Back when Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters
came out, there was a lot of renewed tumult over his troubled marriage to Sylvia Plath, and how he had handled (or mishandled) her legacy. I remember not knowing much about Hughes, nor being familiar with his poetry, and I went right out and picked up a copy of his collection, Crow
, as a means of introduction.
A young poet friend of mine soon caught me reading Hughes, and she nearly plotzed: How can you be reading that bear, that monster, that beast? Don't you know he killed Sylvia Plath?
I felt ashamed. Ignorant, and ashamed for not possessing the same, boldly personal conviction. But at least I was willing to give Hughes a chance to tell his side of the story. When I was sufficiently caught up through Crow
, I turned to the library's copy of Birthday Letters
, which to my surprise, I found both haunting and moving.
Today, however, for all my purported open-mindedness, I came across a newspaper article which quickly started shifting my opinion. Explication:
Just after Hughes' death, the London Times
editor Peter Stothard
wrote a recollection of the poet's last public poetry reading, in April of 1997 ("The Poet Laureate's Last Reading," 30 October 1998, 24). Hughes was promoting the School Bag
anthology of poetry for students (Magma review
), alongside his co-editor, Seamus Heaney
. Hughes read a selection from Whitman's "Song of Myself" which captivated the audience, while Heaney chose Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
Following the reading, during an awkward photo-op with the two editors and their collection, Stothard reports he found himself holding the text in front of the photographers. In order to "add fake versimilitude of the sort that publicity pictures require," he began to read aloud the first stanza of the first poem he found inside: Reed's "Naming of Parts."
Heaney and I mumbled about Reed and about how this particular poem was 'one of the most extraordinary works of the war'. Hughes became agitated. 'I hate this poem,' he said, as though shovelling rocks into the vacuum around us. 'I once crashed my car listening to it.' [....] Hughes, the man of hawks and crows and earth, the man who gave animals ideas with his eyes, hates this poem.
Stothard, obviously a stronger man than I, was not to be swayed. He finished reading the entire poem. 'I had always much preferred the public, car-crashing Reed, who looked at the gun and the gardens through the same cold eye and placed them side by side in the same stanza frame.'
As for myself, so easily turned, if I should catch you with a copy of Birthday Letters
, it might be me hurling accusations next time. How can you be reading that bear, that monster, that beast? Don't you know he hated "Naming of Parts"?