The Februaries of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

February 10, 2016
University of Nevada, Reno

There was particular Saturday Night Live segment I used to love. Easy Listening music would start playing and the announcer would intone “And now, Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey.” T.S. Eliot once wrote a short religious play called “The Rock.” It’s a bit of a clunker that was set to music and performed as a pageant to raise money to build churches in London. The religious symbolism is not subtle. The main character is called “The Stranger,” and his role, essentially, is like Jack Handey’s. The Stranger’s job is to ask three-piece tweed suit versions of what can only be called Deep Questions:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

But like Saturday Night Live, you can get pulled up short if you really start thinking about these. I mean, imagine The Stranger joining Megyn Kelly as one of the moderators at the presidential debate?

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Wow. Let me pull away from the digital glow that I’m reading from here and the buzz of alerts that’s been vibrating on my wrist the last few minutes to get uncomfortable and say, “Hey, stranger. I don’t know.”

One definition of a stranger – it goes back to the 16th century - is someone who stops visiting you. It may seem an odd way to use the word, because you’re talking about someone you have known; you’re calling someone a stranger who’s already been a part of your life.

But people do become strange to us. We lose them. It’s a natural part of life. Sometimes we wonder how we ever knew them. It’s a cliché about the rush of contemporary life, of course, that we abandon the past, move on, pursue new relationships, new information—or as Eliot’s Stranger would say, we lose Life by living so fast.

But what if we stall and get lost in both directions? What if we not only become strangers to the past, but willful strangers to the future as well? What if we become so glued to what we’re feeling and doing right now, so certain of our identities and beliefs we only know how to shout them, not hear them questioned, never care to see ourselves deeply changed?

What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”

When Eliot’s narrator asks if we’ll be ready for “The Stranger,” it can sound like that tee shirt that says, “Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.” But what about just someone ordinary coming? All of us risk getting smug and afraid, wary of anyone different from us, new to us. And now we can police ideas at warp speed, bully skeptics across the globe and mock eccentrics who venture across the street with just the technology in our pockets.

Last week, I had the joy of meeting the poet laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera.I was very taken by something he said about poetry. He said it’s something that gets invented “en las fronteras.” At the borders. And I said to him, you know, Juan Felipe, it’s really interesting to me that that word – frontera– comes from the Latin word for our foreheads, the fronts of our faces. En las fronteras, at the borders, it’s forehead to forehead, face to face. That’s where strangers can get a good look at one another, where we can know whether or not people are telling the truth, where we can look them in the eye.

The first time I really crossed any kind of border and became a stranger, I was 18. I had grown up on a small farm on a dirt road. Six families shared the same phone line. We knew everybody and everybody’s business. I was the first in my family to go to college and when I got there, I didn’t let too many people look this stranger in the eye because they would have seen a dumb, closeted kid pretending to fit in, pretending to be a lot better educated than I was. Which would not have taken much.

Somehow, within a few months of getting there, I found myself sitting around a big oak table with a group of students I didn’t know and at the head of the table was the great poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney was famous, but not yet world famous. He hadn’t won the Nobel Prize.

I was very lucky to get know Heaney a bit the next few years. We both loved talking, we both loved poetry and we both loved Guinness. But that day, I still knew practically no one. And I knew practically nothing compared to the students around the table who’d read all Heaney’s books and so many other damn books I hadn’t.

Heaney went around the table and asked us to tell him about some poem we’d just read and fallen in love with. I didn’t know enough poetry yet to have really fallen in love. And I said something very stupid, something I thought would be a harmless brownnosing deflection from myself. I mentioned someone I knew was his friend. I said I was reading the British poet Ted Hughes. Everyone else heard me say another name with two syllables. They heard me say I was reading Satan.

If you’ve studied any American poetry, even in high school, you probably know the basics of the story I ignorantly stepped right in the middle of that afternoon: the story of Sylvia Plath, the genius and fragile saint tortured and driven to an early death by the devil, Ted Hughes. To many, particularly American readers, it was a vulgarity, an insult, a provocation to read Hughes.

I didn’t know any of Hughes’s poems well enough to defend them. I was even more embarrassed I hadn’t read Plath—poems I drop my jaw to read even after studying them with love and care, poems that shock my fingers they are so dangerous and ruthless and beautiful.

