If Ted and Sylvia had been bloggers?

Poet Laureate Ted Hughes

was recently given a memorial in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.  My own feelings about him have been more negative than ambivalent, as I am a great fan of Sylvia Plath.  I was only 8 years old when she died, and so I didn’t discover her works until after she was gone.  I was 15 when I read The Bell Jar, and then Ariel.  Despite my youth, these books resonated with me and I determined that I, too, would become a poet and a novelist.  Very quickly, though, I became aware I just didn’t have what it took to do either.  My poems, looking back, ranged from awful (which I knew at the time) to having some promise (but I didn’t know what was wrong with them or how to rework them).   I ceased writing fiction becaues I couldn’t write like Sylvia (or Margaret Atwood or even Erika Jong).  The way to write a great novel, it seemed, was to write something semi-autobiographical and, well, nothing had happened to me worth writing about, not even by age 20.  I wasn’t winning literary awards, like Sylvia, I hadn’t won trips to work on prestigious magazines in New York City (Mecca, to me, back then) and even if I had, my parents wouldn’t have let me go.

Sylvia wrote about her own life, which included a lot of depression and pain.  Her mother, in particular, was not a sympathetic character in The Bell Jar.  This aspect of writing – the possibility of wounding people who are close to us – is a roadblock for many writers, and a frequent cause of writer’s block.  Sylvia’s views on her own life, her marriage, the lives of her children were the central themes in her poetry.  Once she was dead, these literary fragments were all they had of her.  Given that Frieda, her daughter, was at the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, one can assume that Frieda has retained an intense interest in Sylvia’s work.

Ted Hughes first attracted

Sylvia Plath

through his poetry, but after her death, he found it very difficult to write.  He did grieve.  But eventually his need to write kicked in again, and he turned to some of his more difficult and highly contextualized poems.  She enjoyed his poetry so intensely, and that they fell into a rhythm of intensely writing poetry together in the first part of their marriage.  At that time, they were lost in a romantic dream of mutual poetry, had no special need for any other audience.  Later, Ted would do the unthinkable and take a mistress.  Sylvia found out about the mistress not too long before she killed herself.

How many people today avidly read poetry?  Not many.  We are far more likely to read tweets or blogs.  Would Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, each of them profoundly lonely and often depressed, have turned to blogging as an outlet?  Would blogging have worked for this purpose?  If they had not initially had each other as discerning audiences, it seems likely that the desire to write – which I think is simply inescapable for some of us – would have worked itself out in a blog or other internet venue.  But blogs, read by strangers, are not the same.  Blogs often strive for humor, for quick fixes of information.

What then, do people do with their deeper puzzlements and griefs these days?  Are we a lot happier now?  Both Sylvia and Ted felt the need to delve deeply, not just into their own sad subjects, but into the forces and sadnesses that made people around them as they were.  Sylvia focused a great deal on her natal family, whose reactions to her works were mixed.  I encouraged my own mother to read The Bell Jar  and she started it, but reported that it was a terribly depressing and pointless book, and couldn’t see why anyone would read such a thing.  I, on the other hand, had felt so heartened to realize that someone else – not just me – was struggling with being a young woman in the mid-20th century.  When I felt suicidal, I could think about Sylvia and the fact that, like many of her fans, I had concluded that she didn’t really intend to kill herself, didn’t really want to die – she wanted to be understood, she wanted to live in a different way than that available to her at the time.  When I felt stifled, I could remember that Sylvia, luminous as she was, also not only felt stifled, but was stifled, by her publishers, her family, even the husband who once so encouraged her.

Ted Hughes has been villified as a pompous, abusive and cruel husband who didn’t really want Sylvia’s poetic gifts to outshine his own.  There seems to be no doubt that he was a difficult person; perhaps both of them were prone to depression.  If Sylvia had not become so famous – and then died – would Hughes’s poetry have been so well received?   He gained a great deal by marrying her, and possibly even more by her death.  He wrote about how difficult this all was, but from my point of view, his poetry became less auto-biographical, more inscrutable.  I don’t wonder at that.  How does a person reveal themselves to the world after even one tragedy, after the suicide of even one wife or lover?

Again, I think about our modern age and how difficult it is to get more than a few readers for a blog, or followers for one’s tweet-feed.  Celebrity now centers around mass media.  Katha Pollett wrote about Ted’s work in the New York Review of Books:

“The trouble is,” said Pollitt, “if you added them all up, you’d have a twenty-page chapbook, instead of a volume of nearly 200 pages in which that intimate voice, insisting on its personal truth, is overwhelmed by others: ranting, self-justifying, rambling, flaccid, bombastic. . . . The more Hughes insists on his own good intentions and the inevitability of Plath’s suicide, the less convincing he becomes.”

She was speaking of how many people read Hughes expecting to find what we find in blogs – some kind of personal voice, some recounting of his unique personal experiences, especially his life with Sylvia.  Note that Katha thinks he can’t speak of his life with Sylvia, even much later, without ranting, self-justifying…and being flaccid or bombastic.  Like many of us, Katha is not convinced that Sylvia’s suicide was inevitable – or that Ted was not part of the cause, if only because he lacked good intentions.  Think of how blog comments would go if Ted had decided to blog about Sylvia’s death rather than write poetry.  Katha also implies that Ted’s work could have been boiled down – to a blog, or a series of tweets.

Katha even goes so far as to claim that Hughes steps into Sylvia’s shoes once she’s dead, appropriating her poetic devices – her voice. 

