cover image Birthday Letters

Birthday Letters

Ted Hughes. Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, $20 (197pp) ISBN 978-0-374-11296-7

Kept under tight wraps by the terms attached to a high-priced serialization in the London Times as well as by Hughes's notorious secrecy, the British Poet Laureate's collection of verse-letters to Sylvia Plath is already being heralded as one of the century's literary landmarks. The legend that has grown up around Plath, her poems, her life with Hughes and her suicide in 1963 has been tended by several generations of devoted scholars and readers, and made all the more insurmountable by Hughes's silence on anything relating to Plath other than her work. It is thus astonishing to have this near-narrative of the entire span of their relationship, from Hughes's first glimpse of Plath in a photo of arriving Fulbright scholars, to Hughes's anguish, until now an emotion not widely credited to him, since her death. At once the record of a Yorkshireman's collision with America and American-ness (""You stayed/ Alien to me as a window model,/ American, airport-hopping superproduct"") and of a baffled husband's jealousy and despair at his wife's obsessive pursuit of her dead father, the poems arc through the poet's struggles--and joy--with the facts of his younger self's married life. Even tender recollections, such as Plath reciting Chaucer to a field of cows, are tinged with foreboding or, elsewhere, with the intensity of their writing lives: ""The poems, like smoking entrails,/ Came soft into your hands."" Throughout, Hughes's muscular, controlled free verse, familiar from his previous collections and recent Tales from Ovid, is well suited to the task of wrestling his memory of Plath back to earth, vividly rendering their past while allowing space for a present reckoning. Hughes's occasional snipes at the Plath faithful (""And now your peanut-crunchers can stare/ At the ink stains.../ Where you engraved your letters..."") may lead some to accuse him of an elaborate attempt at revisionism, at remaking Plath in his own image. But the strength of the poems simply renders the charge moot, compelling us to accept this masterwork's sincerity, depth of feeling and force of language. (Feb.)