Sylvia Plath Forum

May - June 2007

Discuss Sylvia, the film

Jim, my copy Butscher's book, "Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness" is an old paperback. It's on the first page, before the title of the book, and could have been something the publisher wrote (I should not have used the word "introduction"). It's headed "Sylvia Plath as others saw her" and none of the quotes except the last one is attributed to its speaker. Underneath that it says, "In grade school: 'a beautiful child, very intelligent, interested in everything.' As a new freshman at Smith: 'she didn't have the right kind of clothes, she felt gawky and awkward - which she was - and she had an astonishing lack of a sort of general know-how.' Married: She was passionately, brilliantly happy... I remembered at least once experiencing a thrill of fear at the idyllic pitch and intensity of her happines.' With her children: 'She could be savage as a leopard in defending her offspring.' On Sylvia's last Christmas, her mother said, 'I had never seen her so strained... I know I had let her down in some final and unforgivable way. And I knew she knew.' It's odd to skim through this book now. Butscher could not reveal Richard Sassoon's full name, so he referred to him as Richard S---" and Assia Wevil as "Olga."

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
June 27, 2007

Just a few comments on Jillian Becker's "Giving Up": The genealogy of biography is interesting in that "early" is often discredited in lieu of "up to date." But memories erode with time, and eyewitness testimony given a decade after the fact is almost inevitably going to be more reliable than eyewitness testimony given 4 decades after the fact. (Even if one does have a steel-trap cranium like Marcel Proust, or "Memory Babe" Jack Kerouac).

From where we stand now, Diane Middlebrook's "Her Husband" remains the best and most comprehensive biography of Plath and Hughes to date, in my opinion. However, Butscher's antiquated account is still infinitely better than Paul Alexander's 1991 Hughes-hate missive. Hence.... contemporary does not necessarily mean more accurate and/or exhaustive. This is a particularly relevant point when considering, say, the recent Wevill bio. If present day biographies/memoirs are culling from interviews conducted back in the day, or journals kept back in the day, fine. But, again... I have to take claims given nearly 40 years after the event with a grain of salt. I guess something doesn't default into history until all its survivors are no longer with us... a kind of extinction of living resources. Testimony is like perishable food... it truly does need to be put to use before it spoils.

Otherwise, I very much enjoyed Becker's book (in fact, I devoured it). I agree it's a must-read for anyone seriously interested in Plath, and, in spite of time's blind spots, there's surely enough truth there to render it worth admitting into the archives.

Thanks also to the person who provided the info about the Hughes documentary. And the Sexton footage was a joy to see. I also ran across an entertainingly kitschy and surreal depiction of Plath and Assia Wevill meeting in the afterlife that I couldn't make heads or tails of...complete with an Enya-ish soundtrack warbling the ethereal refrain: "Sylvia and Assia Forever." gotta love it.

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
26 June 2007

Melinda - I would be interested in more details about where you found the statement purportedly attributed to Aurelia Plath in Edward Butscher's book "Sylvia Plath: Method & Madness" (New York: Seabury Press, 1976). I have in front of me a copy of the book, copyright 1976, in which there is no Introduction. There is a 2-page Preface that is entirely about the writing of the book and doesn't mention Aurelia Plath at all, then there are 4 pages of Acknowledgements, and then the first chapter: "My childhood landscape was not land".

However, in chapter 21, on page 351, he does discuss Alvarez's memoir, and there he quotes Alvarez: ...when he left her flat at eight o'clock, he admits: "I knew I had let her down in some final and unforgivable way. And I knew she knew." There is nothing in the book to indicate it is a revised edition.

I'm not disputing what you say, it's just interesting that this apparently was corrected without any notice made of it.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
June 25, 2007

Thank you, Morney, for the information on Jillian Becker's book 'Giving Up.'

I have just discovered in my old copy of Edward Butscher's book 'Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness' that in the introduction of the book where Butscher lists the way others saw Plath, he states, "On Sylvia's last Christmas, her mother said, 'I had never seen her so strained...I know I had let her down in some final and unforgivable way. And I knew she knew.' " Possibly he corrected these words (that Alvarez actually said) in later copies of his book? I don't know. Mine is copyrighted in 1976.

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
June 23, 2007

I've always been intrigued by Alvarez's description of Sylvia Plath's general unkempt state in her last few days. Poor Sylvia, always so proud of her lovely long hair. She who insisted on hot baths, whatever the cost, was apparently reduced to a general state of dishevelment. I think Paul Alexander even wrote that her hair gave off a rank "feral" smell. If true, how could her disheveled appearance not raise great alarm among her friends and acquaintances? But Alvarez alone seems to feel a sense of guilt and shame. Knowing her previous history, it seems odd that anyone, least alone the Beckers, would let her return home in such a state of acute distress. I certainly would not have driven her, and thus facilitated her determination. Particularly in light of her doctorās warning. The signs were all there, had anyone really been looking.

Trish Saunders
Seattle , USA
June 22, 2007

To find this forum is a thrill. I "discovered" Plath right around her suicide, and fell so in love with her work, I went into a personal mourning that never fully lifted. Although barely in her shadow, I am also a poet, who is currently working on a poem about and to her--it took this many years to address her horrid end.

Yet this forum tells me that in the end is her beginning. For my Master's Thesis I argued how Ted Hughes had undermined and marginalized her poetry, even down to the inscription on her grave (not to mention burying her in close proximity to his mother so both could be "underfoot"): EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES/ THE GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED. Thanks to her late (not late enough for some) husband, her headstone will allude more to his poetry than hers throughout eternity.

Nonetheless, how wonderful it is to read so many people are still uncovering the same sort of mud and trash-slinging by others who are still clearly intimidated by the poet, and that so many are actively clearing away the garbage, dusting off her gravestone, and planting perennials that will rise up and bloom each year.

