Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hughes And Plath: A Re-Evaluation

I'm reading Elaine Feinstein's 2001 biography of Ted Hughes.Another turnaround for me after my earlier re-education about Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. But I dismissed all three virulently, as a younger poet and rampant uninformed ego, without reading a word any of them had written. I just hated them on the basis of a few statements they had made, and on my sense of what they "represented".
So Larkin didn't like Pound, Picasso and Parker (that's Ezra, Pablo and Charlie "Bird"). I disagree with him on all of them--though I like Picasso without much enthusiasm--but Larkin's own two novels are good books. His poetry still lacks punch, to me, but he didn't set out to write anything categorical, anything that revealed Truth (with a very necessary capital "T")--to Larkin that would have been unforgiveably vulgar. And technically his stuff is marvellous within the scope of his limited ambition.
Amis I used to see as another Establishment figure (I cast them all in that condemning light, to some extent). But why, with Kingsley in particular? Because he wore a tie? His poetry column in the Daily Mirror used to vex me because his attitude to the craft was so conservative. But it was in the Daily Mirror, dumbass, the unofficial tabloid of the Labour Party, when Margaret Thatcher was in power and maligning everything the Labour Party stood for. My understanding of what the Establishment was, back then, was very limited, very lacking in nuance. And Amis' novels are wonderful. They're scurrilous, irreverent, howlingly funny, beautifully written, and they expose the pomposity and silliness of people on all sides of the political debate--maybe like a less uptight version of Alexander Pope. He did stiffen into a kind of Toryism, in a way, in later life (these things are complicated); but doesn't everybody? The shibboleths of liberalism and even outsiderism are shot through with their own brand of conservatism anyway.
Ted Hughes, God help him, was the feminist antichrist throughout the 1980s because of What He Did to Sylvia Plath. But blaming her suicide on her husband is a curiously anti-feminist position to take, don't you think? Can't Sylvie take responsibility for her own mental health problems? (and let's not forget, she had tried to do herself in before she met Ted Hughes as well.) There is the unfortunate detail of Assia Wevill's suicide as well--which the feminists never seemed too bothered by, poor Assia--so Hughes was obviously not a fantastic husband even if one should take Plath's victim status with a whole shaker full of salt, but can any of us afford to judge him as a man? I mean, since it doesn't appear he committed any heinous crime? I know I can't judge him. In fact, when I think about my own life and the mistakes I've been unable to avoid making--and continue making--I feel rather sorry for him. (Plath and Wevill felt sorry enough for themselves; they don't need any help from me. And Wevill did kill Hughes' daughter. Can anybody imagine what it must be like to survive that?)
And here's a question I--along with the entire world of political feminism--should have asked a long time ago: how the fuck did Ted Hughes' private life have any bearing on his art, other than in the sense that it provided him with the material or the mood?
The other big sticking point for me, with Hughes--I mean in the old days when I was more certain than I am now--was his acceptance of the Laureateship, but again, now, at 43 year old with greying hair and bad eyesight and all my teeth slowly falling out, I have to say I really couldn't care less, since it didn't diminish his poetry. I don't like the Royal Family, but I don't insist that anybody, much less everybody, should agree with me on the subject. And much as it worries me to entertain the thought, I'm not even sure anymore that I'm right about the Royals. Like everything else, it's a complicated question. Life needs its myths, its giants, its traditions, its magic; those things stand as a bulwark against capitalism and the final reduction of the human being to the state of nothing more than an economic unit, which is where businessmen and their puppets in the House of Commons are leading us. Something has to be bigger than Money. Isn't it just possible that the Royal Family serve that function in English society? (though they're not doing a great job at it if that is one of their roles.) I don't know. I really don't. All I know is that I'm not sure. Welcome to your forties, Hodder.

Further thoughts on Hughes and Plath, thinking of two people I know much better:

There is usually, in any domestic tragedy, one person who tells all and another who says nothing. I have seen it up close and personal. And words are persuasive. Being taken into another person's confidence is persuasive too; your ego responds to it like an obedient puppy sits up to receive a biscuit.
You aren't necessarily being told the truth, not (as the courts would say) the whole truth, just because you are being told something. Is there even any such thing as a total, objective truth when it comes to a relationship (or anything else for that matter)? You could say that the only unarguable truth is What Happened, the plain facts, but even what you do is directed by what you feel; and what you feel is conditioned by, among other things, an arguable interpretation of a previous event.
When I saw, at first hand, something similar to Plath and Hughes unfolding, the fulsome explanations of the Plath figure didn't exonerate herself from blame for his marital infidelities so much as fail even to consider that she might have played a part in them; that something in her behaviour in the marriage might have helped push him out of the door. And I struggled to come to terms with that for a very long time. I saw the Ted Hughes figure in her life (and mine) as she had chosen to portray him: a cruel philanderer who had crushed her innocent love underfoot. Which is exactly how Hughes has been characterised--or certainly how he was characterised, in the 80s, when political feminism was at its strongest. The Hughes figure in my life never talked about what happened; and I don't think I would want him to now. I knew them both and loved them both, but beyond that, what business is it of mine? At this distance, his dignity in saying nothing, regardless of the misinformation she may have spread, seems enormous.
Hughes, of course, surprised everybody by speaking about Plath in "Birthday Letters" (a remarkable book). But he gave nothing away, really. He didn't attack her unduly or plead for himself in an unmanly fashion. He just talked, to her, as if she were still listening somewhere, a significant presence in his life--which I'm sure she was. I'm out of touch with the opinion of others, generally, but I'd be intrigued to know what "Birthday Letters" and the act of talking, finally, about the relationship that defined his life, has done for his reputation. If, in fact, he still has one among anyone other than "Poetry Please" listeners and readers of the Sunday Telegraph arts supplement.


