Why are we so Unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?
July 13, 2017 11:44 PM   Subscribe

I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.”
posted by Anonymous (50 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- frimble



 
I wonder if there is some cultural amnesia at play. Sylvia Plath was very much a cultural touchstone when I was in university doing a creative writing degree 25+ years ago, and Ted Hughes was still alive. Are either of them even thought of much anymore? I know that most of the writers I admired and read and debated and talked about, such as Plath, have faded away, replaced by newer icons.

But Hughes' reputation back then was such that Plath was always cast, at least from a conventional point of view, as basically "crazy". Hughes had moved on. Plath had not (of course, she could not move on). But his presence and his voice for decades after her death must surely be one of the reasons why we're surprised when accounts of his abuse of her came to light in her letters recently.
posted by My Dad at 12:09 AM on July 14, 2017 [8 favorites]


The comments to that article show that the arguments over the two of them continue unabated to this day.
posted by pharm at 1:47 AM on July 14, 2017


My Dad, for what it's worth, in my generation of lit majors, Hughes is a footnote to Plath's body of work. "Sylvia Plath's shitbag abusive husband who was a bad Daddy figure and generally unworthy" is the cultural place he occupied in the 00s-10s, in my experience. Literally a footnote to "Daddy" and that's all the space he gets. Plath's poetry is everywhere, but I cannot think of a single instance of anyone citing or posting or teaching or talking about Hughes' work. Ever. This article is surprising to me; I'd thought he'd been kicked out of literary canon decades ago.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:19 AM on July 14, 2017 [49 favorites]


I don't think Plath is fading into obscurity whatsoever. As a secondary ed English teacher, I know plenty of high schools still assign The Bell Jar and/or some of her more famous poems; I don't think the same is true for Hughes, however. . . at least not in U.S. high schools. There's also a lovely little exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery right now. I'm spending this week at the museum and the exhibit has been busy every time I've stopped in.

Thanks for this post, stoneweaver. Plath's poetry was a component of my undergrad thesis, and at the time (in the early aughts) I was often warned to avoid her, as if her "craziness" was contagious. It was infuriating. What attracted/attracts me to Plath is the genius of her work, which I believe will endure in the canon.
posted by katie at 3:25 AM on July 14, 2017 [9 favorites]


From my reading over the years, Hughes's writing has long been respected, but largely without passion, while Plath's writing ignites some readers in ways Hughes will never do. But neither is likely to fade away any time soon as their history together is representative of many debates around art, women and men in culture, and rights more generally. Plath will, I think, remain the more notable of the two, with her writing and place in literary history being far more significant than Hughes', but his work will likely be revisited again and again as part of the quandary over the value of the artistic voice opposed to the reality of of artists' lives, their beliefs and actions.

Plath's continuing notice will keep Hughes works in a lesser degree of note as other writers will seek to examine the works of each in an effort to answer questions that are perhaps ultimately unanswerable.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:29 AM on July 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


Happy to say I've never heard of Ted Hughes before this post whereas The Bell Jar remains a touchstone for many.
posted by emd3737 at 3:30 AM on July 14, 2017 [12 favorites]


My Dad, for what it's worth, in my generation of lit majors, Hughes is a footnote to Plath's body of work.

That's interesting! I also studied English literature in the mid 2000s in England. I got the impression that they were considered to be of equal importance in the literary canon.

I love Hughes' poetry, especially his animal poems. I feel a great personal fondness for those poems - as a teenager they were among the first that awoke in me an appreciation of poetry as an art form. I think it would be a shame if his work were to fade away into insignificance - but this is the first I'm hearing of that happening, either to his work or Plath's. There's a big debate (which I am not going to get into) about respecting or appreciating an artist's work even if the personal life of that artist contained elements that you did not agree with or could not condone - but it was reading the poetry of Ted Hughes that established my stand in that particular debate. (Also, he wrote The Iron Giant, which I will always love.)
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:36 AM on July 14, 2017 [10 favorites]


Plath's continuing notice will keep Hughes works in a lesser degree of note as other writers will seek to examine the works of each in an effort to answer questions that are perhaps ultimately unanswerable.