But Heaney didn’t mock me. He was so good with strangers. We was a diplomat with all of us, in the way, as an old joke goes, a diplomat can tell you to go to hell when you ask for directions—and you feel compelled to say thank you. Heaney grinned at the strangers around the table. He said about Hughes, “The Devil. Well, there’s an interesting character. He certainly got the attention of John Milton.”

That didn’t change many minds about Ted Hughes. In fact, things got a lot worse for Hughes’s reputation. We were sitting around that oak table trying to impress Seamus Heaney in 1979. It was almost a decade later that Hughes really finally wrote about Plath and he threw a Molotov cocktail in a book of 80 poems called “The Birthday Letters.” It became a bestseller and source of epic, defining fights among strangers, even between good friends.

Hughes has become stranger and stranger to us ever since. I would say that because opinions have become so hardened, Sylvia Plath has become stranger to us too. It’s more than 30 years since I met the poems of Plath and Hughes. Coming here in front of you, as a stranger, I thought I’d revisit them. And since it’s February, I think it’s the perfect time. February, to put it mildly, was a red-letter month for Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

If February was mostly a month of disasters for Plath—serious depressions, a burst appendix, and in February, 1961, a devastating miscarriage—it was also the month when Plath was a senior at Smith College that she received the news she had gotten into Cambridge University, where she would take her Fulbright scholarship. It was in February, after years of rejection, that Plath finally got a contract from a publisher for her first book of poems, “The Colossus.” And it was in February that she got a contract with The New Yorker Magazine.

Two events, though, forever define this month for Plath and Hughes:

On February 26,1956—sixty years ago this month—one of the most famous meetings of two strangers in literary history took place at a party. Sylvia Plath, the young Fulbright scholar was 23. Ted Hughes, whom she described the next day in her journal as a “big, dark, hunky boy” was 25. They were drunk. They were rough. Hughes left with his cheek streaming with blood because Plath bit him hard after he forced himself on her.

Not quite seven years later—fifty-three years ago tomorrow, on February 11,1963, Sylvia Plath left out food for her two children and attached a note to the baby carriage with her doctor’s number. So much of this story is hell, so much of it many of you already know and probably have strong feelings about. Fifty-three years ago tomorrow, Plath went into her kitchen, wedged the door and tried to seal the room with towels, tape and kitchen rags. Then she put her head in the oven.

But let me leave this story, not with certainties, but with questions. I want to leave you with it the way Hughes famously revisits Plath, a few months before they actually met. This is the first poem in “The Birthday Letters.” It’s a poem about strangers. It’s a poem of questions—as really all poems are. It’s called “Fulbright Scholars.”

Fulbright Scholars

Where was it, in the Strand? A display
Of news items, in photographs.
For some reason I noticed it.
A picture of that year’s intake
Of Fulbright Scholars. Just arriving –
Or arrived. Or some of them.
Were you among them? I studied it.
Not too minutely, wondering
Which of them I might meet.
I remember that thought. Not
Your face. No doubt I scanned particularly
The girls. Maybe I noticed you.
Maybe I weighed you up, feeling unlikely.
Noted your long hair, loose waves –
Your Veronica Lake bang. Not what it hid.
It would appear blond. And your grin.
Your exaggerated American
Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.
Then I forgot. Yet I remember
The picture: the Fulbright Scholars.
With their luggage? It seems unlikely.
Could they have come as a team? I was walking
Sore-footed, under hot sun, hot pavements.
Was it then I bought a peach? That’s as I remember.
From a stall near Charing Cross Station.
It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.
I could hardly believe how delicious.

But Hughes can’t really have the last word. If anyone should, let it be someone 18, the age I was when I was a stranger to the work of both Plath and Hughes, but couldn’t admit the immensity and the ordinary of all I didn’t know.

Here is something Sylvia Plath wrote when she was 18, and as you’ll hear, so clearly and eloquently not a stranger to herself or the world that really matters, the world she really wrote about—the world inside her. This is from a letter to her mother:

What do I know of sorrow? No one I love has ever died or been tortured. I have never wanted for food to eat, or a place to sleep. I have been gifted with five senses and an attractive exterior. So I can philosophize from my snug little cushioned seat … [What] have I to complain about? Nothing much. The main way I can add to my self-respect is by saying that I’m on scholarship, and if I hadn’t exercised my free will and studied through high school I never would be here. But when you come right down to it, how much of that was free will? …does not my desire to write come from a tendency toward introversion begun when I was small, brought up as I was in the fairy-tale world of Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh? Did not that set me apart?

Related: Reno Lecture Fulbright poetry