No 12 - Spring 1998
Mick Delap talks to Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times
What can I tell you that you do not know
Of the life after death?
That is the question with which Ted Hughes begins one of the later poems in Birthday Letters. As in nearly all the eighty eight poems in the collection, he’s talking directly to the poet Sylvia Plath, his wife for seven years, before her suicide in February 1963, and the mother of his two children. In Life after Death, he recalls in painful and moving detail how he and the children coped with the immediate aftermath of her death, in a flat in Primrose Hill, near London Zoo, in the frozen weeks of one of the coldest winters of the century. Only to find a strange sort of solace:
Dropped from life,
We three made a deep silence
In our separate cots.
We were comforted by wolves.
Under that February moon and the moon of March
The Zoo had come close.
And in spite of the city
Wolves consoled us. Two or three times each night
For minutes on end
They sang. They had found where we lay....
They wound us and enmeshed us
In their wailing for you, their mourning for us,
They wove us into their voices. We lay in your death,
In the fallen snow, under falling snow.
Ever since Plath died, Hughes had resolutely kept his own counsel, in the face of often bitter and highly public wrangling about the nature of their life together. Then, after nearly thirty five years of silence on the subject, it was revealed towards the end of January 1998 that Hughes was finally going to speak out, by publishing a hitherto unsuspected collection of poems written over the years since Plath died, about his life with her. The Times, recognising a major literary event, announced a six part serialisation. And over the next week, proceeded to print a representative twelve of the eighty eight “Birthday Letter” poems. The poems had been selected by the Literary Editor of The Times, Erica Wagner, who also provided a running commentary. The columnist “NB” in sister journal, the TLS, rather sourly accused The Times of “treating the whole thing as a soap opera in verse”. Hughes stayed well out of sight, letting the poems do all the speaking for him. And when Birthday Letters was finally published on 29th January, it became an instant best seller. Six weeks later, Magma’s Mick Delap went to Wapping to ask Erica Wagner about a phenomenon she had helped create.
MD: Had you been at all involved in the earlier Plath/Hughes controversies?
EW: I had read both their work when I was at school and university, and afterwards. I remember reading Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman when it first appeared in the New Yorker, and of course I had known something of the controversy. But I had always felt it unfortunate that there seemed to be a division into two camps. You were either in the Hughes camp, or the Plath camp. This was something I never liked or wanted to be a part of.
MD: Sylvia Plath died in 1963. Ted Hughes has been famously silent, or almost silent, since then about their seven years together. In 1981 we had the very spare introduction that Hughes wrote to Plath’s Collected Poems. There is an implicit acknowledgement there of the fact that they were together when she wrote most of the poems. But it appears a very flat and a rather cold, academic, document. So why do you think Hughes has now decided to publish this very personal record of their life together?
EW: I wouldn’t venture to answer that, because I think only Hughes can answer that. I didn’t have any direct dealings with him when I was preparing the serialisation, and I wouldn’t wish to speak for him. Perhaps even he couldn’t give you a coherent answer. One of the things that comes across most strongly in the book is how deeply felt these poems are; and to explain away feelings like that is rarely possible.
MD: The feelings seem to me to range from an immense and continuing grief, through regret, and even into a kind of humour. In The Beach, for instance, when he’s recounting Plath’s outrage at the dowdiness of Britain in 1962, he’s quite wry:
…… Every vehicle a hearse.
The traffic procession a hushing leftover
Of Victoria’s perpetual funeral Sunday -
The funeral of colour and life and light!
London a morgue of dinge - English dinge.
Our sole indigenous art form - depressionist!
But there seems also to be a feeling that he’d failed her, that a different person might have been better for her. One of the poems is called Error - his error, he says, in bringing her to Devon in 1961, to: my dreamland, … my land of totems. He ends Epiphany with the line: But I failed. Our marriage had failed. And in the earlier poem, 9 Willow Street, which was the address of their flat in Boston in 1958, he says:
Either of us might have met with a life.
Siamese-twinned, each of us festering
A unique soul-sepsis for the other,
Each of us was the stake impaling the other.
EW: Yes. I also sensed anger in a lot of the poems. A rage directed at himself, and at her dead father particularly.
MD: And then towards the end, in that second to last poem in the book, The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother, there’s an anger at the critics:
…. A kind
Of hyena came aching upwind.
They dug her out. Now they batten
On the cornucopia
Of her body. Even
Bite the face off her gravestone.
Gulp down the grave ornaments.
Swallow the very soil.
EW: Yes. Which I have always felt was a completely understandable anger. I’m afraid, you know, I think he’s right. I just think he’s right. If only because no one else knows what’s going on in a marriage besides the two people in it.
MD: The eighty eight poems in the book are presented in strictly chronological order. They start with Hughes recollecting meeting Plath in 1956, and they go right through into the nineteen nineties. Freedom of Speech, for instance, near the end of the book, starts with the line, At your sixtieth birthday .... which would have been in 1992. So they are presented chronologically. Did you get a sense of how he might have actually written them?