Sorry for the double post, but that was beautifully put.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:47 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Plath was a huge inspiration to me and most everybody I knew who loved poetry, while Hughes is pretty universally reviled/ignored. Plath ranks as one of the most respected poets Americans still read, I think. Hughes is remembered mainly as some kind of monster/Nazi oppressor or loser. I don't think anybody I knew picked Hughes' over her. Why would they? Plath was brilliant. It's a shame she never found peace in life. Being abused and having mental health problems is unfortunately common. The worst is when a partner knowingly manipulates another's mental illness as abuse.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:25 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


I heard of Sylvia Plath during college in the 90s. Not Hughes.
posted by amtho at 4:35 AM on July 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Oh, and just to be clear, my reading has been more of the literary journal/collected essays sort, where I think Hughes has more standing than in a University setting for a number of reasons, tied mostly to his relationship with Plath.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:05 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


There seems to be a North America/UK divide on Hughes, at least in terms of the reception of his work. His work is studied and respected in the UK, at least it was when I did a poetry module for my degree 4-5 years ago. There is a big issue around how to handle the work of someone talented but morally questionable though, (Eric Gill, as well, for example). But that's for another FPP perhaps.

As to why we haven't taken Plath seriously on Hughes treatment of her: most women who have experienced mental health problems can tell you how people treat you like you're just imagining things or making shit up, and that you're unreliable.
posted by tinwhiskers at 5:52 AM on July 14, 2017 [24 favorites]


This essay is perfect-- thank you for posting.
posted by leesh at 5:54 AM on July 14, 2017


If you look up Ted Hughes at Amazon, he has a dozen books in print. Books of poetry. He clearly isn't beyond the pale. I've not read him much, but I remember quite a bit of fuss over Birthday Letters when it came out. I have no idea if he is taught in schools, but a poet having books in print for years is not common.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:31 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there is some cultural amnesia at play. Sylvia Plath was very much a cultural touchstone when I was in university doing a creative writing degree 25+ years ago, and Ted Hughes was still alive. Are either of them even thought of much anymore? I know that most of the writers I admired and read and debated and talked about, such as Plath, have faded away, replaced by newer icons.

When I was in high school around a decade ago, The Bell Jar was read in tenth grade and I've heard many people call it a classic of American girlhood and womanhood. My assumption was always that she was one of the most significant writers of the 20th century. We read a bunch of Plath poems too in high school. I doubt any of my classmates ever heard of Ted Hughes--I only did because I was so interested in Plath that I did more reading on her life.
posted by armadillo1224 at 6:34 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Hughes is remembered mainly as some kind of monster/Nazi oppressor or loser.

saulgoodman, this is exactly the impression a US lit education gave me of Hughes, and damn, what a burn. The world is way too full of people who could accurately be described as "some kind of monster/Nazi oppressor or loser" these days but I don't often see it spelled out so plainly, what an excellent turn of phrase.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 6:37 AM on July 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


OTOH, maybe Hughes is exactly the kind of person who should be studied, if you consider that those sorts of people have to be dealt with in a variety of situations and in a variety of ways. Ignoring them doesn't make them go away. Understanding what really goes on with someone in that situation could be very valuable, especially if you can get an idea of how they really see themselves.
posted by amtho at 6:50 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Hughes's poetry is the occasion of a funny moment in Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. The teenage protagonist is mightily impressed when his English tutor quips, "Of course, everyone's worried about what happens when Ted Hughes runs out of animals." ("We thought it was the wittiest thing we had ever heard.") Later, he steals the line and tries it out on his new girlfriend. "Are they?" she says, unimpressed.
posted by Beardman at 6:54 AM on July 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Fascinating interview with Frieda Hughes, only surviving daughter of Plath and Hughes.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:59 AM on July 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Plath's reputation as a respected part of the literary canon (at least in the States) has been around for as long as I can remember, and perhaps even, as My Dad points out above, has crested and passed, to be replaced by newer faves.

Where is this writer's idea that Plath is largely seen as some sort of "victim" or "freak" coming from, other than a memory of a throwaway line from an long-ago episode of Gilmore Girls? The Hughes "cronies" this writer says expressed disbelief in Plath and her voice are all long dead, are they not?

As for Ted Hughes, I agree with Katha Pollitt that he'll mostly be remembered not by his lifetime honors and accolades, but as "the most notorious literary spouse in history" -- as the writer in the OP link says, not just because of his abuse of Plath during her life, but as executor of her estate, for his wrenching violence against her journals and her poetry beyond the grave.
posted by blucevalo at 7:15 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I hadn't known about Hughes until we covered him in a Modern British Literature class I took last year (we read Crow). We touched on the abuse. I'd been at least somewhat familiar with Plath's work since high school. In the U.S it seems like Plath is pretty well known, whereas you only hear about Hughes knee deep in an English lit degree if at all.

