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Harper's Magazine
Friday, April 9th, 2010
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Letters of Ted Hughes

by Ted Hughes

Letters of Ted Hughes

A review by John Leonard

Against death the poet Ted Hughes elaborated his own mythology. Birds and beasts were involved -- crows, hawks, tigers, foxes, and wolves. So were metamorphosis, shamanism, and the collective unconscious -- the White Goddess, the Ghost Dance, and Carl Jung. But he also wore Shakespeare like a second skin, and plundered as well the folklore and literature of France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. It was a mishmash, this mythology -- no wonder he was so forgiving of Yeats and his faeries -- but no matter what you hear from those with a peculiar investment in blaming the crude philandering Hughes for the suicide of his brilliant and beautiful wife, Sylvia Plath, there was nothing "primitive" about it. Hughes was as much a sophisticated student of anthropology and comparative religion as he was a radio playwright, a translator into English of Wedeking, Lorca, and Racine, and the author of more than a dozen books for children. Instead of primitive, all these modern poets may actually have been too highly evolved for the rude world they were stuck in; they grew gills for breathing not in water but in words.

Still, such words! Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), some three hundred of them selected and edited by Christopher Reid, is all performance and seduction. No matter whom he is writing to, the poet assembles a scaffold on which to stage his spectacle -- a farce, a tirade, a wheedle, an insinuation, a brief for the prosecution or defense. The letters of Byron come to mind, and of D. H. Lawrence, and of Flannery O'Conner: none of them seemed to know how to slack off. Is Hughes occasionally disingenuous? Well, yes. When your wife kills herself, and then the other woman, the third party in a very literary relationship, kills herself too, you have to feel somehow…implicated. (No surprise, then, that he choose to marry, in 1970, a nonliterary unneurotic farmer's daughter, with whom he lived happily for the next twenty-eight years.) But we know from Plath's own notebooks that had been suicidal before she ever met Ted. We appreciate from these letters her ferocious determination to protect their two children from body-snatching ideologues, even former friends like A. Alvarez, whose Savage God so exploited Sylvia as The Little Mermaid. We may be surprised to learn that Hughes himself is Plath's best critic, more persuasive of her genius then the foofaraw of Freudians. And if we still feel he needs punishing, there is ample evidence that he agreed. Even when he's gone fishing, which is far too often in these pages, a shadow purses him down the decades -- what he calls "Sylvia's particular death- ray quality." The myth of Orpheus, he tell us, was the first story to occur to him after Sylvia's death: "The shock twist was that Pluto answered: No, of course, you can't have her back. She's dead, you idiot."

John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.

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