“But we weren’t mad at Ted Hughes,” certain of you ladies will doubtless tell me. And to you I say: Yes, you are! And stop it! For a man has written a newspaper blog post about what bitches you are all being!
For, you see, the world is now in possession of a Ted Hughes poem about Plath. This poem, says The Man Behind The Blog Post, “shows how intense Hughes’s pain and guilt was at her suicide.” That is… debatable, actually? Beside the point! For “however deep the pain, it won’t be enough for the deranged group among Plath’s fans; the sort who were responsible for vandalising her grave to remove Hughes’s name.”
I mean, yeah, the gravestone-vandalizing was counterproductive and wrong. Which I think every marginally reasonable person in the world agrees with. But also, this dude has such a stellar point, overall! I mean, all Ted Hughes did was pick up a gal with a history of suicidal depression and massive abandonment issues relating to The Dudes, marry her, abandon her (whoops!) in the cruelest manner possible, leave her with the responsibility of caring for two small children which as I understand it is incredibly hard and stressful even if you’re not clinically depressed and dealing with a recent traumatic abandonment that has re-opened that big old treasure trove of Your Issues and set them loose to devour your brain like Dad-shaped zombies, and then, following her totally spontaneous and out-of-nowhere and in-no-way-foreseeable-to-the-point-of-being-almost-inevitable-given-these-specific-circumstances suicide, go around re-editing manuscripts so that they excluded the poems about hating him and getting rid of diaries surrounding the circumstances of their break and her death, much in the manner of a man who has but recently thrown a lit match into a pile of oily rags being all, “well, it really is a shame that the house spontaneously combusted this way! Nothing we could have done to prevent it, I suppose. What a tragedy. Let’s not assign blame here; this is a private matter.” I mean, you guys: What could people possibly be mad at Ted Hughes for? WHAT DID HE DO WRONG????
And yet, I myself do not spend a particularly large amount of my time feeling angry at Ted Hughes. I spend a large part of my time feeling deeply uninterested in Ted Hughes; whatever I think of his behavior, his work just doesn’t appeal to me. The words “new Ted Hughes poem revealed” excite, for me, the same feelings as the words “Blues Traveler concert” or “best bar in Wyoming.” How nice for you! If you enjoy that sort of thing!
I will admit, however, to feeling irritated by Ted Hughes poems that are about Sylvia Plath. One reason for this is that I already have a whole lot of very good poems about Sylvia Plath to read, and they are by Sylvia Plath. The other reason is the same reason I occasionally refer to The Birthday Letters as You Guys, What About MY Feelings: The Point-Missing Chronicles. Which is where we actually do get into the Feminist Anger At Ted Hughes Thing. Which, as with much feminist anger, and many cultural phenomena, is not so much about a terribly sad thing that happened to one family as it is about the terribly sad things that happened to the people who heard about it.
Sylvia Plath died the same year that The Feminist Mystique was released. The result was that The Feminine Mystique and Ariel were, in a weird way, related to each other for your more reading-prone ladies. Ariel was one woman’s deeply unhinged, expressionist, interior story; The Feminine Mystique was an objective, lucid, sociological critique of the stories many women found themselves living. When ladies put the two together, and when we paid more attention to the circumstances of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, well, a story emerged. It was based on her story, granted — but it was also based, to a much larger degree, on ours. And it went like this:
You’re talented. You’re really talented. You might even be a genius. And your gentleman, he’s talented too, though not to the degree that you are. But you type his manuscripts. But you go to his lectures, you nurture his stardom, you play the part of his loving support and fan club. But you are responsible for his domestic comfort. Oh, you have your own successes. He even encourages those. But he’s the talent; he’s the big man; he’s the star. And then you get tossed over, for someone who is nowhere near as talented and spectacular as you, because it turns out that the talented, spectacular part of you, the part that you thought made you a couple in the first place (“we kept writing poems to each other,” was how Plath described their courtship, “then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on”) was never enough to keep him interested. Was never essential to him, the way it was to you. Was never a part of the purpose of you — because he doesn’t need talent or spectacular qualities in girls, apparently. Because he prefers his girls to lack those. So you wind up with all the responsibilities — the kids, the house, the cleaning, the cooking — while he goes off to be a genius for some other girl who’s way more suited to play a supporting part in his life story. Who doesn’t have within herself the potential to eclipse him, to be the one that the story is actually about; who’s safer, that way. You wind up writing all your work — your work, your amazing work, your genius — at four in the morning before the kids wake up. Because that’s the only time you can write it. Because that’s what women do.
Yeah, Robin Morgan wrote that poem — “I accuse Ted Hughes” — and, you know? It might have been insensitive, it might have crossed lines, it might have put all the blame for an unjust system on one guy who did lose someone in a really bad way and whose behavior very probably was motivated as much by the need to protect his children as it was by the desire to protect himself, and it might have ignored the fact that the entire weave of their relationship ultimately wasn’t knowable, but that was where we were at the time. We accused Ted Hughes. We accused every Ted Hughes. We accused everything that made Ted Hughes possible and common. We accused the men, the culture, the basic fact that we kept getting punished for being good. That talent was a liability. That the Great Artist’s Wife keeps a day job so that Great Art can exist, the Great Artist’s Wife knows that he is tormented and difficult and takes it upon herself to understand him because Great Art often comes from weird and challenging people, but there’s no such thing in this world as the Great Artist’s Husband.
This was such a big part of the second wave that it’s become a cliche: Women who date men often seek out geniuses, heroes, creators; they often seek out men who are accomplished in the same fields they want to be accomplished in. And when their boyfriends are smarter or more talented than they are, they don’t tend to be jealous or competitive. They tend to be happy. Because that’s how things are supposed to work — exceptional women wind up with more exceptional men. But when a man finds out that his girl might just be better than he is, when he learns that there is a hero in this story and he’s fucking her, well: That man has a problem. And the girl is going to pay. It happened then, and it happens now. It’s still happening. It’s not always the way things go, of course. But, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go on, you’ve got to be very, very lucky and very, very discerning to avoid it.
So, yeah. I don’t spend my life hating Ted Hughes. I never knew Ted Hughes, and also he is dead now, so it is literally impossible to dislike anything but an idea of him, and I’m not interested enough in him to spend a lot of time dwelling on that idea. But I don’t have any interest in reading poems by Ted Hughes about the story of his marriage to Sylvia Plath, because I’m familiar with the story. It’s a story about one person who did great work, and one who did very good work; one of them wound up dead, and the other wound up Poet Laureate. And, I admit, I particularly don’t have any interest in reading poems about Ted Hughes leaving Sylvia Plath that contain lines like these:
My escape had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted
Because, you know, God forbid Sylvia Plath make the “escape” hard on Ted Hughes or anything. Why can’t Ted Hughes have an easier time, with the deserting her? Why can’t she just be cool about it? And I have no interest in lines like these:
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: “Your wife is dead.”
“Better go tell that lady you’ve been shacking up with,” the voice apparently did not add.
I mean: There is so much here. So much! About how Sylvia Plath’s death might be the one thing Hughes might not want to make entirely about his own feelings and needs, about how far gone you have to be to shatter an already very breakable person to the point that they lose the part of their brain that contains a survival instinct and then complain about how unpleasant your fucking “escape” was. But then, someone else wrote it already:
The tattle of my
Gold joints, my way of turning
Bitches to ripples of silver
Rolls out a carpet, a hush.
And there is no end, no end of it.
I shall never grow old. New oysters
Shriek in the sea and I
Glitter like Fontainebleu
All the fall of water an eye
Over whose pool I tenderly
Lean and see me.