Rhoda Greenstone
Long Beach, CA , USA
June 20, 2007

On the subject of colors in Plath's work: It's interesting to look at A Concordance to the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (Richard Matovich; Garland Pub., 1986). The most commonly used of all significant words in the poems (after 'the', 'of', 'and', 'a', etc.)is the word 'white', used 166 times. Whiteness has differing, and ambivalent, meanings in Plath's iconography. It represents purity and holiness but,in other contexts, also represents death and/or sterility. The next most common is the word 'black' (used 158 times), which of course generally has a foreboding or otherwise negative connotation. The next most common significant word is 'green' (used 116 times)and the next is 'blue' (used 108 times).... these colors (blue and green) carry generally positive connotations in the poems, although blue can suggest distance and abstraction as well as the holiness of Mary or even of God ("by the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. I sizzled in his blue volts...") Tellingly, the only other significant word used as often as these is the word 'love' (used 110 times). Some people will be surprised (as I was) to note that 'red' follows all of these (used 101 times).

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
June 19, 2007

Hi all,

David, Alvarez last saw Sylvia on Christmas Eve of 1962. She apparently 'begged' him to stay but he had other plans and had to leave. He has said since that he has a huge amount of guilt about that and wouldn't have left if he'd known how serious things were.

I seem to recall reading that when Ted Hughes went to the mortuary to view Sylvia's body, he couldn't face going alone and asked Alvarez to go with him.

Melinda - yes, she stayed with Jillian and Gerry Becker for the last weekend of her life. They had been in touch with her Dr. who had told them not to let her go back to her flat until Monday morning when the live-in help would be there. She insisted on going back on Sunday. They tried to dissuade her but couldn't (short of tying her up I suppose). Gerry Becker drove her home, she cried in the car on the way there and he was very reluctant to let her go in. He tried to persuade her to let him go in with her, but she refused. In the end, he went back home - but both the Beckers were very uneasy. Jillian Becker's book,'Giving Up,' is very interesting. It is a very short book and details in quite a lot of depth what happened that weekend. I say it's interesting - and it is - it is also a bit irritating in places, particularly when she goes off on a tangent about Eilat Negev (a not complimentary tangent) and doesn't even manage to get her sex correct, referring to her as Mr Negev. However, I really recommend it - it's different from anything else, because they spent the last weekend with her and it is a first hand account. I think you could get it really cheaply on Amazon or eBay. I don't think it's worth buying new because it is very short.

Claudette - I don't know about the white thing, but as far as I know 'blue' became her favourite colour when she moved back to London and wrote the Ariel poems. Red had been her favourite colour before that and there are many accounts of her painting practically everything red at Court Green in Devon. When the marriage had broken up, though, and she moved back to London, she chose blue as her new colour, painting some things in that flat blue. She also regularly got up early while it was still dark so she could write - she called that her 'blue hour' - before the children woke up and for a couple of hours she had time to herself. I think the 'white' references relate to her idea of purity, purging herself with fevers, ridding herself of negative things, rising from the ashes.. and being reborn, "pure and clean as the cry of a baby."

Jane - I love those lines too. I don't think I've read 'Street Song' before. The lines are wonderful.

Morney Wilson
London, UK
June 16, 2007

The forum certainly has been steamy lately...and I'm enjoying the heat.

David - I was amused by your comment re Plath, "She was already most of the way down that scary one-woman raft trip that would take her through the rapids and over the falls. Alvarez was a last straw." I believe you're right.

That bad hair day get-together with Alvarez must have been the antithesis of her envisioned literary salon.

Unfortunately, this meeting was only the first part of a three-blow punch. Sylvia followed up (perhaps as a way to recoup face) by sending Alvarez a note in mid-Jan. to see, "The nude/Verdigris of the condor" at the zoo. He never responded.

And the final letdown. On Jan. 27th, 1963, the poetry section of the Observer ran Hughes' attractively showcased, "Full Moon and Little Frieda." Alvarez, of course, knew that Hughes more or less walked away from his family, including poor "little Frieda". This feting of Ted, with this particular poem, must have been extremely insulting to Sylvia.

"These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill."

Nancy Howell
Sacramento , USA
June 16, 2007

Claudette-- Yes, as you mention, white and blue are striking in Plath's poems; and a couple of other colors are as well.

You might be interested in considering remarks I made in my book, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1976), about color symbolism in Plath. In discussing the powerful effect on Plath of Robert Graves's book The White Goddess, I wrote (I'm of necessity taking this out of the larger context of that discussion, and also condensing a bit):

"The colors of the Triple Moon-goddess--white, red, and black--are the dominant and emblematic colors of Plath's late poems, consituting a system of images which refers to the whole mythology. [That is, her biographical myth.] Graves says:

'I write of her as the White Goddess because white is her principal colour, the colour of the first member of her moon-trinity...the New Moon is the white goddess of birth and growlth; the Full Moon, the red goddess of love and battle; the Old Moon, the black goddess of death and divination.'

In the White Goddess myths and in Plath, the meanings of these three colors are roughly parallel. (In both, too, colors such as purple or blue sometimes have the same function as black.) Of the forty-three poems in Ariel (U.S. edition), all but four directly mention one or more of these colors, which are also widely evoked indirectly (other colors are only sporadically mentioned)."

Judith Kroll
Austin, TX, USA
June 15, 2007

Some of my favorite Plath lines:
I have two from "Black Rook in Rainy Weather":

"...A certain minor light may still lean incandescent out of kitchen table or chair...."

and, the last line of that poem,

"The wait's begun again, the long wait for the angel, for that rare, random descent."