EW: No. You know they were written over the past twenty-five years. For poems written over that span of time, they seem to have a remarkable consistency to them. That may be because of their subject matter. Or it may be how they were revised. I don’t know. Hughes has expressed a wish that the book should speak for itself. He’s not wished to speak about the book. He did not give us or anyone else an interview. And I think that was the right decision.
MD: The collection is entitled Birthday Letters. Whose birthday? Is it Sylvia Plath’s birthday? She was born on October 27th, 1932. She died on February 11th 1963. So they were published at a time which was closer to the death than the birthday.
EW: I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot of speculation, and I suppose I’ve made my own. I’ve not spoken directly to Hughes about it, but I think it’s a title that reflects her own very well known sequence of poems, Poem for a Birthday. Maybe for Hughes the “Birthday” is a new beginning. That feels right to me. When I glossed the poems for the serialisation in The Times, you want to make reference to specific events. And it’s certainly possible to do that with these poems more than with many poems. However, I don’t think poetry of any kind is something that asks to be decoded. It’s not like a cryptogram. And I think that applies to the title as much as the poems.
MD: Do you think it is necessary to know Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and to know the people he’s referring to, to get the most out of Birthday Letters? Your gloss in The Times was very helpful for many of us. But as you say, Hughes has laid the poems out without a commentary; he obviously expects them to stand or fall by themselves. Do you think that is going to be difficult for readers who are coming to them who don’t know the story they are telling in any great detail?
EW: Well, I don’t think there is ever anything wrong if a book requires you to know something else. I think that’s how literature works. Literature reflects its past. Peter Carey recently wrote a novel, Jack Maggs, which draws greatly on, and reflects, Great Expectations. And you’d be the poorer, reading it, if you didn’t know Great Expectations. It may be a peculiarly late twentieth century thing to say, “well, it’s unfair! We have to know too much to read this!” I think that’s actually a good thing. I think anyone’s readings of the poems will be enriched by knowing his earlier work, and hers. It’s striking, just monitoring the relevant book sales. Not only did Birthday Letters become a best seller, but also there was a great increase in the sales of Plath’s poems, of her novel, The Bell Jar, and of Hughes’ earlier works, like The Hawk in the Rain. So clearly people don’t resent being thrown back. These are the poems Hughes wanted to write. Every reader has to read them in his or her own way. Hughes is not going to provide a gloss, but one can be found.
MD: When Hughes decided to publish these poems, he must have known they were going to be picked over not just as a set of poems, but also as the long-awaited comment from him. It seems to me that the comment he is making in Birthday Letters goes something like this: “maybe somebody else could have affected the outcome slightly differently, but when I married Sylvia Plath, she was pointed very firmly in a dangerous direction. I failed her in some ways, and maybe somebody else, some better suited person, would have saved her.” There’s that poem, The Shot, where Hughes is comparing her to a high-velocity bullet: gold-lacketed, solid silver. nickel-tipped. She’s aiming herself at Hughes; and, hidden behind him, aiming at your real target ... your Daddy, the God with the smoking gun. And Hughes ends the poem:
For a long time
Vague as mist, I did not even know
I had been hit,
Or that you had gone clean through me -
To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.
In my position, the right witchdoctor
Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,
Godless, happy, quieted.
A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.
So, is Birthday Letters offered in exculpation - as a justification?
EW: No, I don’t think so. I suppose partly I don’t think that because I don’t think justification ought to be required. I don’t believe what happened to her legacy was helpful to anybody. It certainly wasn’t helpful to Hughes. I’ve met him once or twice, but I wouldn’t claim to know him. But I can’t imagine that what went on was good for anybody. And he had two small children to raise. I had never seen why he should have been forced to offer a defence, and I don’t think this reads like a defence or like an explanation. I think it reads as an account. I don’t think in a case like this there should be sides. Of course there will always seem to be sides, because people take them. But in the main this book was very warmly received. And I think that showed that there was a fundamental understanding of that. Once the poems were available, it became apparent what they were, and what perhaps they needed to be. Readers, perhaps, discovered that you read them, and you realise you don’t need a defence; you’re not looking for a defence. And that’s not what they are.
MD: How great will we think they are in ten or fifteen years time?
EW: I feel at the moment it is very difficult to get away from their overwhelming biographical interest and impact. It’s nearly impossible just to judge them as if you were from Mars. I think they are meant to be read as a sequence. And I think they will always be intertwined with their biographical meaning. But as the dust settles, without question I think these are very powerful, vivid poems. Of course they have their weaknesses as individual poems. I don’t think they’re perfect works. But what is?
MD: Do you think publishing this collection is an exorcism for Hughes? Or is it an ongoing conversation with somebody who is still very present?
EW: I don’t know. And I was going to say I would think it impertinent of me to guess. Obviously it’s not entirely impertinent, because Hughes has now put this in the public domain. But he has put a very particular thing, a set of poems, in the public domain. He has not put out interviews; he’s not put out any other statement. There is a great difference between art and life, and what you take from your life to make your art. So I could not guess about what happens in his head.
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