One thing that's interesting to me is that (maybe owing to the novel's place on a lot of high school reading lists) it seems like Plath is better known for The Bell Jar than her poetry. I guess that might have to do with how little poetry is covered in high school classrooms.
posted by Gymnopedist at 7:43 AM on July 14, 2017


Frieda Hughes' 1st book of poems was dedicated very pointedly:"To[or For] Daddy, with love". It includes a piece directed at Aurelia Plath describing how she tried to make her granddaughter something she was not.
posted by brujita at 8:57 AM on July 14, 2017


The story of Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes left Plath for, further illuminates what a sadistic abuser he was. Yet, her suffering is also largely erased in favor of his legacy.
posted by quince at 9:14 AM on July 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


I was doing the academic poetry thing in the early 80s, and, even then, while he Hughes was read and discussed, it was always with an element of "interesting poet, terrible person" even then, and nothing I've seen in the last 30 years has made me think his star is rising, while Plath is still holding steady. If anything, I think his treatment of her has become the major element of his story for most people who know who he is, while she is read on her own merits, at least in her most famous works.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:15 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Where is this writer's idea that Plath is largely seen as some sort of "victim" or "freak" coming from, other than a memory of a throwaway line from an long-ago episode of Gilmore Girls?

The author writes of having spent time at Smith College doing research. I don't know what the attitude is like there now, but when I was student, Plath was an ambivalent figure. She was spoken of as a literary celebrity, and members of the English department admired her work. But it seemed like she got a lot of criticism for not being strong enough or feminist enough. I heard people explicitly rejecting her as a "role model"-- which, why should an artist be a role model? And then, there was a certain amount of judgment about her fans, who were seen as being morbid and as glorifying her suicide, and that stuck to her.

I always found that weird and unfair. Even putting aside her considerable work-- not to mention the role she played in shaping Hughes's career-- here was someone who survived a breakdown and suicide attempt, and won a scholarship to Cambridge. When I think about the stigma attaching to mental illness in those days, it blows my mind that she was able to do that.
posted by BibiRose at 9:22 AM on July 14, 2017 [9 favorites]


Agree that this is a US/UK divide— the US perspective is much more likely to be “Plath was a genius boxed in by oppressive gender norms and an abusive cheating dickbag husband who kept trying to diminish her fame/reputation”.

The only professor I ever had who taught Hughes as something other than a footnote to Plath’s career was Irish. I wrote a grad school paper for that same professor about Plath, and he seemed mildly surprised by my take on Hughes and his posthumous attempts to violate Plath’s artistic legacy (after doing the same throughout her lifetime).
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:31 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Agree that this is a US/UK divide

Definitely. Hughes is a major English-language poet, and the fact that you've never heard of him doesn't change that. There's an important award for new poets named for him and a scholarly journal devoted to his work. He was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for 15 years. He has a memorial in Westminster Abbey.

His relationship with Plath is a tremendously fraught issue, and definitely raises important questions about whether we can consider a Bad Person to be a Good Artist. But to say "he's a minor poet who I've never heard of and who will quickly be forgotten" is just ignorant.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:15 AM on July 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


the fact that you've never heard of him doesn't change that

...are you talking to me? I have obviously heard of him, and I have studied him, and read multiple biographies of him, and I own several volumes of his work.

Did anyone here say that "he's a minor poet who I've never heard of and who will quickly be forgotten"? I'm not sure where you're getting that.

My point wasn't that Hughes is a minor poet. My point was that he is less likely to be treated as sacred and a Major Cultural Force in the US.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:32 AM on July 14, 2017 [8 favorites]


For those looking to try some of Hughes' work, I might suggest his Tales from Ovid: 24 Passages from the Metamorphoses, one of his last works. Not a translation as much as a reimagining.
posted by the sobsister at 10:55 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


"the most notorious literary spouse in history"

Ehhh, I bet F. Scott Fitzgerald could give him a run for his money.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:32 AM on July 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Ted Hughes probably rings a bell for most people (whose bell is rung anyway) as the author of The Iron Giant. I have a degree in English Lit. and I'm still pretty sure that that was the first time I ran across his name, after being enamored of the movie adaptation.
posted by Quindar Beep at 11:41 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I feel like this thread turning into a conversation about the merit of Hughes' work is kind of indicative of the essay's point!
posted by leesh at 1:47 PM on July 14, 2017 [19 favorites]


I'm not a scholar of either Plath or Hughes, but I have read Crow, Tales from Ovid, and Birthday Letters. But for my money, Hughes' adaptation of Seneca's version of Oedipus, first directed by Peter Brook in the 60s, is my favorite. It's quite good.
posted by nushustu at 2:11 PM on July 14, 2017


There's a big debate (which I am not going to get into) about respecting or appreciating an artist's work even if the personal life of that artist contained elements that you did not agree with or could not condone

This sounds like it could be or should be true. but there isn't a debate; there are two big and separate debates on art vs artists, one for men and one for women.