And, from "Street Song":

"Even as my each mangled nerve-end trills its hurt out above pitch of pedestrian ear, so, perhaps I, knelled dumb by your absence, alone can hear sun's parched scream, every downfall and crash of gutted star, . . . ."

Jane Hanudel
Roanoke Rapids, NC, USA
June 15, 2007

The footage on YouTube is from a documentary called "Ted Hughes: Force of Nature", which was produced in 1998 - probably after his death. I have tried to find a copy to buy, but it seems it is not for sale.

Annika Hagstršm
Malmo , Sweden
June 13, 2007

Regarding the poem Plath wrote which was published in the Boston Sunday Herald: Both Edward Butscher and Paul Alexander reference it in their biographies.

Hear the crickets chirping
In the dewy grass.
Bright little fireflies
Twinkle as they pass.

It was entitled "Poem"

Hope this helps

Susan McMichael
Armidale , Australia
June 13, 2007

David and Kevin, you've both made my day! Many thanks!

David, your post with the line: "In those days, we weren't used to having brilliant suicidal women come on to us," is really pricelessly brilliant and lovely but makes me wonder... are men now more used to having brilliant, suicidal women come on to them? ;) If so, women have indeed come a long way, baby!

And thank you, Kevin, though all the beautiful words belong to Plath and Hughes. I am enjoying this Forum more than ever--there are so many ways to approach the poetry. I've always wondered why Sylvia chose the colors that she did for her work, most notably white and blue. Does anyone have any ideas?

Claudette Coulter
Dayton, Ohio, USA
June 13, 2007

David, I in no way meant to make Alvarez responsible for anything. Apparently he did have a dinner party engaement that night; it was Chrismtas Eve, and Sylvia had asked him to come by after he had accepted the dinner invitation. (I think I was just confused because I had always attributed those words to Aurelia Plath, when they were actually his words.) Alvarez was probably one of the few people who did reach out to her toward the end of her life. No doubt you are right that there was no one who could have intervened to prevent her death. Wasn't the last couple to see her alive the Beckers, whom she spent the weekend of February 9 and 10 with? I recall reading somewhere that they argued with her that she should not return to her flat in the state of mind she was in. I never read Jillian Becker's book, which came out many years later.

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
June 12, 2007

In response to Claudette Coulter's beautiful comments of June 8th, thank you Claudette. This wonderful forum owes existence to any number of details, whether cold weather over England in 1963, or human maleness on the rampage, almost slapstick with obviousness, or Sylvia's passion and wild intelligence clamouring to speak. While i would eradicate religion if i could and not hesitate, the exchanges here on these pages, seemingly able to replicate themselves forever, take on the act of quoting real scripture. The examination of historical events with the crystal lens of hindsight may be the 'bible', but the words written by Sylvia Plath deserve the name scripture as much as anything. They are the wild engine that drives this forum.

Calgary, Canada
June 12, 2007

Okay, I thought I was done for a while, ready to let the conversation continue without further comment. But Judith Kroll's response to Melinda has provoked one more response.

My reading of A. Alvarez's book -- many years ago, when I was doing a dissertation on Plath -- leads me to believe that when he called on Sylvia toward the very end of her life, at her request, he wasn't ready for the wild-haired, neurotic woman who greeted him with her extraordinary but disturbing poems -- and maybe her sexual advances -- and that he kind of freaked out and retreated to an alleged earlier dinner date.

But if you think about it, what would most men, even the smart and sensitive ones, have done? In those days, we weren't used to having brilliant suicidal women come on to us. I'm sure I would have opted for dinner, too -- and would have drunk way more than I knew I should.

Sylvia, at the end, was reaching out to someone she thought might be able to understand her pain/confusion/depression, but Mr. Alvarez, despite his sympathy/empathy for her, wasn't that person. As Judith notes, he says that he was depressed at the time -- had his own problems, in other words.

In fact that person who could have prevented Sylvia's suicide probably didn't exist. She was already most of the way down that scary one-woman raft trip that would take her through the rapids and over the falls. Alvarez was a last straw. I suspect that it wasn't long after her meeting with him -- and I would have to check dates -- that she killed herself. I have always thought that he was likely the last person to see her alive who could have helped her.

But, really, what could he have done?

David Hall
Fort Collins, CO , USA
June 12, 2007


I only came across those YouTube tributes recently and was delighted! I've no idea if they were originally part of a documentary.

(Now I know this is not an Anne Sexton Forum, but I have to put in this YouTube link - rare footage of her, reading 'Her Kind.' I never thought I'd see footage of her.)

What I would give to see footage of Sylvia!

Morney Wilson
London, UK
Monday, 11 June 2007

Lisa, the tribute to Plath was remarkable. I also had never heard Ted Hughes's speaking voice. I recently watched the sixty minute 1988 videotape "Voices and Visions" about Plath and watching Aurelia Plath speak about her daughter was very moving.

Thank you, both Judith and Jim, for the clarification of the source of the comment made by A. Alvarez about Plath.

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
Mon, 11 Jun 2007

It's a lovely idea - to look at the 'hopeful' lines from SP poems that people think of.

The main one I think of is from 'Child':

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

The lines I think of most for some reason, although I don't think it really falls into that category are from 'Family Reunion':

I cast off my identity
And make the fatal plunge.

Finally, I think of the whole poem 'The Tour' because of the humour in it - an extract:

O I shouldn't dip my hankie in, it hurts!
Last summer, my God, last summer
It ate seven maids and a plumber
And returned them steamed and pressed and stiff as shirts.
I am bitter? I'm averse?
Here's your specs, dear, here's your purse.

Morney Wilson
London, UK
Monday, 11 June 2007

I know there's a good chance I'm arriving late to the party.... perhaps quite late... but I just ran across this tribute to Plath and Hughes.

