aurelia, he bathed himself in an even harsher light, taking responsibility for his own part in his wife’s unhap­­piness: “I don’t want ever to be forgiven. I don’t mean that I shall become a public shrine of mourning and remorse, I would sooner become the opposite. But if there is an eternity, I am damned in it.”

From then on, the literary public descended upon Ted Hughes’s private life and a distinct change in tone can be felt in his letters: they became more guarded, more self-conscious. “Do you know what oppresses me?” Hughes wrote to Wevill in 1965. “[T]he thought that you save my letters. . . . Assia, I’m foolishly op­pressed enough as it is with bloody eavesdroppers & filchers & greedy curiosity. . . . As it is I’m always expecting my notes to get intercepted so I don’t write a fraction of what I would.”

The scrutiny only increased after Wevill—who had ended her own marriage to be with Hughes—killed herself and her daughter, Shura, in 1969. Frayed and fragile, Hughes recoiled from the world, especially the world of critics, biographers, and graduate students, whom he viewed as his chief antagonists. “What an insane chance,” he wrote despairingly to fellow poet Richard Murphy, “to have private family struggles turned into best-selling literature of despair & martyrdom.”

To give his own account of their relationship was asking far too much of a man still very much in agony. Writing about Plath, he explained to Robert Lowell, “dragged me into a morass of feelings I simply could not deal with in words.” But Hughes’s public silence had just as much to do with protecting his children and, later, his second wife, Carol Orchard, whom he married in August of 1971. When Aurelia Plath began compiling a collection of her daughter’s correspondence, Hughes urged her to leave out the most personal letters. “Frieda & Nick are already living in a mausoleum—I just want to cut down the furnishings & the tourist visitors & the general mess of publicity,” Hughes wrote. “I certainly don’t want my private life with Sylvia exposed. Carol feels enough like an also-ran, & I feel quite enough of a second-hand relic husband, as it is.”

In 1971, the critic A. Alvarez published The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, which speculated on various motives for Plath’s death. Hughes felt betrayed. His letter to Alvarez, who had been a friend, is the most passionate outcry in this collection. Literary criticism, Hughes furiously wrote upon seeing Alvarez’s book serialized in the Observer,

cannot be bothered to distinguish between remarks made on paper and their consequences in real life. . . . Whatever Sylvia may be for your readers & for you, for her mother & me & her children she is something different, she is an atmosphere we breathe. . . . What makes you think you can use our lives like the text of a novel—something on the syllabus—for facile inter­pretations to keep your audience of schoolteachers up on the latest culture?

In the end, for Hughes, there would be only one way out of the morass—to finally tell the story that had simmered within him for too long. “Sometimes I think I ought really to try and write it all out,” Hughes admitted to his friend Daniel Huws. “What’s certainly wrong is staggering along year after year, neither dealing with it nor letting it go, just getting older.” The publication of Hughes’s much-celebrated Birthday Letters in 1998 ended his long and painful silence. For many years, he had been writing poems—spare, unadorned, and haunting—about his relationship with Plath, in the confessional style that, ironically, he so detested. In Birthday Letters, Hughes lifted the metrical, metaphorical, and mythological scrim, revealing the story of his love for Plath on a bare, unadorned stage. The resulting poems were “so raw, so vulnerable, so unprocessed, so naive, so self-exposing & unguarded, so without any of the niceties that any poetry workshop student could have helped me to,” as he wrote to the scholar Keith Sagar. “And so dead against my near-inborn conviction that you never talk about yourself in this way—in poetry.”

The poems were nothing short of a catharsis, achieved at a time when their author was dying of cancer. In a beautiful and heartfelt letter sent to his son, Nicholas, in 1998, Hughes compared the decades of silence to a logjam, and he explained the startling effect the book’s publication had had on him:

It was when I realised that my only chance of getting past 1963 was to blow up that log-jam, and assemble whatever I had written about your mother and me, and simply make it public—like a confession—that I decided to publish those Birthday Letters as I’ve called them. . . . And the effect on me, Nicky, the sense of gigantic, upheaval transformation in my mind, is quite bewildering. It’s as though I have completely new different brains. I can think thoughts I never could think. I have a freedom of imagination I’ve not felt since 1962. Just to have got rid of all that.