The one for women is (as noted above): Is she good enough to be a "role model" for dumb girls who, like baby birds, can only imitate their idols and never think critically about them? We can set aside her alleged personal faults and talk about her poetry if, and only if, the answer is yes. We won't, but we can.

The one for men is: Is he bad enough that his name should be wiped from the annals of history and all of us pretend he never lived? Worse than Hitler? We can stop talking about his poetry if, and only if, the answer is yes. The answer is never yes.

There is an extra footnote, which reads: The worse a man is as a human, the better his poetry is, probably. Definitely better than his wife's, whoever she may be. There's no logical or artistic reason this should be true, but it's a sweet irony, so let's all decide it must be true.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:56 PM on July 14, 2017 [37 favorites]


Oh, for her account of her last two years.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

Seven years. Seven fucking years.

And here we are talking about Hughes's work, discounting the author of the linked post in a variety of ways (a professor literally writing a book on Plath, like she's some kind of expert).

Ach, du.
posted by sockermom at 3:58 PM on July 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure I'm getting the pearlclutching about discussing Hughes' work, particularly given that a number of comments spoke precisely to the point of his being lesser known or unknown by the commenter. One can discuss Hughes--who, after all, was fucking Poet Laureate for 14 years--and his work without condoning the behavior of which he was accused or dismissing/diminishing Plath and her story.
posted by the sobsister at 4:17 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Pearlclutching? Seriously?

I grappled with the question of the role of the artist in art for quite some time. I rationalized to myself that they were separate, that the art existed outside of the artist. This allowed me to continue consuming things I enjoyed very much - Woody Allen movies, Hughes's work, Brown Sugar by The Rolling Stones.

And then I was in a situation that was similar, yoked to a man who shared my profession, with whom I became intimately involved and who put me through hell for nearly four years of my life. And this man became a minor celebrity, and that was partly due to him stepping on my back. Squashing me. Trying to chip me away, often succeeding. And he cost me. I am still paying and it's been five years. My work still suffers. His does not. It never did.

There's a reason that Plath likened Hughes to a vampire in the quote from Daddy I included in my above comment. He took her blood, and he used it to breathe life into his own work. He stood on her back to get there. He crushed her with his black boot. He stole from her. Oh, he stole from her, and he profited. His gains were her (and ultimately, our) loss.

Separating the art from the artist is not possible. It is a theoretical mind game we play so we don't have to look at the heart of the truth. Good writer or not, poet laureate for 14 years or not, to talk about the merits of his work is to contribute to the problem.
posted by sockermom at 4:26 PM on July 14, 2017 [32 favorites]


Hughes certainly had a 'problem' with the women his life. Poor dear boy. So misunderstood.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:29 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I respect your point of view and appreciate your explanation. There are artists I've really liked about whom I wish I'd never learned some fact that irreversibly formed my opinion of them as people, and not for the better.

That said, as you note had been the case with you, there are people whose expression of their talent is sufficiently compelling to me that I will still, in the course of reading or watching, see their work, knowing what I've learned or, sometimes, even what I've "heard" about them through the media filter and public commentary.

I think, for me, it's less a matter of separating the art from the artist than of looking at the art through that filter as well. I don't really want to die on Ted Hughes Hill in defense of his worth as an artist and certainly not as a husband, but there are other examples of people whose work would be harder to exclude from the public forum without causing notable lacunae in a field or genre. That said, I appreciate the indirect validation that continued public discussion of the person might confer, "setting aside" the behavior or way of being. It's not an easy question, but it's hard for me to agree with suppression of public discussion of art of any quality or level of celebrity.
posted by the sobsister at 5:31 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I just am bummed that an article and discussion about how Hughes' version of their marriage--when he deliberately destroyed Plath's words-- has turned into a discussion of which of his poems are prettiest. The point is that we should be talking about HER, validating HER talents, despite his efforts to erase her work and discredit her.
posted by leesh at 5:59 PM on July 14, 2017 [12 favorites]