I'm imagining this has been in circulation for some time; does anyone know if it aired originally as a documentary? It was a remarkable thing to watch...and, more than that, to listen to: I had never before heard Hughes's speaking voice. I'm familiar with nearly all recordings of Plath reading her poetry, but this is the first time I've ever come across her in candid conversation. The current of sheer nervous energy trembling through her voice is exhilarating. Irresistibly, it evokes the law that energy can only be transferred, never destroyed.

(This is a two part clip, by the way; clicking on the above should bring up the link to both segments)

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
Monday, 11 June 2007

Jim and Peter,

I totally agree that the strident Sylvia has too often taken center stage, and if those were the only poems we remember, she would not have the status she enjoys today (in death, alas). I think all of us who were drawn to her poetry can come up many lines that move us with their depth and verbal dexterity.

Here is the last stanza of "Spinster" from The Collosus:

"And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either."

Yes, it's bitter, but not in the same way as the later angry poems.

And here's one of my favorites from the title poem of Crossing the Water:

"Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls."

I'm not even sure what this second one means, but I've seen lilies, and I love the meataphor and think I have at least an inkling - and a glimpse of poetic genius.

I'll be quiet now and let the conversation continue.

David Hall
Fort Collins, CO , USA
May 31, 2007

Hello Melinda

I don't know how that notion of Aurelia Plath having made that remark could have occurred - I've seen that said in at least one other place. I can't imagine that Aurelia Plath would 'go on to [a] dinner party', knowing she had 'let her [her daughter, Sylvia] down in some final and unforgivable way.' Whereas it makes perfect sense in the context of Alvarez's difficult position: being a friend and also an admirer of Plath's poetry (as he was of Ted's); wanting to help; not wanting to get too involved in supporting her (he even seems to hint that he thought she might have been open to advances). It becomes clearer still that Alvarez said this when you read the larger passage from The Savage God:

"I remember arguing inanely about the phrase "The nude/Verdigris of the condor." I said it was exaggerated, morbid. On the contrary, she replied, that was exactly how a condor's legs looked. She was right, of course. I was only trying, in a futile way, to reduce the tension and take her mind momentarily off her private horrors - as though that could be done by argument and literary criticism! She must have felt I was stupid and insensitive. Which I was. But to have been otherwise would have meant accepting responsibilities I didn't want and couldn't, in my own depression, have coped with. When I left about eight o'clock to go on to my dinner party, I knew I had let her down in some final and unforgivable way. And I knew she knew. I never again saw her alive."

Judith Kroll
Austin, TX, USA
June 9, 2007

ooo - good idea about the softer lines of Sylvia!

I love this:

What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
I have never seen a thing so clear.
His lids are like the lilac-flower
And soft as a moth, his breath.
I shall not let go.
This is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so.

That sends chills up my arms. That is Wow. That is poetry.

Oh, and btw, a do recall a line of Ted's---

Crow, flying the black flag of himself.

That is poetry, too!

Let's just face it. Plath and Hughes were both brilliant, both memorable and both flawed, like us all. I thank the Goddess that there are and were energies like Plath and Hughes and Crow and Lady Lazarus. What would we do without them? We would survive, no doubt, but it wouldn't be as much fun!

Claudette Coulter
Dayton, Ohio, USA
June 8, 2007

Jim Long asks for favorite Plath lines. Mine is from an early poem, "Midsummer Mobile":

"Begin by dipping your brush into clear light."

I recite this line as I begin each day. If I happen to be doing doing my own writing that day, I recite it again.

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont, USA
June 8, 2007

Melinda - Alvarez's "The Savage God" was one of the first things I read about Plath when I first discovered her in the early ' had just come out and I was enormously impressed by it. The passage you quote is indeed from Alvarez. In "Letters Home" (pg 458) Aurelia Plath briefly describes the visit she made to England in June of 1962 and ends with these words:

"When I left on August 4, 1962, the four of them were together, waiting for my train to pull out of the station. The two parents were watching me stonily – Nick was the only one with a smile. It was the last time I saw Sylvia."

As far as I know, this is the only comment she ever published about their final parting.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
June 7, 2007

The softer, calmer side of Plath is largely ignored. This may or may not be intentional; they do lack that vibratingly electrical charge that does run through much of her Ariel poetry. However, the 1962 poem "The Night Dances" contains some of my favorite Plath lines:

"I shall not entirely
Sit emptied of beauties, the gift

Of your small breath, the drenched grass
Smell of your sleeps, lilies, lilies."

There is much emotion and genuine care and love in these lines, and in the other poems Plath wrote either for or about her children.

Peter K Steinberg
Winthrop , USA
Thursday, 7 June 2007

How wonderful to find this forum. I have recently re-read A. Alvarez's The Savage God and saw in the prologue his comments after he met Sylvia on Chrismtas Eve of 1962, when she invited him to come by her flat to hear some of her poems. He wrote:

"When I left around 8 o'clock to go on to my dinner party, I knew I had let her down in some final and unforgivable way. And I knew she knew."

I had always thought that this observation was what her mother wrote after her visit to Sylvia and Ted during the summer before their separation. It's been a long time since I've read a biography about Plath. (My daughter seems to have borrowed my copy of Letters Home.) Does anyone know?

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
June 6, 2007

I know we all have our favorite lines that come immediately to mind when we think of Plath's poems. I would just like to hear someone, when asked what line they think of first when they're reminded of Plath's poems, invoke, not the wild-haired cannibal woman of "Lady Lazarus" or the petulant angry child of "Daddy", but the tender and vulnerable woman who still believed in the power of hope: "The little grasses / crack through stone, and they are green with life."