Or, as Hughes wrote to Marie and Seamus Heaney not long before he died, “Strange business, confession.”

One finishes the Letters of Ted Hughes as if emerging from a great watery depth, exhausted, almost gasping for air. The tragedies of his life were so acute, the heartbreak and guilt and defiance so overwhelming, the personality so towering, that one gets the feeling at times that the world did not extend much beyond the poet and his immediate circle of friends and loved ones. The correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell makes for a very different sort of book—not just because we now encounter two perspectives rather than one, a dialogue rather than monologue, but also because it portrays two artists inhabiting, interacting with, and making sense of a much vaster world.

Lowell and Bishop met in 1947, at a dinner given by fellow poet Randall Jarrell, and over the next 30 years became the closest of friends as well as great admirers of each other’s work (to the exclusion, almost, of all other modern poetry). Their letters, invaluable for their insight into two such nimble, profound, and supple poetic minds, are no less important than Hughes’s, but their tone is airier, their authors as eager to drop a bit of gossip as to analyze the merits of an unrhymed couplet. In 1949, for example, Bishop reports to Lowell about a “strange tea-party for [Robert] Frost, at which Carl Sandburg suddenly turned up to everyone’s horror—everyone who had any sense, that is—it was very funny”—the sort of line you’d never get from Hughes. And whereas Hughes wrote beautifully about heading out to the moors with a volume of Yeats in hand, reading the poet aloud under a luminous sky until his fingers were numb from cold, Bishop and Lowell generally chronicle more mundane things: trips to the dentist or the effects of an asthma attack.

Not that the Lowell-Bishop correspondence is without gravity. After all, Lowell suffered from a lifetime of manic episodes that sent him repeatedly to the hospital, and his letters to Bishop on the subject are nothing if not honest. In 1954, after a major breakdown following the death of his mother, he described his condition to Bishop this way: “These things come on with a gruesome, vulgar, blasting surge of ‘enthusiasm,’ one becomes a kind of man-aping balloon in a parade—then you subside and eat bitter coffee-grounds of dullness, guilt etc.” Just 11 years later, he takes a cooler tone, having seemingly come to terms with his episodes: “These attacks seem now almost like something woven in my nervous system and one of the ingredients of my blood-stream, and I blame them less on some fatal personal psychotic flaw. Who knows? They are nothing to be blithe about, but I feel rather composed about it all.”

Anyone familiar with the poetry of Bishop and Lowell will be surprised by just how much these letters sound like Bishop and Lowell. Bishop’s powers of description, which animate the poems of North and South and A Cold Spring, and especially her verse set in Brazil (where the poet settled in 1952), are everywhere apparent in her correspondence. Take, for example, her description of a soporific Wiscasset, Maine: “amazing—so beautiful and dead as a door-nail. I think its heart beats twice a day when the train goes through.” Bishop’s sense of humor also colors these pages. “My book is about 85% at Houghton Mifflin,” she wryly informed Lowell in 1951 of a work in progress, “but I must confess it doesn’t jell at all yet. Maybe the other 15% will prove to be pure pectin.”

Lowell, for his part, was a superb portraitist. Think of the lyrical, powerfully delineated character sketches in such works as Life Studies, Notebook, and The Dolphin. Should we be surprised that Lowell’s letters are also filled with portraits drawn with impeccable wit, mischief, and power? As an elegist, Lowell could sum up a life in a few masterful strokes, creating a picture that lingers in our minds like the lines of his greatest poems. Here he is remembering Theodore Roethke after the poet’s death in 1963: “What a tight-rope he had to walk of comedy and grandeur, a delicacy to be true to, a bigness to live up to. Poor guy, he had a bruised life, but he didn’t dry up—somehow quite quite clean and phosphorescent in his wallow.” About Flannery O’Connor, who died in 1964, he recalled “the character of a commanding, grim, witty child, who knew she was destined to live painfully and in earnest, a hero, rather like a nun or Catholic saint with a tough innocence, well able to take on her brief, hardworking, hard, steady, splendid and inconspicuous life.”