>[a] fucking Poet Laureate for 14 years

>suppression of public discussion

?

this article is about sylvia plath. one can certainly discuss hughes' WORK and all that - when hughes' WORK is the focus. this article talks about hughes the person through the lens of sylvia plath.
posted by cobain_angel at 8:11 PM on July 14, 2017 [11 favorites]


Is there a collection of Plath that isn't Hughes-filtered? I have two anthologies of his that I very much like and several of their poems in my commonbook collection but no specific volume, although I have read Bell Jar. I was planning on getting his translation of Ovid, but I'd rather get a Plath edition ahead in the queue.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:30 PM on July 14, 2017


Not sure what you mean by Hughes-filtered but the diary collection cited in the OP is fantastic. Also Ariel.
posted by sockermom at 8:53 PM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Ha, I was just going to link to the restored Ariel! Frieda Hughes (their daughter) wrote the foreword, and she discusses the way her father's edits of Ariel warped her mother's intentions. It also contains facsimiles of Plath's notes and creative process. Here's a quote from her foreword: "Since she died my mother has been dissected, analysed, reinterpreted, reinvented, fictionalised, and in some cases completely fabricated."

There's this thread with women writers throughout history where they are portrayed as "opening a vein" to write, instead of being professionals who work hard at their craft. A lot of literary historians have written about how it is a power move to control narrative, as well as a trick to make women's writing more commercially successful. Charlotte Bronte did it to Emily after she died (and to Anne, although a bit more scornfully). Percy Bysshe Shelley drastically altered Frankenstein to obscure the criticisms of his own behavior embedded in the original text. And Hughes helped sell the myth that Plath's poetry was some sort of primal feminine cry instead of the work of a grown up artist who worked tirelessly and with total authorial control.

There is a 2005 book by Adam Kirsch where he writes about the lack of respect afforded to different confessional poets, including Plath. He criticizes the naivete of such a position, pointing out that to do so is a sort of literary objectification where we read her biography as primary and her work as secondary, despite the mountains of evidence that show exactly the opposite. To read her work as purely autobiographical is not to read it at all, given how much work she does to revolutionize the persona poem. No one accuses Robert Browning of secretly being a murderous duke because he wrote "My Last Duchess". Yet 90% of male critics in the 60s were staunchly opposed to examining the actual content of Plath's work, because it might have detracted from their determination to fetishize her death.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:09 PM on July 14, 2017 [15 favorites]


Thanks for this post, and the rabbit hole it sent me down. I'm not a diehard Plath fangirl, but I have a deep fondness for Ariel, some of which I can still quote verbatim more than thirty years after I first read it. I'm now listening to the poet herself, recorded in 1962, reading works from the anthology (part 1, part 2, part 3). Poetry should be heard as well as read, and few poets can read their own work as convincingly as she does here. This is a rare pleasure.

As for the OP, it's thought provoking, but I'm doubtful. I may be selectively remembering here, but I recall Hughes being dogged by controversy throughout his life over his treatment of Plath, and it hung over him like a cloud even when he was honoured by the British literary establishment. Equally, it's all but impossible to detach Plath's achievement from the pain and trauma of her brief life, because her fate is foreshadowed in so much of her writing. I tend to think the author is falling into the same trap of fetishising/myth-making as the scholars she's criticising.

Monster or victim, I think it's important to separate the art from the artist, particularly when it comes from a place as dark as this. These poems are themselves so bracing, so visceral they're paradoxically life-affirming. I feel it does Plath's genius a profound disservice to reduce her to Sylvia the abused spouse, Sylvia the mental patient, when Plath the poet is an artist for the ages. It's true that her work exists as a testament to her own struggles, but it's so much more than that besides. It speaks to mortality and violence but has the capacity to make the ordinary extraordinary. It is savage and lyrical, sometimes darkly funny. We are very lucky to have it.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 4:35 AM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Equally, it's all but impossible to detach Plath's achievement from the pain and trauma of her brief life, because her fate is foreshadowed in so much of her writing.

With all due respect, this is buying into the myth Hughes helped create to erase Plath's genius. To assume that her death was "fated" and that her poetry can be read as psychological clues to her future suicide is to listen to his framing more than hers. Elisabeth Bronfen wrote about this impulse, saying "When [poets like Plath] turned to experiences like madness and despair and lust...they did so in order to make effective works of art, not in order to cure themselves or shatter taboos. To treat their poems mainly as documents of personal experience is not just to diminish their achievement, but to ignore their unanimous disdain for the idea of confessional poetry. Plath scorned the notion of poetry as "some kind of therapeautic public purge or excretion" ".