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
June 5, 2007

Jim Long, your commentary has been, over the years, insightful and thoughtful and has contributed much to our understanding of Sylvia the poet. I appreciated your most recent analysis of Plath vs. Hughes and agree with you up to a point. Yes, it's possible that Ted may have been the more naturally gifted poet and that Sylvia, though gifted as well, had to work harder at her craft (remember her circling words she liked in her Thesaurus?), but in the end it's Sylvia who will be longer remembered. She drew from a deep well of experience that ultimately included suicide, while Ted philandered and no doubt enjoyed many years as a celebrity and a Laureate. We judge our poets by their suffering as well as by their well-crafted words, which may or may not be fair.

But really it does finally come down to who we can quote, doesn't it? I remember many of Sylvia's lines but none of Ted's. Just like I remember lines from "Prufrock" and even from Frost but not of their many worthy contemporaries.

Poetry is the best of our language, and the best of poetry sticks in the mind. More of Sylvia's sticks in my mind than Ted's. I liked his "Crow" poems but can't remember a line. On the other hand, here's but one of Sylvia's: "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air." Good poetry? I don't know, but it stayed with me.

David Hall
Fort Collins, CO , USA
May 31, 2007

Hi - Other than the London and North Tawnton Homes did Sylvia and Ted have a home in Yorkshire ? Having just recently visited Sylvia's grave in Heptonstall and being able to see at first hand how remote and far removed the location is, I felt that surely they must have shared a home together close by otherwise, the choice of burying Sylvia there seems rather pointless- unless, of course, the remoteness and removal to, was the motive.

I would also like to ask if anyone has any information regarding Ted's teenage years spent in the South Yorkshire town of Mexborough? I have quite a lot of information regarding Mexborough as a town but very little in the way of Hughes' life there.

If Mexborough was 'A Pigs ear' then Hughes was certainly 'A Silk Purse'

John Newton
Doncaster, UK
May 27, 2007

Hughes's poetry is alive in the way a predator is alive. It is a poetry of nature and the mindless (though efficient) way nature carries out its automatic destiny. Plath's work is, I think, more concerned with how consciousness responds to those forces. As far as one or the other's work being ultimately superior or inferior: it's not a matter of an oeuvre, it's a matter of individual pieces/eras.

Though a handful of poems in "Birthday Letters" are deeply moving, that work on the whole remains unconvincing....and the reason it remains unconvincing is because human relationships are the one blind spot in Hughes's genius.

But let us not mistake forte for proficiency; and... in any case... there are exceptions. Hughes's "Anniversary," his elegy for his mother, is one of the most beautiful, moving, and radiantly alive poems I've ever read. I can go through Plath and Hughes's work for hours and hours pulling out excerpts of almost narcotically intoxicating greatness, but to do so would fill a dissertation. Their worlds are unique; thus, comparisons are a moot point. Beethoven and Mozart may be equally great; and the fact that one is in the mood for "Requiem" on Monday and "the glorious 9th" on tuesday means, simply, that variety is the spice of life.

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
May 27, 2007

The poems that have been most often cited as heavily influenced by Roethke are the poems in the "Poems for a birthday" sequence and others from that 1959-60 period, particularly "Dark House", "Maenad", "The Stones" and "Mushrooms", but other poems in this mode as well, for example I hear echoes in "Words heard by accident over the phone" from 1962.

In response to Kevin's comments re my "pronouncement" that Hughes was "a born poet" and "Greater than Plath from the start" -- I agree 100 percent that Plath's work is much more emotional and capable of evoking strong emotion in the reader in a way that Hughes's work does not. I, too, have been moved by her lines in ways that no one else's work has ever done.

"What did my fingers do before they held him? / What did my heart do, with its love?"or "Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing". Who else could have written "I am no more your mother than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect it's own slow effacement at the wind's hand"?

But, as for Hughes's work being "contrived" and "presented" in a way that Plath's is not -- some modern poet has said (the name eludes me right now) that "a poem is a machine made of words". In other words, all poems are "contrivances" and "presentations". Many of Plath's early poems are as contrived as anything Hughes ever wrote (see "Metaphors"). And some of the poems in Hughes' "Birthday letters", while not as intense, are as moving as Plath's. But the fact remains that Plath honed her skills by dint of much work over the years so that she grew from a passable student poet into one of the most remarkable modern poets of the century. It's undeniable that, in terms of her originality, the power of her language, and her impact and influence on other poets, she was the greater poet. But Hughes, in my opinion, was the more naturally endowed poet, to whom the language came more directly and without the studied labor of Plath's early work. As a poet, it could be said, Hughes was like a bright star, while Plath was a brilliant comet that rocked the other planets in their orbits as she passed.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
Friday, 25 May 2007

Hello everybody, I hve just finished re-reading SP's Crossing The Water and find myself amazed, all over again, at the cover poem's beauty and power ("Their shadows must cover Canada"...etc.) Here's where my memory is failing me. Wasn't this poem deried by some critics as too derivative of Theodore Roethke? I don't see the similarities at all. Or was it another poem that was compared (unfavorably) to Roethke? Thanks, anyone. I'm like a woman obsessed right now.

Trish Saunders
Seattle , USA
Wednesday, 23 May 2007

In response to Jim Long's wholly subjective pronouncement that Ted Hughes was a 'born poet', and better than Plath 'from the start', let me say this: having read all of Hughes' work that i could get my hands on, and as much of Plath's work that is legally available, nothing in any of Hughes' work ever affected me as deeply or altered my emotional state as the most middling of Sylvia Plath's work.

Understanding that my opinion is itself subjective, Plath on her worst day was able to evoke emotion more completely than Hughes on his best day. While Sylvia Plath found it impossible to stop the torrent of glistening and dangerous words from gushing out of her core, Hughes was, in my opinion, largely more contrived and 'presented'. Not exactly qualities of a 'born poet'.