The deaths of so many other luminaries—Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell, Louis Mac­Neice, among them—are noted in these pages, and as we read Lowell and Bishop commenting on their passing, we feel the passage of time in a way we do not in Hughes’s letters. Indeed, whether Lowell and Bishop are addressing each other’s work, or merely describing some everyday occurrence, major contemporary events—the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam—are very much present in the background. Kennedy’s death was particularly hard on Lowell, and the poet describes “weeping through the first afternoon” and “three days of television uninterrupted by advertising till the grand, almost unbearable funeral.” (Perhaps not surprisingly, the trauma led to another crackup.)

One of the great pleasures in reading this correspondence is viewing how each poet responded to the other’s work. Lowell’s critiques were mainly gentle. His comments about Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” in 1947 reflected the tone he would mainly take over the course of the next few decades: “The description has great splendor, and the human part, tone, etc., is just right. I question a little the word breast in the last four or five lines—a little too much in its context perhaps; but I’m probably wrong.”

Bishop’s criticisms of Lowell began modestly, too. But as the friendship bloomed, she increasingly revealed her hunger for precision, for the perfection of each word, each image in a poem. She expressed her displeasure at some of Lowell’s very loose translations from the French and shuddered at his rendering of a famed Buenos Aires monument as a phallic image (“a white stone obelisk / rose like a phallus / without flesh or hair”), decrying not just the trend in contemporary poetry toward vulgarity, but also Lowell’s use of cliché.

With Lowell’s early 1970s collection The Dolphin, which incorporated the texts of several letters sent to him by his estranged second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, Bishop was unrelenting. “It’s hell to write this, so please first do believe I think DOLPHIN is magnificent poetry,” she wrote. “It is also honest poetry—almost.” But it “is not being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it’s cruel. . . . In general, I deplore the ‘confessional’—however, when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about . . . mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on.”

This was the ultimate rebuke to the greatest of confessional poets, the man who had in­spired Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Lowell’s attempt to explain his reasons for publishing The Dolphin could have been written by the Ted Hughes of Birthday Letters. “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait inside me like a dead child,” he wrote to Bishop. And though Lowell felt that the poems in The Dolphin were “never malicious or slanderous,” the effects were disastrous. Hardwick went into emotional free fall and was even, at one point, suicidal. How different an outcome than the aftermath of Birthday Letters. Of course, Lowell was writing about the living, whereas Hughes sang only of the dead.

The letters contained in both of these hefty volumes are a part of a great epistolary tradition, a line that includes Blake, Donne, Pope, Keats, Hopkins, Yeats, Moore, and Stevens. The principal difference between the collections, it seems to me, is that Hughes probably never imagined that his correspondence would one day be read by the public, whereas Lowell and Bishop did. Hughes’s letters, after all, are windows into a very private soul, and we peek through them, at times, like voyeurs. In no other collection of letters I’ve come across is the sense of unease more palpable. Lowell and Bishop, however, were both avid readers of other poets’ letters; Bishop even taught a course on the subject. Time and time again, we get the feeling that they were both writing not just for each other, but for posterity. Lowell suggested as much in a letter he sent to Bishop in March 1973:

We should keep carbons, or rather you should, you who really write letters. I want to reread all yours someday—it would take a summer and would be reliving a long stretch of my life. I’ve seen a few of my own letters (to my mother, Roethke, incongruous couple) they aren’t too much, but have words and sentences written seriously and unlike what I print. Yours have the startling eye and kept-going brilliance of a work to print.

Theirs was a slower time, of course, when letters were carefully crafted, pondered over, reworked. Bishop would occasionally begin a letter one day and finish it the next, or even several days later, and in such pieces, we can detect subtle shifts of tone or meaning. I can’t help wondering, in our age of hurried e-mail transmission, with its flurries of sentence fragments and half phrases, if this long and storied epistolary tradition has come to an unfortunate end. If our great contemporary writers do indeed preserve their “in” and “sent” boxes, will these repositories one day reveal an artistry as rich and complete as do the great letters of earlier times? One can only hope.

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