One of Sylvia’s reasons for suicide was her discovery that Ted was having an affair with Assia Wevill.  Her ability to cope with life at that time was marked by all the hallmarks of severe depression.  She was given anti-depressants (although a type that had previously made her condition worse, unknown to her new doctor).  She killed herself within a few days of starting the anti-depressant (these were 1960’s anti-depressants, not the best), but they probably had the paradoxically effect of making a very sad, immobilized person gain the ability to plan.  She had an in-home nurse to look after her, but she accomplished her death before the woman was due to show up.  She carefully plugged the cracks in the doors to the kitchen with wet towels, so her two sons in the next room would not die from carbon monoxide poisoning.

A friend of hers, Al Alvarez, has stated the obvious:  this was an unanswered cry for help.  But after Ted Hughes’s defection 5 months earlier, after the demise of their very close relationship, there was no one Sylvia felt she could turn to for help.  She was 30.

A few years after Sylvia’s death, Assia herself committed suicide.  She left hints that Hughes was abusive to both her and to Sylvia.  Ted survived though, and found more material for his poetry in these tragedies.  The literary world seems to find such tragedy and scandal as interesting as the tabloids do.

There was a twist to Assia’s death, though.  She also killed her four-year-old daughter, whose father was Ted Hughes.  Ted’s poems began to address his own dark and “bloody” nature.  But he survived -for decades.  Given the tragic material that life had dealt him (or that he had somehow attracted to himself), it’s no wonder that he had plenty of material for his famously dark poems, poems which eventually earned him a memorial in Westminster Abbey.

Ted profited financially from Sylvia’s death, as he owned the rights to her work.  He lived comfortably and wrote more poems.  There was no public feedback, as his poems stayed comfortably ensconced within the literary community – mainly in Great Britain.  Tabloids did not review his writings, there was no blogosphere.  Instead of having to get a bunch of dislikes on Facebook or Youtube, he received honors from The Queen.

Eventually, Ted died of cancer, of something eating him up from within.  His funeral was mainly attended by fellow poets.  About 10 years later, his orphaned son with Sylvia committed suicide as well.

What do we make of this wake of suicides?  Obviously, one wants to say that proper use of anti-depressants might have helped, but in this highly sensitive, poetic group of people, is that truly the solution?  Creative genius is what it is.  Was Hughes a kind of poetic vampire, thriving on the sadness, melodrama and intense angst of those around him?  Was he a bully, incapable of supporting others?  Is his poetry indeed so good that he needs to be memorialized in Westminster, or is it that he was Sylvia Plath’s husband?  Was Sylvia herself one of our great poets or was it her own life – lived in a time when women writing of the contradictions of being creative females, at a time when there were finally a few such women around – that made her so famous?

Let’s not forget that Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Amy Winehouse have all met a similar fateto Sylvia.  In the sixties and seventies (and later), there were an extraordinary number of books on the fate of  creative women.  Madwoman in the Attic takes the problem back into earlier literary times, and Diane Wood Middleton’s book on Anne Sexton is a really eye-opener.

Should Ted be the memorialized poet?  I’d appreciate your viewpoints.  But I do think that if both of them had been bloggers and received immediate feedback from “the world” their stance toward the world (and their depression) would have been different.  But as sensitive folk, the kinds of things that would have been said to them…well, could they have taken it?  Was meanness cloaked in anonymity so prevalent then?  I think not.  They hoarded their tragedies, as anyone who has read The Bell Jar must know.  Sylvia burst forth into many sparkling dimensions, the raw, the tragic, the transcendent in the poems of her last days – the works completed between the time she found out about Ted’s affair and her death, at home, by gas oven.  I don’t see Ted bursting forth, but I guess others think he produced a body of work that makes him esteemed enough to have a memorial at the foot of T.S. Eliot,  perhaps, in a way, Ted occupies his proper place in a kind of waste land.

But if Ted had abandoned poetry and just told us what really happened, some mysteries about life would have been cleared up, at least for me.  As it stands, the tragedies of his life assisted in building his reputation as the kind of poet Wikipedia calls a “bard,”  apparently referring to the sonorous, sadness of bards in ancient times.  The terrible world that Hughes evokes in his poetry, the truths he tries to expose in his words are, however, not the wide social vistas of war, not the launchings of thousands of ships or the deaths of princes.  Instead, it is the private, personal hell of a man surrounded by deaths of innocents, of the creative.  Perhaps no other man of the 20th century had the dubious privilege of looking straight into the face of so much alienation, so much loneliness, fear and grief and lived to write poems about it.

I’ve tried to read his poems from a neutral stance, with the charity I’d give any poet.  His estate has kept many of them out of public view, but Amazon has its previews.  The remembrance poems for Sylvia stand in between poetry and prose, the words of a man battling to remember what he can of his dead wife, to remember what he did not immediately forget, as it happened.  We see an angry Sylvia, we see a husband who may not have liked her very much.  I sense that he blames her for not coming through her therapy, for not making a rational decision not to be depressed.  I see a man who is a bit embarrassed at his wife’s moods, who scrutinizes her closely, who isn’t sure he likes her Americanness.  He sounds as if Sylvia and her friends are too talkative for him, he who wants to hold forth in his own voice.  Does he understand her moods?  At times, he seems to think he has the power to temporarily alleviate her darkness, in the manner of a White Knight.

His words are like the words that slip off people’s lips as they try to give glimpses of their past, and perhaps that is poetry too.

On the other hand, perhaps most people who tell the truth about the death of creativity, the death of love, end up sounding very much like poets.  Even if, today, they are bloggers.


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