Kevin M Aschacker
Calgary , Canada
May 21, 2007

I am doing a research on Sylvia Plath and the actress Frances Farmer. I am trying to find the poem that Sylvia wrote on her father's death, when she was only 8, published by "The Boston Herald". I still can't find it. Can anybody help me? The "Boston Herald"'s archives go back only to 1991. Thanks for helping

Rome , Italy
May 15, 2007

Without wanting to further stir up the debate re: Frieda Hughes, I think I have to whole heartedly agree with Kate's and Lisa's post. In the scheme of things, Frieda is not a good poet, and I found most of her volumes rather weak and was unable to finish them. I feel somewhat responsible for this whole debate since I mentioned the Forty-Five Poems book and if anyone had read it, but I do think also that if people like Frieda's poetry then they are entitled to their own opinion, just as we are in terms of not liking it.

I would end this by saying that Plath's other child, Nicholas, has managed to live a quiet and fulfilling life, indicating that such is possible, despite the lineage. Frieda has had a harder time, but I do think that she has brought some of it on herself. She doesn't have to be the executor to Plath's estate - as I have said before, she could have someone manage it for her (and bring some new blood into the continued project of publishing and promoting Plath's work, which despite some critism from other posters on this forum at the suggestion, I do personally believe is incredibly important). She doesn't have to air her personal laundary in her poetry. She doesn't have to be in the position of being compared to her parents - she could write her poetry as a hobby like most of us do. I think Bloodaxe have done Frieda a disservice by publishing her work, especially when it is nowhere near the standard of other poets published by them.

But, let us not get sidetracked. While I think the debate about what makes good poetry is a good one, I would rather focus on Sylvia rather than Frieda, whose superior poetry is, in my view, the last word.

P. Viktor
Oxford , UK
Monday, 14 May 2007

To all who have been debating the qualitiy of Frieda Hughes' poetry: I think it's a given that it isn't of the quality of her mother's or her father's, but we may need to cut her some slack just because of that. I know that she's been touting her poems, playing on family names to make a few bucks, but that's her right, no? She is blessed and cursed at the same time by having such gifted parents: would you wish that on your own kids?

Poor Frieda has the same tough road to hoe as the sons and daughters of other famous parents. I remember hearing that Faulkner allegedly told his own kid, "No one remembers Shakespeare's daughter." Cruel, no? But accurate. Do you remember the name of Faulkner's daughter? Let Frieda have her fifteen minutes of fame -- a la Andy Warhol, who coined the phrase -- and then let's get back to a serious study of the poetry of her mother (and to a lesser extent, in my opinion, the poetry of her father). Give Frieda her due and let's move on. After all, her mother killed herself when she was a baby. She has at least some claim on pathos, if not on credibility.

David Hall
Fort Collins, CO , USA
May 13, 2007

I hesitate to prolong a discussion about whether writing poems makes one a poet, but I am moved to respond to the comparisons of Frieda Hughes' work to that of her parents. The impression I get from her most recent book, though not from the previous two books, is that she feels compelled to write poems simply because her parents were poets...not a good reason if one is not by nature a poet. Plath became an extraordinary poet almost by pure force of will and ceaseless practice. Ted Hughes was a born poet, greater than Plath from the start, and certainly greater than D.H. Lawrence, who was a great novelist but a middling poet.

In Frieda's first book "Wooroloo" I noted numerous echoes of her mother's voice, and I liked that collection. I didn't get the impression that she trying to compete with her mother's work. Why wouldn't she invoke her mother's spirit in her own work? "Waxworks" however, interested me almost not at all; it felt like she was going through the motions. She strikes me as having much more potential as a visual artist, which, by the way, may also be a legacy from her mother, who was a very passable artist herself. But her most recent book seems to me to have been written as if to fulfill the terms of a contract, even if it was a contract with herself, to complete a long-planned project.

I personally wish she had simply written a conventional memoir, in which she could have written an intensely compelling account of her childhood and growing up. It interests me, for example, that so little of her account concerns the issue of dealing with her mother's death, and so much deals with issues surrounding her father's women and their treatment of her. It seems like a memoir would have given her the opportunity to work through these things in more detail. And I'm interested in why, given her long-standing antipathy for 'curiosity-seekers', she felt compelled to give us this account at all. Perhaps it was just the need to fulfill the terms of a publishers contract.

It seems natural to me that, having spent her whole life in her mother's shadow, she would be more interested in promoting her own work than spending the rest of her life finding ways to promote Plath's work, which hardly needs promoting. In any case, I see no problem with discussion of Frieda's work on a Forum devoted to her mother. She, after all, is part of her mother's legacy.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
May 11, 2007

After reading your response email I do realize that my language and tone were a bit harsh in my last email. That was because, I think, I was frustrated at seeing Sylvia Plath's Forum taken up with discussion of another lesser poet's work. I find it interesting that several people here are upset that F. Hughes's work is being compared to her parents' work, when this is a Sylvia Plath Forum, not a F. Hughes Forum. Why talk about R. Hughes' work here if not to compare it to the poet who is the focus of this website?

F. Hughes doesn't have a forum, as far as I know, and likely never will, because she is, I believe, a lesser poet than her parents. And while that is my opinion, as you point out, it is also the opinion of the majority of people who read her work and her parent's work, and I don't think that we share this opinion because we are biased against her for being Plath's daughter (not that you are saying that we are--but it's the only possible rebuttal to my statement that I can see). I believe it is because, objectively (or as objectively as can be measured, with consideration and room for personal taste) she is not a great poet. A competent one, perhaps, and to some (yourself included) perhaps likeable...though I doubt she tops many people's lists as their favorite poet, and that is likely for some of the reasons I listed in my prior post (regarding her work). I do not think poetry is a purely subjective art, and that poetic criticism is purely a matter of opinion. If it were, what would be the point of even discussing it? F. Hughes' work will likely never be in the canon of literature, as far as what I've seen of her current work is concerned, unless it is parasitizing in some way Plath's or Hughes' work (perhaps a controversial statement, but I'm saying it because I think it's true).

