Birthday Letters

Sunday, 2 October 2011


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.


Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

i was just about to say -synesthesia
when i saw you wrote it. oh wow! will have to explain that more! if you wish.
(i develop certain tastes in my mouth for some people...for example, if and when i think of S...i have the sensation/taste of flour in my mouth...)...
i must admit that, sadly, their work has been slightly tainted for me, due to the gossip around them..and assia i have always stop/started reading their work...i'll get around to it.

andrea despot said...

I... almost don't even know what to say because I am so in awe of Hughes's writing! I'm familiar with him and Sylvia, though like you I tend to ignore the gossip and try not to let any of that influence my opinion of them. I've only read "The Bell Jar" which I loved and have only gotten a hundred or so pages into "The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath" but I honestly haven't read much of her poetry other than one or two here and there. And I've never read Hughes. But now I really really want to...

Again, absolutely wonderful juxtaposition of words and pictures. I love that you keep doing this because I'm such a visual person, but I'm also a lover of books and words. So your posts continually speak to both of those sides of me :)

Enia Is (Almost) Here said...

yet another 'but of course': of course we don't know what happens and feels like with other people/couples, in fact sometimes they even don't, but we forget. you are right, the myths are (most of the time) more attractive than the messy realities of not being certain, of having to ask. that is the power of myths. thanks for trying to break them, the poems are beautiful and your way of (aided) seeing is miraculous.

Lyndall said...

Oh, these photos are just perfect with Hughes' poetry.

Emily Vanessa said...

Thank you so much for getting us to go back to what really counts - the poems. As you say, the only people who truly know what happened are Hughes and Plath and I'm tired of digging up dirt about them just to sell a new book or film. I've never read Birthday Letters but am keen to get myself a copy. How amazing to find words to talk about such sadness and beauty and you've done a wonderful job finding these amazing photos to go with them.

gracia said...

Ah! That sweet 'together' 'sensation'. I remember being intrigued by synesthesia when art history lectures focused on the work of Kandinsky. Thanks for the reminder...

Sasha said...

I've never read Hughes's work. Though I might have to now. Even just these excerpts are so powerful. The photos you picked to accompany the words are perfect, not just mere decoration.

Tana said...

me too, i`ve never read Hughes`s work (shame!). the photos are really stunning! thank you, Hila, for this post

Leah said...

I haven't read either of them - I don't think I've really hit a poetry stride yet - but these quotes combined with those eerie beautiful pictures gave me shivers.

hila said...

nancy: it's pretty straightforward: I 'see' days of the week, months, and other stuff through colours. Some music too. I think a lot of people have this. You should definitely give Plath and Hughes a try!

andrea: I'm the same, which is why I search hard for images that express the words.

enia/maja: thank you! I think myth can be a bit fascist sometimes, if you know what I mean. I much prefer the messy reality.

lyndall: I'm glad you think so.

emily vanessa: thanks, I hope I've done the poems justice here.

gracia: I wish there was a way to describe it. It's like if you say a day of the week, my brain sees a colour. That's the best way I can think of explaining it.

sasha and tana: thank you!

leah: oh I hope you find your poetry stride :)