I arrived in London feeling eager, yet slightly nervous at the thought of meeting one of England’s most controversial poets of all time. Hailed by critics and condemned by feminists alike, Ted Hughes was without contention, a mastermind of words. His new poetry collection Birthday Letters has been the subject of much debate. To a feminist like myself, the poetry seemed to be only justifications for the death of one of the greatest female martyrs of contemporary times.
Stepping through Regents hotel lobby, I anticipated a wizened old professor, arrogant but well carried by the years. The man I met instead was a grey haired old gentleman carrying a grey striped frock suit and an unassuming novel. There he was, the enemy of all women.
With this in mind, I shake his hand graciously and offer him a tentative smile. My time with the British Laureate was short, thus I decide to get straight to business, drawing the slight quiver in my voice as I shoot out my first question.
“Professor Hughes, one of the most contended interpretations of Birthday Letters is that you had written it to absolve your involvement in Silvia’s death. How do you consider this perception? ”
It was probably the most common question anyone had asked about this latest collection. Hughes answers without so much as a blink in his eye.
“The conflicting perspectives offer the reader a duality on certain events, personalities and situations. I wanted to compose a conflict in emotions, in love and hate, in appearance and reality.”
I relate that “Red” presents conflict in emotions through the symbolism of the colours red, blue and white.
“That’s right,” he nodded approvingly. “These colours represent different aspects of Sylvia’s emotions. Red symbolises her passion and anger, “Red was (her) colour… was what (she) wrapped around (her).”
The professor stirs his coffee with nostalgia.
“The blue represented her more subtle personality. When I first met her, she was a “kindly spirit” with a lucid and “thoughtful” character. The world however, only knew the red Silvia, her repetitive need of “blood”, “blood red” emotions.
Intrigued by his symbolism, I ask Professor Hughes the importance of white.
“Between her rages and her lucidity, she was quite cynical.” Hughes smiles.
“White symbolised a sterile and clinical psyche, mixed with bursts of intellect that “escaped into the whiteness”. He maintains that he liked the lucid Plath the best, “Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.” In the end, he notes with a wave of his teaspoon, “But the jewel (she) lost was blue.”
I suggest that the companion poem, to Red would be The Minotaur. Hughes laughs lightly at my suggestion, ‘you are not wrong.’ He replies.
“The Minotaur presents the differing perspectives of love and hate between Sylvia and I. Strictly speaking, the poem required a catalyst for our obstructed love and occasional hatred, “The Minotaur” for both Silvia and I was her father.”
I asked Hughes if the first two stanzas of the poem, illustrating their discontent through the thematic verb choice “smashed, “swung” and “demented”.
Did he intend to show the magnitude of her psychosis?
For a moment Hughes malingers as if over some forgotten memory. I notice for the first time just how old he looks, having lived his prime in the fifties.
“The dialogue of sarcasm shows that I was truly upset” Ted notions. ‘Marvellous! Go on! Smash it into kindling.” “It was a moment of weakness” he suggests, “I really intended to help her. You can read the lines- “That’s the stuff your keeping out of your poems” and then “Get that shoulder under your stanzas, and we’ll be away.”
So what went wrong? I enquired.
“The Goblin” replies Hughes with a grimace. “The trauma of her father forever drives a deep wedge between us. “So what had I given him? The bloody end of the skein” is a rhetoric dedicated to the Minotaur that always haunted her.”
Did he ever surpass that barrier? I questioned.
“No.” he stated as a matter of fact. “She was in the “Grave of (her) risen father- and (her) own corpse in it”. Hughes stops and sips his coffee.
“Horned and bellowing.” He adds, as if to reinforce the message.
Watching Hughes in a nostalgic daze, I struggle with the notion of so much feeling and the epic task of conveying to the public ones most secret emotions. I ask Hughes about his last mentioned poem- “Your Paris.”
“I could never guess what she really thought.” Ted replies melancholically “Like Lester and Carolyn.” He chuckles.
I asked if he was referring to American Beauty.
“That’s exactly right” he nods. “See in “Your Paris” the confliction arises between the pretence of our different perceptions. It also highlights our struggle to maintain that appearance over our true view, just like the protagonists of American Beauty.”
I ask if he could iterate what he meant.
“In the poem, the duality of Sylvia’s perceptions of Paris stems from her secret pain of reminiscence. This is symbolised through the phase- “Hotel Deux Continents” as she attempts to conceal her agony through over-enthusiasm through the hyperbolic “ecstasies ricocheted.”
“In American Beauty, I suppose you could relate Carolyn whom constantly reminds herself of her duty as a salesperson to maintain a superficial image. If memory serves… “My company sells an image. It’s part of my job to live that image.”
Hughes thinks for a moment.
“My romance with Sylvia is akin to the Burnerd’s false family.” He reminisces. “Recall the scene with the whole family in the kitchen. The medium shot of the scene cascades the father, the mother and the daughter in one singular shot, using a mis-en-scene to show that they are a family unit. However they are arguing, and the dialogue is misfitting for the scene itself.”
I reply that I do recall that scene.
“The truth then, is shown by Ricky, the boy with the 8mm.” Hughes smiles. “It shows all three of them, each far apart from each other with a grainy shot taken from the left.”
“That is our romance.” Ted closes his eyes for a moment. “The primary scene is what the world sees of Sylvia and I. Birthday letter is what the 8mm sees of the relationship, its subjective, but it’s the truth.”
Ted sits back in his chair. My coffee has gone cold.
As our discussion about Birthday Letters come to an end, I realise that Ted was not the murderer of a feminist martyr. He was just a lost soul, an old man trying to rekindle the memory of someone he truly loved for the rest of the world.