Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Ted And Sylvia

by lizard

I had no idea how much I didn’t know about the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath until tonight. I had been somewhat familiar with Plath’s poetry and her tragic suicide on February 11, 1963, from being assigned The Bell Jar in high school (Plath’s only novel published in the UK one month before her suicide), but I had no idea her husband was a notable poet as well, and that he became a vilified figure after his wife’s death.

In trying to piece this post together, I ran across this article from Slate, first published in March of 1998. Here’s the introduction:

In 1963, the 30-year-old poet Sylvia Plath killed herself, placing her head on a folded cloth inside an oven and turning on the gas. Posthumously, Plath became a feminist icon. A slew of memoirs and biographies argued that the arrogance of her macho husband Ted Hughes, Britain’s current poet laureate, precipitated her suicide. For 35 years, Hughes maintained a calculated silence about Plath’s death. Last month, he finally published his side of their story in Birthday Letters–an autobiographical collection of 88 poems, written over 25 years. Hughes’ friends predicted the book would exculpate him and silence his critics. But the debate remains as shrill as ever. What is the case against Hughes? How have Hughes’ opponents and proponents exploited Birthday Letters?

I haven’t read Birthday Letters, but I have read the last collection of poems Sylvia Plath wrote before killing herself, Ariel, and it’s only because I pulled that book off the shelf tonight that I ended up writing this post. Here is a poem with serious teeth:



First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit—

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

To contrast Plath’s poem, I’ve selected a poem from Hughes’ collection, titled Crow:


When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.

He got his strength flush and in full glitter
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.

He laughed himself to the centre of himself

And attacked.

At his battle cry trees grew suddenly old,
Shadows flattened.

But the sun brightened—
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.

He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.

‘Up there,’ he managed,
Where white is black, and black is white, I won.’

—Ted and Sylvia

  1. d.g.

    Hughes can use language more adeptly. But never as Plath did. Hugo impressed upon we, his students, that poetry was 50% sound and 50% sound. So few are born with the ear for the sound. Plath was. Sadly, the projected, emotive reponses of her followers often swallowed up the sound. Damn, you bastard you, you could write. Vote for mental health care that we might keep our bi-polars on the planet so much longer…..

  2. Ingemar Johansson

    Sylvia Plath’s name sounded so familiar.

    Then I remember I had just read this article from the Smithsonian.

    Interesting comments on wether she truly belongs on this list.

  3. marcogibbo

    She was an incredible poet, probably almost impossible to live with–which she oviously would agree with. Crazy is as crazy is . . . but she was a poet for the ages. People will be picking up Ariel and holding their breath for as long as the book exists. And he’s a damn good poet, too. But she cuts through the words and the poses and the poet’s gifts to whisper truths we know too imtimately . . . she gets inside us like ourself, the vulnerable voice in our head. She is . . . something.

  4. You’ve captured the symbolism of her death by oven gas very well as it reflects her obsession as the victim of a holocaust of the soul.

    Good job, liz; and thanks for your splendid appraisal of my trip into haiku.

  5. Ok, liz; i’m on a roll:

    full moon

    whispers then laughter
    brush by pale undulations
    clouds part then beckon

    kisses, caressing
    mountains rising to greet as
    earth scented steam sends

    spire seeking crater
    rushing melting together
    two blossoms emerge

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Ted and Sylvia […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Ted and Sylvia […]

  3. 3 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Ted and Sylvia […]

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