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Reviews & Essays

Governing a Life
by Tim Kendall

This is Tim Kendall's review of Birthday Letters (1998) by Ted Hughes. The sensation of the English poetry scene at the time, and in Britain the bestselling non-non-fiction hardback of its year, this book was very widely reviewed: though not all the coverage held the actual poems up to terribly rigorous scrutiny. In the event, not even this most trenchant of critics could bear to disparage the book, though. (Note the product placement: Tim is the editor of Thumbscrew.)

Governing a Life
Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters
Faber and Faber, £14.99 (hardback) ISBN 0-571-19472-9

Perhaps more than any poetry collection in recent times, Birthday Letters laid bare the folly of literary London. Andrew Motion's lather of praise in The Times inspired the universal decree that this was "the greatest book by our greatest living poet". After all, how could The Truth About Sylvia Plath fail to be more significant than, say, poems about farming in mid-Devon? Suddenly everyone was Hughes's friend: even Jacqueline Rose went on record -- a thing most strange and certain -- to castigate those feminists who had targeted the poet in the past.

Inevitably the backlash would follow. Penning a hostile review for the latest Thumbscrew, Edna Longley suggests Hughes's reputation is being "talked up in some mysterious way" at the expense of critical judgement and at the expense of poetry. Anyone exposed to the reviewers' love-in would find it hard to demur. Longley expertly anatomises the conspiracy between poetry and journalism which explains the success of the Birthday Letters. However, I can't agree with her conclusion that the book is disappointing: Hughes has produced a work of genius, but despite, rather than because of, the factors celebrated by those poets and critics who, Longley declares, "should know better".

Any sensible discussion of Hughes's achievement must acknowledge that his work has always been uneven. The Hawk in the Rain may have seemed a radical breakthrough for English poetry back in 1957, but four decades later all but half-a-dozen poems seem dispensable. Lupercal, perhaps the most polished and admirable of Hughes's early books, also contains more than its share of gaucherie and padding. The prose in Wodwo should be ditched. Crow contains far too many variations on a single theme. And so on, book after book. What seems most unusual about Birthday Letters, though, is that good Hughes and bad Hughes get juxtaposed far more uncomfortably than ever before. '9 Willow Street' is worth quoting at length, because it epitomises this tendency. The poet, wandering through Boston Common, notices something odd ahead on the path:

What looked like a slug, black, soft, wrinkled,
Was wrestling, somehow, with the fallen
Brown, crumpled lobe of a chestnut leaf.
Suddenly, plainly, it was a bat.
A bat fallen out of its tree
Mid-afternoon. A sick bat? I stooped
Thinking I'd lift it again to tree-bark safety.
It reared up on its elbows and snarled at me,
A raving hyena, the size of a sparrow,
Its whole face peeled in a snarl, fangs tiny.
I tried to snatch it up by the shoulders
But it spun, like a fighter, behind its snarl.

A crowd collected, entertained to watch me
Fight a bat on Boston Common. Finally
I had to give it my finger.
Let the bite lock. Then, cradling it,
Gently lifted it and offered it up
To the wall of chestnut bark. It released me
And scuttled upwards backwards, face downwards,
A rearguard snarl, triumphant, contorted,
Vanishing upwards into where it had come from.

At home I looked at the blood, and remembered:
American bats have rabies. How could Fate
Stage a scenario so symbolic
Without having secreted the tragedy ending
And the ironic death? It confirmed
The myth we had sleepwalked into: death.
This was the bat-light we were living in: death.

Hughes's problem here, as ever, is his shift from the actual to the symbolic and philosophical. That marvellously-realised bat, "Its whole face peeled in a snarl", gives way to the most creaking of commentaries. Hughes is a philosophical poet until he tries to be. Then his voice sounds strained and unnatural and his perfect pitch deserts him, letting through such calamitous lines as "Stage a scenario so symbolic".

