A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In 1998, the announcement that Ted Hughes was releasing a book about his marriage to Sylvia Plath seemed to capture the imagination not just of avid poetry readers but of many who hadn’t encountered Plath since high school English. Birthday Letters received the kind of attention usually reserved for bestselling thrillers: front page reviews here in the states and nearly tabloid like coverage in England, where Ted Hughes was poet laureate at the time.
For 35 years Hughes had been mostly silent about the relationship that broke up just months before Plath’s suicide, and many readers were hoping for something that would read like a tell-all biography. But Birthday Letters, while it is a very intimate book of poetry, is never gossipy, and seems to purposely avoid any prepared questions we might bring to it.
The book’s 88 poems start by describing the days just before Hughes and Plath met, and read chronologically up to the days just after her death. They are all written in the first-person and all but a few are addressed directly to Sylvia Plath. Hughes seems to be relating his perspective on the relationship to Plath herself, not to us, and the results are sometimes extremely moving and strangely relatable.
It’s a diverse group of poems, ranging from simple narratives of domestic life to lyrical evocations of life after death, but they all share at least one main theme: fate. Hughes eases us into the story with some basically naïve reflections on how their meeting seemed preordained: “For some reason I noticed it. A picture of that year’s intake of Fulbright scholars…/I studied it./Not too minutely, wondering/Which of them I might meet./I remember that thought. Not/Your face. No doubt I scanned particularly for/The girls. Maybe I noticed you./Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely.” Poem after poem this attitude slowly changes, shifting from the kind of convenient hindsight we all have for past relationships to something much darker, more about doom than fate.
I found Birthday Letters to be a heartrending and detailed description of an intense but hopeless relationship. The book’s basis in fact coupled with its attention to many of the prosaic details that most relationships share, make it extremely readable for a book of contemporary poetry. If you’ve read Plath or Hughes before, or just have an interest in their story, it is certainly a worthwhile read.
Review by Matthew