Sunday, May 02, 2010

Solving Sylvia?

I almost regret getting stuck into Ariel's Gift last week, as it ended up with me re-reading Birthday Letters, Ariel (the facsimile of her original ms), reading Her Husband, by Diane Middlebrook, and then turning to the internet to order Plath's Collected Poems (I did have this, but don't know where it's gone), as well as her Journals, Letters Home (you need these both, apparently, to balance each other out), and Johnny Panic & her collected Prose. I stopped myself just as the bill came to the 100 mark, at the children's stories - but only just.

I've also ordered some Anne Sexton, and Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame, oh and AS's Collected too, I read her work at AMK and decided I really should have my own copy. But that's by the by.

Anyhoo, what do I think of the whole thing? I find S&T's whole story appallingly fascinating. Their sad story reminds me of my own parents: miserable together, miserable without each other. My mother felt trapped by the whole marriage versus a creative life. Like SP, my mother had an American upbringing and education (her parents fled France when WWII broke out). In Dublin at the end of the 60s, at the age of twenty-one, she met my dad, at uni, and got pregnant, married and ended up living in the back-of-beyond in a border-town-land just as the Troubles were starting away from the city lights, trying to raise children and have a creative life. The strain of trying, coupled with the loss of a baby, I think, caused her mental unravelling, and contributed to the subsequent demise of the marriage. He too had his own mental and personal issues - there are always two sides, and then ten more, to any story.

Weirdly (or perhaps not, if you're a psychologist), I've found myself in slightly similar circumstances to my mother: six children and all the concomitant responsibilities that go with those different personalities; as well as my own wants, wishes and desires for a working creative life. I guess you could say that I'm looking at my options; weighing my life and wondering, Have I got the balance right? Am I doing what I want to be doing? I'm beginning to think that the answer may not be what I want it to be; so I'm going to have to think strongly about what's important to me: the writing I should be doing, instead of the energy I give to others in the teaching process (Plath & Hughes taught in the US for a year; they didn't do much writing).

But back to the original spark of this journal-post: Ariel's Gift is designed as a sort of primer; like a literary York notes to Hughes' Birthday Letters. Erica Wagner takes each part of the couple's life together and matches the poems of that period. It begins with the infamous meeting of Plath & Hughes (she reciting his recently published poem back to him; he being snarling and manly - and all the rest) and goes on from there.

After a certain point, I couldn't escape feeling that Birthday Letters is more than an apologia gleaned from a lifetime of mourning and regret. Hughes would always write from the vantage point of selectively looking in his rear-view mirror; how he sees things and how he has to re-read her work in cataloguing it for posterity (and sale to Smith College) -memory being a trickster too. BL is in some aspects a synthesis of both of their work; the working relationship they had once shared was almost symbiotic: they re-used each other's mss to write on, they seized on each other's images and metaphors from poem to poem. In Hughes re-reading of her work, re-working of this material personal to them both, perhaps he came more to terms with the psychic rift that occured between them - but this is to trivialise the whole matter, and to re-hash what a whole pile of other people have written as well; I do realise.

Our fascination as a reader is with the what-ifs: what if she had lived and gone on to develop her writing talent; what could her riposte have been. That is why their story is enduringly fascinating to me - almost fifty years later; that and the personal similarities that I identify with.


Totalfeckineejit said...

Not wishing to add further financial burden to your bibliophilistic recuperation, B, but could I suggest 'A Lover Of Unreason' (The life and tragic death of Assia Wevill Ted Hughes' doomed love) By Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.Which adds other pieces to the puzzle.


Rachel Fox said...

Interesting to hear some of your family history, B. And to read about your own decisions-to-make.

AquaMarina said...

hi barbara - I second what TFE has recommended - a lover of unreason - but it might make you fume - not necessarily a bad thing considering how ted hughes is reputed to have behaved around the numerous women in his life, and his daughter shura. it definitely lends a very different perspective to the story....
and I am ploughing through the birthday letters at the moment, to me that collection is a damn hard slog...

Liam Guilar said...

Hopefully this means you're feeling better?
I've been using the two versions of the rabbit catching story: Plaths' "The Rabbit Catcher" and Hughes' "The Rabbit Catcher" in class for some years now.
Easier to see the better poem, less easy perhaps to see how each operates within its own forms of special pleading to make the speaker the victim?
I wonder how long it will be before the poems are allowed to stand without the biographical baggage?

Rachel Fenton said...

I thought you were feeling a little better!? Eek, Plath and Hughes!! Read some tosh next.

Anonymous said...

Reading the Ted & Sylvia story convinced me that two poets living together creates tensions, jealousies, mismatches in outlook and expectation that constitute a recipe for difficulty at least, disaster at worst. I love other poets, but I wouldn't want to live with one.

Marion McCready said...

The British Library has recently produced a cd compilation of all of Plath's recordings including interviews with Plath and Hughes on their life together, fascinating listening to them sharing and interacting as, at that point at least, a couple very much in love.