'9 Willow Street' is a flawed masterpiece. How we must wish that Hughes had ended with the bat scuttling backwards up its tree. The problem with Birthday Letters is its machinery, deafeningly cranked into gear in too many of these poems. Never is the reader allowed to forget the inescapability of fate. Portents of doom fight for elbow room throughout the collection: the arcane astrological details (in 'A Dream' Hughes claims credit for the famous conclusion of 'Words': "fixed stars/ Govern a life"); the "unhealable face-wound" resulting from Plath's first suicide attempt; the countless references, some oblique, some direct, to the ECT treatment which, Hughes evidently believes, caused lasting damage to Plath's psyche. The poems do not comfortably accommodate these allusions. 'Visit' seems less clumsy than most, but the metaphorical strain is still unmistakable:

Nor did I know I was being auditioned
For the male lead in your drama,
Miming through the first easy movements
As if with eyes closed, feeling for the role.
As if a puppet were being tied on its strings,
Or a dead frog's legs touched by electrodes.

That last line is a stunning, original image; and, tellingly, it transfers the ECT association from Plath to Hughes. But the passage contains at least one (and perhaps two) too many similes. The poet overkills in his eagerness to introduce the desired electrical charge.

Unsurprisingly, Birthday Letters sounds most effective when Hughes disposes of commentary, and allows events to seek out their own tacit significance. Much of this significance is reinforced by, or even resides in, Plath's writing. She may borrow from Hughes for the last lines of 'Words', but she pays the debt with interest in this collection. Something like a dozen poems take their titles from Plath's poetry and prose, and it is sometimes perplexing to find Hughes liberally scattering quotations throughout the volume as if engaged in some kind of ouija dialogue. Once or twice this relationship becomes imbalanced, even parasitical, when Hughes lifts Plath's lines to create particularly epiphanic effects. Reviewers have made much of how Birthday Letters exhibits an undying passion for Plath; but the utterly unasked-for love gift of these poems is as much from Plath to Hughes.

At its best, as in 'The 59th Bear' or 'Owl', this conjunction of what Longley calls Hughes's "elemental energies" and Plath's "inner demons" produces something quite astonishing. 'Owl' begins by acknowledging, and merging, these separate visions:

I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children's eyes.
Through your eyes it was foreign.

On one level, this is a poem about young lovers, from very different cultural backgrounds, introducing each other to their respective worlds. They re-experience the richness and strangeness of what had previously become familiar and taken for granted. On a deeper level, 'Owl' should be read as a parabolic exploration of what happens when Plath's irresistible force collides with Hughes's immoveable object. Plath learns Hughes's natural lore with "incredulous joy": "Your frenzy made me giddy", he recalls. He then impresses her with an old country trick, but gets more than he bargained for:

I sucked the throaty thin woe of a rabbit
Out of my wetted knuckle, by a copse
Where a tawny owl was enquiring.
Suddenly it swooped up, splaying its pinions
Into my face, taking me for a post.

For once Hughes dispenses with the cumbersome machinery, and lets the parallel perform its own magic: just as he is disorientated by Plath's "frenzy", so the owl also knocks him off balance. And that owl, Plath's kindred spirit, recalls (or foreshadows) the "dark thing" of Plath's 'Elm' which nightly "flaps out,/ Looking, with its hooks, for something to love".

In his prose writings Hughes has identified that nocturnal hunter in 'Elm' as the voice of Ariel emerging fully fledged. The subject of his own 'Owl' is, then, at once physical and fatally metaphysical. Expecting stability from him, it will knock him off-balance; in the process it may well kill the thing it loves. The brilliant mini-drama of 'Owl' tells more about the fixed stars of Hughes and Plath than any amount of astrological rambling. It also reminds us why the Times editorial's claim for Birthday Letters as "the greatest book by our greatest living poet" remains, for all its apparently ridiculous hyperbole, still no worse than a half-truth.