That said, the fact that I consider her to be a very poor poet and you find her generally likeable does show a matter of difference in our opinions, as you say, and that doesn't mean that either of us is a better judge of poetry, per se. But you didn't mention that you felt the same way about her work as you do about Plath's (and I doubt you do), and as I said a moment ago, I do think that if we were to poll the people on this site or even do a blind 'poetry test' with fairly critically minded people, Plath's poetry would win by a landslide. Why? Because it's, yes, objectively, on the whole, better. The reality of F. Hughes' work is somewhere, perhaps, between very poor and decently likeable- neither of which is amazing and life-changing, as Plath's work is.

Kate Durbin
Whittier, CA
May 8, 2007

Tegan - It sounds like you're involved in an intriguing project. To add to Lisa's post...the 1990 movie, "Sibling Rivalry" w/ Kirstie Alley. I haven't seen it, but the product description notes that all Marjorie (Alley), "...ever wanted was to become a writer: 'like Sylvia Plath only happy.'" This should be right up your alley (forgive the pun.)

Nancy Howell
Sacramento , USA
May 7, 2007

Morney, since this is an opinion forum, I don't think most people (including myself) assume it's necessary to qualify that their postings ARE opinions before putting them up.....that's already a given. The only instance in which such a disclaimer would be necessary would be in the event of a potential legal liability.

With all due respect, I do not necessarily buy into the idea that art is in the eye of the beholder; just as I do not think that taking the assertion that perception is reality as a given is wise. To accept such a thing is, in fact, rather dangerously irresponsible. This is the kind of sensibility (and I'm not at all implying it's your sensibility...I'm just speaking in general terms) that has plagued the modern "art" movement so insidiously. I really feel that when we've reached a point where a black square on a white canvas can be considered a masterpiece, we're in bad trouble. Though variety, like freedom, is everything, there are certain and inevitable standards that also need be present before something can be constructed; a soul cannot climb back into a body that is dead, however poignant its yearning for life. There's the foundation, and then there is the house. As for influence, yes, it is an essential part of development (as in Roethke's influence in "Poem For A Birthday" and DH Lawrence's often way-too-obvious influence in the bulk of TH's work.) But there is influence vs imitation, just as there is allusion vs plagiarism. Most truly original poets know the difference between the aforementioned...and so do their readers. I agree that, before everything, it is necessary to revere and learn from one's fact, I don't arguably believe it's possible to create anything decent without an expansive working knowledge of the great artists in one's medium...whatever it might be....who have come before. It's only right that a child should be nurtured by a (metaphorical) parent...and love and honor that parent....but if they're still being spoon fed and are unable to form words by themselves by the time they reach a certain (hypothetical) age....there's something wrong.

Still, development differs for if any of us who have criticized FH ARE being unfair to her, the injustice perhaps lies in assuming time will not bring out the original voice in her. It may well be that FH is in it genetic or otherwise...of an unseen, as yet untapped potential: time, and not any of us, will tell. And when/if it does, I'll be there with an open mind. The fact that I, personally, am dubious is....I guess....incidental.

Kate wrote, "frankly, we should be able to compare any 'new' poet's poetry to the work of a great poet and if it doesn't hold up, then it can't be very good now, can it?". I agree wholeheartedly; and, as far as I'm concerned, that sums up this debate perfectly. FH could be writing under an alias...she could, in fact, even be another person...and the same criticisms would still apply.

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
Monday, May 7, 2007

I'm an avid reader of this forum, although I never post. But Morney's message prompted me to. No, I don't think you can call a person a poet just because he or she has published some volumes of poetry. Is Paris Hilton a singer since she released a CD and a music video? Can Tom Cruise in all honesty be called an actor? In that case, what would you then call Marlon Brando? Poetry is an intricate, severe artform, which few master. I suppose the same could be said about writing in general. People think that just because they can spell and string words together that makes them writers, when in truth it takes years of discipline, bravery and work (not to mention a good deal of raw talent and a set of keen senses). That Plath had that, and worked hard on her craft we all know. And we see and enjoy the results of it, too. Therefore Plath deserves to be called a true poet. I wish we would all raise the bar for what writing is and what we call good writing. Isn't it funny, that nobody without proper training would ever consider going on stage dancing "Giselle" or producing a CD with opera arias, but with writing - poetry and other - anything goes? Some self-restraint and criticism would be in order. I am not a poet, but I must chime in with Kate, Frieda Hughes is a poor, poor poet. Had it not been for her parents her books would have never been published.

Brooklyn , USA
Monday, May 7, 2007

Jess said that she found the later poems in 'Forty-Five' by Frieda Hughes to be fixated "on the grievances many of us suffer as adults" and asked whether anyone else had felt that when reading the book. Just offering my opinion - no, I didn't feel that at any point. Many of the later poems are about her father dying of cancer, her grief, the feeling of accepting awards on his behalf because he was dead. Many more of them are about the problems that she had with Carol Hughes, both before and after his death - extreme problems, to the extent that her stepmother didn't carry out some of TH's last wishes and severed all contact with FH. The worst example I can think of is cutting her out of the funeral arrangements/arrangements to scatter his ashes, therefore, no doubt, making it much harder for FH to grieve for her father. I don't see how this can be described as something that many of us suffer as adults. As an adult, she has also lived with public speculation about her mother and father, to an extreme extent - and I don't think many of us suffer from that as adults. Do most people buy a paper, watch something on TV or overhear conversations etc. about our fathers being responsible for the deaths of our mothers?

