November 30, 1998
Volume 51, No. 13
The fickle finger of fate draws Wright into poet's orb
Poet Ted Hughes' death on Oct. 28 stunned the literary community, and many here at Emory who were anticipating a planned visit from him two years after he'd donated his papers to Special Collections. Although Hughes' illness had been diagnosed some 18 months earlier, he kept the details private-just as he had kept silent about life with first wife Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. Still, in a 1989 chance encounter with Hughes, Visiting Professor Carolyne Wright was able to get a glimpse of his relationship with the deeply troubled Plath.
Just when every literary critic and Sylvia Plath devotee thought that they had sorted out the truth about Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, along came the February 1998 publication of Hughes' Birthday Letters, a remarkable sequence of love poems about his and Plath's tumultuous seven-year marriage. Nobody, it seemed, had any idea that Hughes was quietly composing his poetic memoir over the last three decades.
Nobody, that is, except a few close friends and at least one serendipitously encountered individual. In November 1989, Hughes himself had disclosed this extraordinary information to me in a most unlikely place-on a boat cruise on the Buriganga River in Bangladesh. What he was writing would clarify the true nature of his and Plath's relationship, Hughes told me, and he intended to publish it posthumously.
Ted Hughes had come to Bangladesh as chief guest of honor at the Second Asia Poetry Festival, a Bangladesh government-sponsored event held in Dhaka that November. I was a Fulbright fellow in the second month of what would be a nearly two-year stay in Dhaka, translating the work of Bangladeshi women poets and writers for an anthology in progress.
I met Hughes on the first day of the festival, during the mid-morning tea break after the opening session. Across the room, he towered head and shoulders above the clusters of Bangladeshi journalists and the Thai and Indonesian and Bhutanese guest poets resplendent in their national dress. The famous craggy features were unmistakable, though the dark hair of his youth had silvered and the tall, rangy, broad-shouldered figure had filled out, conveying an impression of massive, solid gravitas. In his dark woolen suit, he could have been a former American football player turned professor of English literature.
When we were introduced a few minutes later, Hughes turned his attention to me with a warmth and focused concentration I had not expected. Hearing my American accent, he smiled: "It seems we're the only native English speakers here."
On the final day of the Asia Poetry Festival, Ted Hughes and I stood at the railing of the Rangapalli, the launch rented by the organizers for the obligatory noubihar, a river cruise to which all guests of honor in Bangladesh are subjected.
In this unlikely setting, we leaned on the railing and talked, in the cordial tones of recently acquainted junior and senior colleagues, of how amazing it was, especially for him, to be here. We talked about accents-how the English spoken in Bangladesh (as a second language, learned in school) was much closer in its pronunciation and intonations to British than to American English. He noted my American accent, and said that he had become very familiar with American English when he lived for two years in the United States with--and here he hesitated ever so slightly--"with, you know, my late wife, Sylvia."
He had mentioned her: It was as if he had uttered one of the forbidden names of God. So private was this topic for him--from all that I had read and heard--that he never answered interview questions about her, and never spoke of her with journalists or biographers. What could I say in reply, without trampling on sacred space? As he went on about how the river scene before us might have figured in her poetry, I murmured something neutral, sympathetic, but not as deeply sympathetic as I meant--I didn't want the eagerness and awe I felt to interfere.
"Yes," I said, "she would have found this world quite an experience."
For an hour I hardly dared to breathe. As Hughes began to reminisce about their life together the sun seemed to stand still above the launch, above the river gliding away beneath it, above the entire turning world. There must have been a magic circle around us, because for that time no one on the crowded launch broke away from the throngs snacking and chattering elsewhere on deck to approach us.
He spoke of Plath with respect, admiration, affection-there were no traces of rancor or resentment. Whatever I had previously read about this famous poetic couple, I wanted to divest myself of any prior notions and just listen.
"I've been writing my own version of events," he went on, "but it will be published posthumously. If people knew the full story, when they learn what really happened between us, they'll be surprised that it's so mundane, so ordinary." Birthday Letters is certainly not a document of any ordinary, mundane marriage. Even the closely observed minutiae of domestic life flash with the brilliance of 40-odd years of retrospection, and deepen with memory's double perspective.
It was clear to me then, in 1989, that Hughes would go on living with Plath in the only way now possible--in words, in memory--perhaps to the end of his days. In his reserved, understated manner, he was making a profound expression of the undying nature of love--of his love and respect and sorrow for the brilliant and tormented poet--wife of his youth.
In his words to me, as in the poems he was even then writing, he was seeking a resolution to his own and their children's loss and grief, some way of coming to terms with his beloved's abrupt, irreversible departure--from him, from her children, from herself. He seemed to seek no less than a reconciliation across the very boundary between life and death.
Carolyne Wright was the 1997-98 visiting poet in Creative Writing and is currently a visiting assistant professor in Asian Studies. This essay is excerpted from a piece that appeared in the November/December 1998 Bloomsbury Review.