Look, we all know some things about Sylvia Plath. Here are some things you know:
1. Head in oven.
2. The Bell Jar is that book read by every 16-year-old girl and no 16-year-old boy.
3. She was married to Ted Hughes, who was handsome, and who cheated on her even though she was beautiful enough to be played by Gwyneth in the movie.
4. But seriously, Hughes was handsome enough to be played by Daniel Craig, so… uh… what were we talking about?
5. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
6. Head in oven.
There’s this process that happens when writers become iconic, when they start to mean something ineffable and irreplaceable to thousands of readers, where their work starts to worm down and change the people who read them: this process that turns them from writers into legends, from this vagabond Whitman to old Uncle Walt and his insane beard, from a young guy who wrote a weirdass poem about someone named J. Alfred Prufrock to this oldster whom Virginia Woolf once described as wearing a “four-piece suit.” For Sylvia Plath, whose literary fame came after death, that process begins and ends with the same woman: the golden girl who becomes a goddess, the one who kills herself and then rises with red hair to eat men like air. Lady Lazarus, bones ground into meal and pasted into a book.
This, anyway, is the story that gets told. This is the story told by Robert Lowell in his introduction to Ariel, that “These poems are playing Russian Roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.” This is the story implicitly endorsed by Ted Hughes in his editing of the Ariel manuscript so that it ends in death and despair. The other story is the one of feminist poets and readers and critics digging out the “real” woman from under that myth, as if the bones could be unground. In the slightly incestuous world of Plath studies, this, for a while, led to a split between “Ted” and “The Feminists,” which I can’t help but think of as a pre-Twilight phenomenon. You know if there were Team Ted and Team Sylvia shirts in the 70s and 80s, there would have been fisticuffs at the MLA convention.
Spoiler: I am so Team Sylvia.
I have tried not to hate Ted Hughes. I have not succeeded.
Even as I write this, I want to list the reasons I don’t hate Ted Hughes: maybe I don’t hate him but rather hate “Ted Hughes,” the mythic counterpart to Plath’s Lady Lazarus. Or maybe I don’t really hate him but see him as a symbol of certain elements of literary sexism that push my buttons, every single worn-out one. Or maybe I hate him, the person, but not him, the poet, who could really write magnificently even if he’s not my cup of tea. Or maybe I don’t hate him, but rather I have been trained up in a brand of feminist literary theory and cultural practice that makes me uncharitable to him and over-charitable to Plath, who, after all, could not have been an easy person to love.
I don’t always hate the Ted Hughes of Birthday Letters, the book that came out in 1998, the year of his death. The poems in this book are not as finely wrought as his earlier work, but they have what we all really wanted: Sylvia. The first poem in the book, “Fulbright Scholars,” describes seeing her in a picture for the first time, before meeting her. It ends with the young Hughes tasting his first-ever fresh peach (this was post-war Britain, and he was poor): “I could hardly believe how delicious. / At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh / By my ignorance of the simplest things.” I don’t hate that Ted Hughes. In fact, I kind of love him. I want to warn him. I want to transport both him and Plath into the present and hook them up with some less barbaric options for treating depression, and give Plath a copy of Ms. (founded by her Smith College contemporary, Gloria Steinem). I want that young man to keep tasting that peach for the first time.
But here in the present, in the world which has two versions of Ariel because Plath left one version complete on her desk and Hughes became her editor while still grieving (and still womanizing), I try not to hate Ted Hughes and I fail. When I taught Ariel to college students this spring, I tried to give them as much information as I could: both versions of the book, poems from Birthday Letters, excerpts from Plath’s journals, a timeline of events in both poets’ lives. I asked them to think critically about literary personas, and ponder when the “I” in a given poem can be understood to be the poet and when we must remain cautious about easy identifications. I made them do a thought experiment, in which they imagined coming across a Plath poem without knowing who wrote it, and asked them to describe what they would think of the anonymous writer. And still, despite what I felt was a pedagogically responsible set of lesson plans, we all ended up Team Sylvia.
Part of it is the poems, of course. It’s hard to resist the mesmerizing voice of “The Rabbit-Catcher” describing her husband’s reverence for the cruel snares: “How they awaited him, those little deaths! / They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.” You want that voice to keep speaking, and the knowledge that it stops—that when she died Plath was only 30, for god’s sake—fucks you up as you read. That’s a powerful claim on your readerly loyalty.
More important for my class, I think, was the something at once simpler and more baffling: patriarchy. Sure, I teach from a feminist perspective, and yes yes, smash the patriarchy and all that. But it’s not just jargon: Ted Hughes’s relationship to Plath’s work and fame is literally based on an assumption of patriarchy. He was her husband, so he got to be her literary executor; he got to burn her notebooks (or so he said), he got to rearrange Ariel, he got to decide who published what when. It’s not that he was wrong to do so, and in fact he said more than once that Plath’s fame was what let him financially support their children. But Hughes’s tetchy relationship with critics and biographers was also predicated on being the husband: in various essays on Plath’s work, he stakes out positions on her poetry based on what he knew about the “real” woman who wrote it, while simultaneously denying that anyone could know anything about their marriage or lives from the poems. Until, of course, he published Birthday Letters, in which his own poems get the figurative last word on the matter.
The easiest way to see this inescapable literary coverture is to look at the last poem in Birthday Letters, which is beautiful and which also made one of my students so angry he wrote a whole paper on its patriarchal implications. It’s called “Red,” and it begins with a blunt statement: “Red was your colour.” The poem goes on to describe “you” (who is, at this point in the book, clearly meant to be Plath) using red everywhere: decorations, furniture, curtains, clothing, lipstick. Then the poem swerves, becomes prescriptive: “Blue was better for you. Blue was wings. […] Blue was your kindly spirit.” He wants to wrap the lost woman in blue, to protect her from the “pit of red” she surrounded herself in. Blue, in fact, represents her true self: the poem ends, “But the jewel you lost was blue.” It’s a lovely, elegiac ending. I often tear up when I read it. And then I get angry. Isn’t this the whole problem? Red was your color, but blue was better for you. Ariel was one way, but my way is better. The feminists say things about these poems, but I know better. I was there. I’m the husband. Team Ted.
In her famous, glorious journal entry on the first time she and Hughes met, Plath describes Hughes taking trophies from her: her red hair scarf, her earrings. “Hah, I shall keep!” he barks at her. (So then she BITES HIM ON THE CHEEK and DRAWS BLOOD and holy shit it is hot. TEAM SYLVIA.) She particularly mourns her hair scarf, because she thinks she will never find the likes of it again. (It’s the kind of journal entry that ruins you for your own life, because it’s so sexy and violent and romantic and awful at the same time. I’ll never meet anyone like that, you think, and that’s probably the best for your personal wellbeing, even if you will never get to write Ariel.) When Hughes tells the story, in Birthday Letters, that scarf? It’s blue. Even though he has had her journal for years, even though every Plath fan and scholar knows that scene backward and forward: on Hughes’s page, in his book, he decide’s what’s red and what’s blue.