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Letters of Ted Hughes.

LETTERS OF TED HUGHES selected and edited by Christopher Reid

Farrar, Straus & Giroux/2008/$45.00 CLOTH/ISBN 9780374185305

Last year, Elaine Showalter published a review of Ted Hughes's letters in the Chronicle of Higher Education with a headline that ran, "Who Remembers Ted Hughes? A New Volume of Letters Goes Unnoticed in America." Showalter intimated that readers in the United States had grown tired of the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes saga and would view the publication of Hughes's letters as a concession that offered too little, too late. While American readers are less interested in Hughes than readers in his native Britain, it seems more likely that Christopher Reid's edition of Hughes's Selected Letters will, in the long run, re-ignite interest in Hughes's career. It may even help recast Hughes as a more sympathetic figure on this side of the Atlantic.

Hughes was an intensely private person who routinely asked his critics not to mention any biographical information in their work. He never spoke publicly about his grief for Sylvia Plath until the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998; his silence was seen as stoical by some, callous by others. But Hughes was not so silent in private letters to friends and family, in which he raged against the perception that he was somehow responsible for Plath's death, or that he had treated her badly during their marriage. He felt his writing suffered under the weight of such public accusations, and that it was his fate to remain misunderstood by all but a few.

These letters go a long way towards redressing some common misperceptions about Hughes. His early love letters to Plath, for example, show him as supportive rather than condescending. On October 4, 1956, after hearing that Poetry magazine had accepted some of Plath's poems, Hughes wrote, "Joy, joy, as the hyena cried. Now you are set. I never read six poems of anyone all together in Poetry. It means the wonderful thing. It will spellbind every editor in America." In many of these early letters he comes across as a collaborator rather than a teacher. Later letters regarding Plath also make us question the image of Hughes as arrogant dominator. In a searing note to Aurelia Plath, written on 15 March 1963, after Sylvia's death, Hughes wrote, "I shall never get over the shock and I don't particularly want to ... I don't want ever to be forgiven ... if there is an eternity, I am damned in it." He claims he and Plath were on the verge of reconciling: "I had come to the point where I'd decided we could repair our marriage now. She had agreed to stop the divorce." In the letters that follow, we learn of Hughes's attempts to bring Plath's poems to a larger audience, and feel the wrath of his anger when critics underestimated her work. We also learn of the creative and psychological paralysis he endured for many years after Plath's death: "I've let my life be hijacked," he told Lucas Myers in 1987. As he wrote to his son Nicholas in 1998, since Plath's suicide he had been "living on the wrong side of the glass door ...
 that thickening thickening glass window between me and that real self
 of mine which was trapped in the unmanageable experience of what had
 happened with her and me. And so--because I could never break up the
 log-jam ... never open the giant plate glass door of it, that real
 self of mine could never get on with its life, could never join me
 and help me get on with my life.


It was only after writing Birthday Letters that Hughes felt some measure of release from his own bell jar.

The bulk of the letters in this volume, however, speak to Hughes the poet rather than Hughes the widower. He takes time to answer letters about his poems from schoolteachers, graduate students, critics, and ordinary readers. No question is too commonplace, and his responses are always detailed and courteous. Some of the most interesting letters in the collection, such as those to Keith Sagar and Anne-Lorraine Bujon, fall under this category. He tells of the genesis of Crow, his fascination with the Goddess, his interest in shamanism, and the influence of Yeats and Jung. His letters to fellow poets such as Seamus Heaney, Richard Murphy and Craig Raine also give us a vivid sense of his poetic preoccupations.

What did Reid leave out? As someone who has spent many weeks reading Hughes's letters in various archives, I can attest that he included much of the most important material. I imagine the Hughes estate did not want to make the same mistake as Aurelia Plath, who edited Plath's Letters Home; in that collection, Plath's mother omitted many letters in which Plath expressed anger.Reid's edition, on the other hand, is one that aims for transparency. Someday there will be a comprehensive biography of Hughes; until then, the Selected Letters is the best introduction to this most innovative and burdened of poets.
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Author:Clark, Heather
Publication:Harvard Review
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Words:837
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