I read this because as is my way of reading I had an instantaneous and wildfire need to read Birthday Letters and try as I might I couldn’t get Birthday Letters legally or illegally straight to my phone. I never intended to know as much about Sylvia Plath as I do. I don’t think well of her work, though my opinion, in maybe a Stockholm scenario, is becoming more ambivalent (really in significant part because I read her very good essay about her childhood). Obviously this is not really a book about her but a book about a book about Hughes, whose work I do think generally well of. But I was surprised to find my impressions of her confirmed by those who do respect her as a poet: Hughes says “Your heart, mid-Sahara, raged / In its emptiness. / Your dreams were empty.” This is what I’ve always thought and said. I can’t believe the emptiness of her brain. Intelligent, sensually perceptive, extreme-ly emotional and totally empty inside—it must have been like hell for her. Like a living hell!
I was also astounded to have my suspicions about her occult interests confirmed and surpassed. It’s pretty popular now as part of the super-reality story to say Hughes was moony and superstitious and Plath was cynically rational. People say that her ouija poem is about her skepticism of fey tyrannical Hughes’ beliefs. I don’t know how anybody could read her diaries or even have a passing familiarity with her poems and her way of putting things and come away thinking that.
Anyway, I hadn’t known the origin of the “Colossus” title and I am both cross with her for not using this experience more deftly and deeply—and I’m sure the reason is because she was such a middle-class prig, sensitive to poetry fashions of the time, which definitely looked down on the ooky spooky—and I’m also amazed at her foolishness, their foolishness.
I read Hughes’ Tempest commentary and I see the origins of the error—a terribly tragic mistake, probably life-deranging: in his read, Prospero is powerless without Ariel and so Ariel’s earth-magic is the driving power of the story and play. Imagine a world in which Will (the motive engine of the fairy world, at least in magicians’ view) with its stupid fireworks is more worthy than Absence, Renunciation, Inaction, which is Mercy. This world is the anti-Zen and frankly the attitude of hell. It’s the magical attitude which would have deranged Yeats if Yeats hadn’t been so sincere and sweet; it’s the attitude which arose from the willfully-deranged Aleister Crowley.
I share a lot of attitudes with Ted Hughes. I guess it is unavoidable given our shared interests and comparable cultures of origin, and of course given that he had a hand in shaping many of the things which shaped me (particularly the 70s-90s renaissance of British folklore and paganism). And we are not so far apart in time. The dozy stoned incantations of whatever higher science has made its way down to urban folklore which so marked people of a certain intelligence and inclination in the mid-century are as attractive to me as they were to him—I’m a Y2K child as he was a child of the two apocalyptic technology wars, so both of us like to dreamily move through the kinds of Physics lingo people invoke when they think the world is ending.
All of this is to say that I like him, rather, and certainly am predisposed to like the way he talks about things, and that the subject of poor Plath is one I am interested in only accidentally. This book is a good poetic commentary and a great insight into both people. The author makes an admirable stylistic choice in a book which is otherwise (and quite naturally) formulaic—she creates a subtle, nearly secret and always brief confusion sometimes about who wrote what: she’ll put off capping a quote with “as Hughes writes” etc for a few lines of thought. After a while it becomes gooeyer than you’d think—the sounds of Plath and Hughes blur more sometimes than I would have expected. I have to think this is a choice on Wagner’s part, given the otherwise seamless construction, and knowing nothing of her at this point I wonder if she’s a poet herself.
But this is what is most important. The final lines of the book are the most shocking volta I have ever read in nonfiction. The entire work becomes a terrible brilliant Goldberg machine for those final lines. Read it for those alone, and read them last.