LynnALexander said...


I could ramble at length about both of them, but I will try to stick to a few things. The first is the issue of political feminism, and the hatred for Hughes. Hughes was not responsible for the fact that gender roles and expectations for women were different, but we do know that Plath herself wrote about being torn between the role of wife/mother and that of artist. We know that at that time, Hughes was certainly more free to promote himself after the break up and it did seem to many that he didn't fulfill his part of the bargain. Many see him as deserting her with small children, humiliating her. But the thing I come away with after many biographies and reading as much as possible, including "Birthday Letters" is that you are right. There is no way for an outsider to understand a marriage, or the truth. They each had their own truth, and so did observers. You are also fair to point out that Assia killed her own child, Plath certainly endangered and traumatized hers. This suggests they were both pretty troubled- and who knows what daily life was like.

I don't see Plath as a victim of Hughes, but as a woman who struggled with expectations, ambition, illness, and genius. By many accounts, Hughes believed in Plath and made certain that she had her own room, and time to write. They fed off one another creatively, as illustrated very well in "Her Husband"which in my opinion really connects Hughes the man with Hughes the poet. Learning about Plath's illness seemed to make her deeper to him, more complex- in contrast to the bleach blonde lipstick American he first saw with her fancy luggage and fashion stories.

I do think he saw her as his equal, intellectually, but that he lost the sexual passion with her as she became the "domestic mother" painting hearts on everything. "Her Husband" also gets into his relationships with Edith Hughes and Aurelia, and portrays him as a sympathetic person, not a devil.

As for the acceptance of accolades, and titles...well, there is always criticism about that kind of thing. We judge the "academy" and other affiliations, with political distaste. But is that fair? Not necessarily. Hughes was always ambitious, talked of becoming rich and famous. He did not try to pretend that he was humble or political. He wanted fame, and he got it. They both did.

"Birthday Letters" was a book he needed to publish, but to his credit he waited until he was terminally ill to do so. He could have trashed her to clear his name, but he did not. He was faithful, the man of his last published work. He returned to the mythology of their marriage, to her, to the beginning. It was quite a beautiful book.

Ralph Murre said...

Bruce ~

Nice work, but:

Really sorry to say it, but I don't find the details (or the speculation about them) of writers' lives any more enlightening than I do the latest bit about Britney, or Brittany, or whoever the fuck she is. They're writers - read what they wrote, comment on the writing by all means, but forget the "star" adoration. The personal life of Bukowski is of no more relevence than that of Brad Pitt.

Enough of my rant. Still and always a fan of The Bruce.

- R.

Ralph Murre said...

Guess I've been a little irritable lately . . .

Bruce Hodder said...

Not at all. You're right, and in a way that was the point I was trying to make, but my perspective got a little clouded because when I think of Hughes and Plath I think of two other people who were really important in my life; and I'm articulating a defence of "my" Hughes and his behaviours when I'm talking about Ted. Generally speaking I have no interest at all in the private details of the lives of the people I read, other than perhaps in the "Mr Ginsberg, meet Mr Kerouac" moments, if you know what I mean. THEN I want to know everything, down to how the dust looked in the light coming through the window and whether you could hear the traffic outside, or birdsong, or somebody shouting "Get your morning paper."
Ted Hughes was crucified because people presumed they had the right to stick their nose into what happened behind close doors between him and Sylvia Plath. Mind you, Plath did encourage that with her great, if rather self-pitying, poetry, which used the details of her life with a kind of naked exhibitionism even Allen Ginsberg didn't achieve (he rarely wrote about what REALLY went on between him and Peter).
However, I mustn't climb all over Plath. She is unquestionably a great poet. But she reminds me, as I've said, of someone else, and she was the FAVOURITE poet of a third person whose memory still makes me want to slap somebody vengefully. So maybe I am projecting.

Bruce Hodder said...

Your analysis is brilliant, and measured as usual.
Did you know Hughes was quoted as saying, after Plath did herself in, "It doesn't fall to every man to murder a genius"? He knew she was a great poet and he knew he had SOME responsibility for what happened to her (he had had the affair with Assia by then).But it is IMMENSELY difficult to live with somebody given to chronic insecurity, paranoia and suicidal depression. I have been there and it's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that it almost killed me. And Hughes seems, like me perhaps, to have been rather passive in relationships, accepting what came his way until the angst and the resentment had built up to a critical mass and some extreme reaction (such as his affair with Assia)was the only possible response.

I don't know. It's always guess work when you're talking about other people, and all that remains afterwards, once the fireworks have gone off and the spectators have all gone home, is the waste. Which is sort of my point, though for reasons noted above and in my response to Ralph I probably come down with a little too much bias on the side of the man. Whatever happened and whatever the motivation of the people involved, what you were left with was a woman dead, a husband bereaved and two children motherless in infancy. People should probably keep that in mind when they get into the business of abstracting the parties involved into representatives of their gender and the sexual politics of the time. The characterisation of Ted Hughes on this side of the briney water was scandalous because he was taken to be a representative Bastard Male. And that can't have been nice for his children even if we think he deserved it, to some extent.
And as I've said before, it had bugger all to do with his poetry anyway.