Book review: Birthday Letters

19:00, Oct 24 2012

Whoa...I'm going to do something a little brave and review a collection of poetry this week. It's not even a new collection - I'm going with Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, which was published in 1998. It was his last collection of poems and was a homage to his wife, Sylvia Plath.

We've already discussed in a previous post how some readers either don't get or don't have the patience for poetry, which I think is their loss.

Anyway, on to Birthday Letters. I think one of the most powerful poems in the collection was the last one, titled Red, in which he talked about how red was Plath's favourite colour, quite apt of course, considering how her life ended:

When you had your way finally
Our room was red. A judgment chamber.

Hughes' work often has powerful imagery of animals and nature. His 1970 anthology Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, is a frightening portrait of bleakness. You could almost feel the despair seeping from every page - not a surprise, considering that he wrote it between the suicides of two lovers in a similar manner, within the space of less than a decade. 

Birthday Letters is voyeuristic, autobiographical (obviously), and though it doesn't reveal anything new, I think it's fair to say that it shows that contrary to some popular opinion, Hughes did care about his wife's death. He would have to be a psychopath not to feel deeply about the suicide of the mother of his children, so soon after he left her for another woman.


But on the other hand, some of the poems also feel a little like justification. There's a tad too much self-defence in some of the lines, which blame all of Plath's problems essentially on her father, when surely his own behaviour must have contributed to at least some of her depression.

Some of the most beautiful lines describe their first meeting. It's one of those scenarios where if you were watching a movie, you'd be screaming at the screen - at both of them, telling them to stay away from each other and their mutual self-destructiveness.

You meant to knock me out
With your vivacity. I remember
Little from the rest of that evening.
I slid away from my girlfriend. Nothing
Except her hissing rage in a doorway

Surely from those lines alone, you can deduce that Hughes was not a man who could be depended on if you were after faithfulness and stability. Of his affair with Assia Wevill, all he said was that the "dreamer in me fell in love with her". Again, sweet lines, but it feels a touch immature for a man of Hughes' years and stature to write.

The most poignant poem in the collection, though, is Life After Death, in which he describes the pain of losing a loved one in such an awful way:

By night I lay awake in my body
The Hanged Man
My neck-nerve uprooted and the tendon
Which fastened the base of my skull
To my left shoulder
Torn from its shoulder-root and cramped into knots

Have you read Birthday Letters? What do you think of Ted Hughes' work?

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