I finished reading Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters for the third time today. I sort of see this post as an attempt to record what I feel about this collection of poems, not just through my words, but also through images. The photographs in this post are by Irene Suchocki, who has given me permission to feature them here. Thank you Irene, I really appreciate it. Do you remember when I talked about how I 'see' certain books and writing through colours and tones? I've learnt that the correct term for this is Synesthesia. Well, Irene's images reflect the colours and tones that shifted through my mind as I read Hughes's poetry. I find her photography quite intense to look at. I feel like there's an invisible force that draws you into her visual worlds. This same intensity is evident in Hughes's Birthday Letters.
I've read many reviews of this collection of poems, most of which analyse his poetry through reference to the myth of Plath and Hughes as legendary lovers and poets. I suppose it's an obvious interpretation, Birthday Letters is the only writing that Hughes has provided in which he explores his relationship with and marriage to Sylvia Plath, and in which he 'speaks' to her. Published 35 years after Plath's suicide in 1963, these poems ring with a heartbreaking immediacy. Reading through his words, you feel as if Plath died just the other day.
Hughes has been attacked for this collection, and I find that most debates about the poems he presents within it tend to require the reader to 'pick a side'. Plath and Hughes have been co-opted into a rather pointless debate by many critics: those who blame him for her suicide, and those who defend him and view Plath as toxic. Both sides are deeply insulting and simplistic, in my opinion. They have also diminished the complexity of both Plath's and Hughes's poetic works.
For my part, I'm on Winterson's 'side' when she wrote about Birthday Letters:
Ted Hughes’s last word on Sylvia Plath was a return to their shared beginnings – as poets together. That in itself was a statement. Our current obsession with autobiography of every kind is bad for art, for the simple reason that it encourages readers to choose the easier option – and the life of a writer/artist, however tormented and impossible, is always easier than grappling with the work.
-Quote from here.
Yes, indeed. I choose to grapple with the work, rather than the gossip of their biographies. The only people who actually knew what went on between them are Plath and Hughes. The rest is speculation. When I read Plath's poetry, I sink into her art, not her mythic biographical persona. When I read Hughes's Birthday Letters, I sink just as deeply into his words, and I completely lose interest in the gossipy debates surrounding him.
These poems unsettle, in the best sort of way. They are strong, harsh, brutally honest, but carry great beauty and lucidity. I also find myself unable to fully describe them, so I will let Hughes do the speaking, by showing you a few excerpts from my favourite poems from the book. Irene's images are not simply 'decoration' for these excerpts, but ways of explaining to you (and perhaps to myself) what these poems made me feel.
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.
-From 'Visit', p. 9.
Your temples, where the hair crowded in,
Were the tender place. Once to check
I dropped a file across the electrodes
Of a twelve-volt battery -- it exploded
Like a grenade. Somebody wired you up
Somebody pushed the lever. They crashed
The thunderbolt into your skull.
-From 'The Tender Place', p. 12.
Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter - your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give -
Whatever you found
They bombarded with splinters,
Derision, mud - the mystery of that hatred.
-From 'God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark', p. 27.
Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely
Girl who was going to die.
That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.
-From 'The Blue Flannel Suit', p. 68.
Red was your colour.
If not red, then white. But red
Was what you wrapped around you.
Everything you painted you painted white
Then splashed it with roses, defeated it,
Leaned over it, dripping roses,
Weeping roses, and more roses,
Then sometimes, among them, a little blue
In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.
But the jewel you lost was blue.
-From 'Red', pp. 197-198.
All images are by Irene Suchocki. Please do not re-blog without proper credit. Visit Irene's website, blog and flickr. Thanks again Irene, I think your photography is just stunning.
All quotes are from: Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters, London: Faber and Faber, 1998.