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Last Words of the Broet Laureate

Bro Bibles: ‘Birthday Letters’ by Ted Hughes

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

I know, I know: Poetry seems anathema to the “bro” identity. It’s hard to picture the guy who’s into both Tucker Max and Robert Frost. Yet poetry is also well-adapted to the task of laundering male resentment — a poem can be “raw” or “unflinching” where the prose would hit as cheap or nasty. The testicular response to Instagram-famous women poets like Rupi Kaur are typewriter-owning misogynists like Collin Yost, who, after receiving a somewhat sympathetic profile as “the most hated poet in Portland” when his work went negatively viral, revealed himself to be a Trump-adoring conspiracist. What a turn.

What I’m saying is that poetry, as a cerebral game of shifting and doubled personalities, allows weird room between its voices. Text that looks confessional can be defended as folkloric, and we rubes — with our paltry education toward reading the stuff — are not equipped to pin it down. To put it more harshly: we don’t understand what poems mean.

Still, the poems of Ted Hughes are what most poetry-averse Americans would guess poetry in general to be: stiflingly English stuff about nature. Your mileage will vary there; Queen Elizabeth, at least, had always loved his bard-of-the-moors routine. Note, however, that Hughes’ work overlapping or absorbing a default notion of what constitutes respectable poetry — the creatures and landscapes that ring dangerous or sublime; an eye on obscure, bloody history — betray the amateur’s pre-existing biases in favor of rugged “masculine” roving and abstract “feminine” interiors. Emotions are hard to grasp, but trees and hawks are familiar, real and solid, a painting that looks like something. The bro instinctually aligns with Hughes’ physical heft and totems while shrinking from the subjectivity you find in the poems of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, while the couple was separated due to Hughes’ infidelity. His mistress at the time, Assia Wevill, would go on to kill herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura, in 1969, and in much the same manner as Plath — with a gas oven.

The legend of Plath as a doomed genius, and her marriage to Hughes as a tragic mistake, are inseparable from her howling art, and Hughes was commonly blamed for her death. Although this discounts Plath’s clinical depression and past suicide attempts to an irresponsible degree, Hughes was likely abusive in their time together. He is believed to have strangled Plath during their honeymoon, openly wished her dead, and beaten her badly enough to induce a miscarriage. Perhaps it’s fairest to say, then, that Hughes was a shitty man with a shitty life that wasn’t entirely unearned.

Except that he got the last word in. Birthday Letters, published shortly before Hughes passed away in 1998, collected decades’ worth of poems “ostensibly addressed to Plath.” They describe a fraught relationship upon which he had typically refused to comment following its violent end. These were hailed as some of his best — Birthday Letters racked up all the right awards and reviewer superlatives. As an attempt to “nail shut a Pandora’s box of prurient, often vicious, speculation,” it succeeded insofar as it elided his villainy with a portrait of a difficult woman designed to self-destruct regardless. “Nor did I know I was being auditioned / For the male lead in your drama,” he writes of an early encounter in “Visit,” referencing the staginess of their dynamic again a few pages later, already casting himself as a bystander with a set role and immutable lines. Just as quickly, he establishes Plath’s father as the monster who really led her into the grave: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at God / When his death touched the trigger.”

“Daddy” is one of Plath’s major poems, deeply controversial for its sadistic Holocaust imagery, published in the posthumous collection Ariel, a book itself curated by Hughes. Everywhere in Birthday Letters its content is weaponized against her, a proof of familial fate by which Hughes was the victim because it left him behind, less renowned. As a consequence, Plath’s suicide sounds not only “hard-wired into her very being,” as the New York Times had it, but a necessary solution to her inherited trauma. That is, you will not need me to tell you, a bad, rotten, indefensible idea. “You lashed for release, like a migrant eel in November,” begins “The Beach,” adding to a store of beastly comparisons — animals are elemental to Hughes’ world — that sicken the heart and make your skin crawl. “I was the snake-charmer — my voice / Swaying you over your heaped coils,” he hisses in “The Rag Rug.” What with all his nods to a ruined and “radioactive” Eden, you hardly need to wonder why he has her assuming these slithery forms.