I also think it is very convenient that the myth Hughes helped create-- "she was FATED to die!"-- so easily covers up his own guilt. Oh, it was fated, so it must not have had anything to do with the abuse or the infidelity or his lifelong efforts to undermine her career with the willing collusion of so many of his friends in the biz!

A huge number of the critics who went all in on the "tragic fate" take were the same critics who regularly dismissed her as "just a housewife" while she was alive. A. Alvarez in particular carried a lot of water for the "doomed woman" tale, but he was the same dude who admits in recollections that he had no idea that "poet Sylvia Plath" and "Ted's wife" were the same person. He was an editor who was publishing her poetry under the name Plath, but she used to tell a story about how the first time she met him in person, he was confused as to why a silly housewife was bothering him instead of taking care of her baby. (Doesn't it seem interesting that Ted Hughes never seemed to mention to all his prominent literary friends THAT HIS WIFE WAS A FAMOUS POET? That he called her "Mrs. Hughes" instead of mentioning that she was Sylvia Plath, famous author?)

(But once she was dead, ofc, Alvarez wrote an ENTIRE BOOK about how all of her poetry forecasted her death and how poetic and beautiful suicide---and the dead body of a dead woman--- is. I mean????????????)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:37 AM on July 15, 2017 [15 favorites]


Damn, that quote, stoneweaver! Thank you for allowing me to reclaim my teen girl loves and not feel silly about it!
posted by leesh at 8:52 AM on July 15, 2017


With all due respect, this is buying into the myth Hughes helped create to erase Plath's genius. To assume that her death was "fated" and that her poetry can be read as psychological clues to her future suicide is to listen to his framing more than hers.

I don't disagree with this, in fact that's more or less exactly what I was trying to say. Where we differ is that I don't see Hughes as the sole author of this myth by any means. Plath's struggles with depression predated their relationship by many years, and she'd already attempted suicide more than once before they'd even met. This is not to say that Hughes was blameless, but neither was he the root of all her problems, and he certainly didn't deserve all the death threats. That narrative comes as much from her influence on the early feminist movement as from anywhere.

In the long run though, neither Hughes' professional jealousy nor her status as feminist icon can do anything to eclipse the power of Plath's writing. When I first picked up Ariel as a teenager, I knew next to nothing about her. Discovering a little of her life story alongside her poetry gave a certain context to the imagery, but ultimately it was her fearless confrontation of mortality that drew me in and continues to fascinate.

She's certainly not the only artist to have used existential suffering to make extraordinary self-immolating art before taking their own life or otherwise destroying themselves. Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse spring to mind. Like Plath, Cobain and Winehouse were also survived by abusive partners who have since tried to distort their legacies. None of these artists were necessarily doomed, but all of them were married to assholes. Maybe the assholes had something to do with it and maybe not, but all three produced great art from great pain.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 9:20 AM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


From the linked article:

When it comes time for Rory to write her entrance essay to Harvard, she mentions Plath as a possible topic and is dissuaded from it by her mother, Lorelai—Might send the wrong message.

The sticking her head in the oven thing? Rory says, looking disappointed.

Yeah. Although she did make her kids a snack first. Shows a certain maternal instinct.

Rory ends up going with Hillary Clinton instead.


Ouch.
posted by rpfields at 10:32 AM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


In Australia, Plath and Hughes aren't studied in high school (no idea about university). The little bit of poetry we cover is usually Australian authors. I only heard of Plath via feminists mentioning or quoting her, and of Hughes as her dirtbag husband. So reading this article and the others linked in the comments was eye-opening to me.

He beat her until she miscarried. He was persistently unfaithful. He edited her work to cover his arse. There doesn't seem to be a single way in which he didn't violate her: physically, emotionally, professionally.

I know it's hard to detach from art you loved before you understood the world and I have my own blind spots for various artists I can't defend. But his poetry cannot possibly be so good as to make me want to read it now, coming to it fresh. I want to find some re-edited work of Plath's to read now, just to give her silenced voice a little more time in the world. Thanks everyone for the recommendations already in the thread - I'd be happy for any honest biographies too.
posted by harriet vane at 6:09 AM on July 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


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