Kate, I'm a poet myself and have always immersed myself in studying poetry so I suppose I consider myself to have a fairly decent critical mind, too. I like FH's poetry. Isn't it a matter of opinion? How can you state that she is a "very, very poor" poet without an "I think she is a...." in front of that? I realize you are very experienced and I don't mean to belittle that, but I can't help thinking that calling someone a "very, very poor poet" is an opinion, not a fact. I can't imagine saying that about any poet, good or bad, because the bottom line is it's still just my opinion. You say that she 'steals' from her parents and yet you end by saying we're not comparing her to parents. Maybe that's not what you're doing, but you said it is "not because WE are comparing her." I disagree - it is exactly what a lot of people do. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard or read something comparing her to her parents (and finding her wanting), including on this Forum.

Lisa, you said that "in all likelihood FH is not a poet." I don't understand what you mean. Someone who writes poetry and has had 4 volumes of it published is a poet. What else does someone have to do to make them a poet? If you meant it in the sense that you don't think she is a natural poet, that it's not her 'calling in life,' then, again, isn't that a matter of opinion? Just because you don't think much of the poetry doesn't mean that she is not a poet, it means that you don't think much of her poetry, doesn't it? I don't think much of Andrew Motion's poetry - in fact I really dislike it and I don't think it's good, but he is still a poet - he's just a poet I don't like. You refer to her as being imitative of TH's work. I just don't see that myself, but that's only my opinion. Any poet in the world could be found to be derivative or imitative of another poet, it's almost inevitable. Poets generally are derivative until they find their own true 'voice' and there is the small matter of her actually being the daughter of SP and TH. How do we know she didn't 'inherit' some of it genetically? It's not a new thing for whole familes to be in the same 'business' - acting, writing, whatever.

P.Viktor.. FH has not been talking or writing about this subject for a very long time yet, relatively speaking. Who knows what she might eventually do to 'promote' her mother's work? You mention the Restored Ariel in passing but say she hasn't done anything else. Considering how many decades people criticised TH over his editing of 'Ariel,' I would have thought that FH made a rather big step forward by bringing it out in its original form, writing a foreword to it and including come copies of handwritten poems. There may be material that is unavailable to Plath scholars, but I don't understand the suggestion that she is somehow obligated to publish it simply because we want to read it - the same goes for a website. I think SP is the "most famous poetess in America" - and outside of America. She has been for a long time and I don't see that changing. She may be the executor of the Estate, but I don't think she's under any obligation to publish something unless she wants to. She doesn't need to promote her mother's work anyway. I also don't see why she should hand the position of executor over to someone else who wants to publish the stuff 'we' haven't read yet. Perhaps she wants to be in control of it, perhaps she doesn't want to hand it over to someone else who will publish it, perhaps she wants to decide for herself when/if to publish something. Some people may not like that, but really, that's just tough. She does control it and it is up to her.

Really... it's been said in recent posts that she needs to stop viewing everyone who is interested in SP as if they are all 'vultures' - but the way she (FH) is written about (elsewhere and here) is probably exactly why she views us that way. There are plenty of people, of course, who aren't 'peanut-eaters/crunchers,' but after a lifetime of hearing and reading the kinds of things she's heard and read, I'm not surprised she reacts the way she does. Who usually has to deal with seeing their mother's gravestone defaced by people who think they have the right to do that and who usually finds that anything she leaves at her mother's grave for her will be stolen by someone?

I think sometimes people forget who she is and instead see her as an obstruction. She isn't someone who was a passing acquaintance of SP. To state the obvious, this is the little girl that was taped into her bedroom while her mother died in the kitchen. This is her grown up and if her way of dealing with the whole area and subject seems strange or obstructive to some people, I think they need to take a step back and remember that and, if it's not too much to ask, show her a little respect.

Morney Wilson
London, UK
May 6, 2007

I've been reading this lovely discussion board (thank you, Elaine!) for a long time, and I have to say, I've never seen any rude, excessive bashing of Freida Hughes. As a number of people have already pointed out, she does thrust herself upon the public stage. The tremendous loss of suicide is one that I haven't experienced. I can't even begin to imagine the deep pain. me a basher if you troubles me the way FH refers to her mother. In that recent letter to the editor, she even writes "she chose to leave us" and that leaves me cold. It's not as if her mother took off for Vegas, heartlessly leaving two children behind. Her mother was in desperate circumstances, and took great lengths to shield her two children from harm. She's entitled to her private grief, but if she is going to publicly dismiss her mother in this fashion, it can't surprise her that people come to her mother's defense.

Portland , USA
May 5, 2007

Tegan - the Wikipedia entry for "The Bell Jar," specifically, mentions some of Plath's better known appearances in film. The one that comes immediately to my mind is the shot of Juliette Lewis (or Mallory Knox) reading that novel in "Natural Born Killers"; but the site lists a couple more, including a reference to/in the film "Heathers." "Annie Hall" sports one of Plath's more memorable appearances; but it doesn't qualify as an association with young female readers...unless you want to count the Diane Keaton character's insouciance as adolescent. I was surprised at how "dearthy" (to coin a word) the Wikipedia entry for "Ariel" was...."The Bell Jar" seems to be Plath's most referenced work in popular culture. Hope this helps.

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
May 3, 2007

Hi everybody,
I am currently studying English at The University of Exeter, and working on my dissertation. I am exploring how Plath has been transformed into a cultural icon, focusing particularly on how she seems to be associated with young female readers. I am wondering if any of you can help me with part of my research. I am including a chapter which analyses references to Plath and her female readers in works of literature/films/TV programmes. For instance, the character of Kat reading 'The Bell Jar' in the film '10 Things I Hate Aboout You'. Have any of you read/seen other examples which use the image of the young female reading Plath? Many Thanks.

Tegan Boaler
Exeter, England
Thursday, 3 May 2007


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