Even worse are the direct visions of Plath, which strive to embody the grotesque: “And the tanned / Almost green undertinge of your face / Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited / Head pathetically tiny.” Elsewhere, he nosedives into colonialist language Kipling might have admired. “Of your lips, like nothing before in my life, / Their aboriginal thickness. And of your nose, / Broad and Apache, nearly a boxer’s nose,” is how she appears in “18 Rugby Street.” If she is not a serpent, she is a primitivist archetype, and if you didn’t think Hughes would manage to squeeze that kind of racist junk in here, then buddy, you don’t know the British. Plath’s midwife, for another instance, “Was a miniature Indian lady / Black and archaic,” a “deity from the Ganges / Black with alluvial wisdom,” who had “monkey-fine dark fingers.” (For those keeping score, Plath was not too enlightened on race, either, as her journals confirm.) Even miraculous childbirth, by the way, one of Plath’s great subjects and favorite metaphors, is second to insemination: “You took root, you flourished only / In becoming fruitful — in getting pregnant,” Hughes writes in that same poem, “Remission.” Do you have to abhor him as a public figure to condemn this kind of jealous attack? No, but it sure helps.

As for the resulting kids, they are only ever Plath’s — “your son” and “your daughter” — somehow orphans despite their dad. Hughes is at once banal and cruel when guilting his wife’s ghost with their offspring: “Remember how we picked the daffodils? / Nobody else remembers, but I remember. / Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy, / Helping the harvest. She has forgotten. / She cannot even remember you.” Just as much of a final “fuck you” are the taunts about reading her diary, especially seeing as he admitted to burning those kept in her last two years. Of her previous lovers: “You never told even your secret journal / How many, who, where, when.” And her mental illness: “Your journal told me the story of your torture.” These moments of surveillance are almost perfectly calculated to enrage the part of his audience that suspects he managed Plath’s literary estate according to his own selfish interests. He got to tell his side of events and control which parts of hers got out.

But Hughes’ view of Plath as quintessentially of her country — the words “America” and “American” recur with abandon, and she is, at one point, “an American girl being so American” — speaks to the failure of this creative conquest. Birthday Letters is built on allusions to the poems and gestures in Ariel; it is largely a reply to, or gaslighting dismissal of, that singular source. And as Britain lost its foothold in the so-called New World, as the Englishman Hughes lost the battle to subdue and and tame his wild American soulmate (he mentions their wedding as “my theft of you”), he cannot clamp onto or civilize the brutal wilderness that is Plath’s archive. I think you have to credit him with realizing this inadequacy, at least, along with a gray bitterness that romanticized death played into her eclipsing celebrity: “Ouija” ends with the acid prophecy that “Fame will come. Fame especially for you. / Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes / You will have paid for it with your happiness, / Your husband and your life.”

The lures of Birthday Letters, then, are voyeuristic and petty, affixed to a raft of medieval and classical garbage, the ogres and Minotaurs and windswept shores and frozen fields that were Hughes’ actual, “manly” poetic concern. The anecdotal scenes only argue that Plath was always feverish, panicking, wrathful and erratic, while he was the soothing, patient, level-headed caretaker — in sum, that she was an unreliable woman, while he was a rational man. From here, of course, you are meant to wonder if Plath’s art was in some sense an “accident” when contrasted with his careful, intentional oeuvre; he diminishes her legacy by the implication that she was too reckless to be taken seriously.

And while that wasn’t going to persuade Plath’s numerous anti-Hughes successors to set aside arms, it sits neatly inside male fragility, a familiar model of the way men band together to defuse and suppress a womanly threat. So a guy who picks up the book today, ignorant of the surrounding fray, can file Plath away as “crazy,” while poetry dudes who should know better are off the critical hook, free to comfortably imagine they’re reading a humane reckoning and farewell, instead of what it is: revenge.