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Birthday Letters Hardcover – 29 Jan 1998

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; 1st edition (29 Jan. 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571194729
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571194728
  • Product Dimensions: 14.5 x 1.9 x 22.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 32,866 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was born in Yorkshire. His first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957 by Faber and Faber and was followed by many volumes of poetry and prose for adults and children. He received the Whitbread Book of the Year for two consecutive years for his last published collections of poetry, Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998). He was Poet Laureate from 1984, and in 1998 he was appointed to the Order of Merit.

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Amazon Review

Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters--88 tantalizing responses to Sylvia Plath and the furies she left behind--emerge from an echo chamber of art and memory, rage and representation. In the decades following his wife's suicide in 1963, Hughes kept silent, a stance many have seen as guilty, few as dignified. While an industry grew out of Plath's life and art, and even her afterlife, he continued to compose his own dark, unconfessional verses, and edited her Collected Poems, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, and Journals. But Hughes's conservancy (and his sister Olwyn's power as Plath's executrix) laid him open to yet more blame. Biographers and critics found his cuts to her letters self-interested, and decried his destruction of the journals of her final years--undertaken, he insisted, for the sake of their children.

In Birthday Letters we now have Hughes's response to Plath's white-hot mythologizing. Lost happiness intensifies present pain, but so does old despair: "Your ghost," he acknowledges, "inseparable from my shadow." Ranging from accessible short-story-like verses to tightly wound, allusive lyrics, the poems push forward from initial encounters to key moments long after Plath's death. In "Visit," he writes, "I look up--as if to meet your voice / With all its urgent future / that has burst in on me. Then look back / At the book of the printed words. / You are ten years dead. It is only a story. / Your story. My story." These poems are filled with conditionals and might- have-beens, Hughes never letting us forget the forces in motion before their seven- year marriage and final separation. When he first sees Plath, she is both scarred (from her earlier suicide attempt) and radiant: "Your eyes / Squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds, / Incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears..." But Fate and Plath's father, Otto, will not let them be. In the very next poem, "The Shot", her trajectory is already plotted. Though Hughes is her victim, her real target is her dead father--"the god with the smoking gun."

Of course, "The Shot" and the accusatory "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother" are an incitement to those who side (as if there is a side!) with Plath. Newsweek has already chalked up the reaction of poet and feminist Robin Morgan to the book: "My teeth began to grind uncontrollably." But Hughes makes it clear that his poems are written for his dead wife and living children, not her acolytes' bloodsport. He has also, of course, written them for himself and the reader. Pieces such as "Epiphany", "The 59th Bear", and "Life After Death" are masterful mixes of memory and image. In "Epiphany", for instance, the young Hughes, walking in London, suddenly spots a man carrying a fox inside his jacket. Offered the cub for a pound, he hesitates, knowing he and Plath couldn't handle the animal--not with a new baby, not in the city. But in an instant, his potent vision extends beyond the animal, perhaps to his and Plath's children:

Already past the kittenish
But the eyes still small,
Round, orphaned-looking, woebegone
As if with weeping. Bereft
Of the blue milk, the toys of feather and fur,
The den life's happy dark. And the huge whisper
Of the constellations
Out of which Mother had always returned.
Other poems are more influenced by Plath's "terrible, hypersensitive fingers", including "The Bee God" and "Dreamers", which is apparently a record of Plath's one encounter with Hughes's mistress: "She fascinated you. Her eyes caressed you, / Melted a weeping glitter at you. / Her German the dark undercurrent / In her Kensington jeweller's elocution / Was your ancestral Black Forest whisper--". This exotic woman, "slightly filthy with erotic mystery", seems a close relation to Plath's own Lady Lazarus, and the poem would be equally powerful without any biographical information. This is the one, paradoxical, regret about this superb collection--these poems require no prior knowledge, but, for better or worse, we possess it. --Kerry Fried


"An extraordinary book . . . [Hughes's] subject is Plath herself--how she looked and moved and talked, her pleasures, rages, uncanny dreams, and many terrors, what was good between them and where it went wrong."—A. Alvarez, "The New Yorker" "The critics who are urging us to regard these poems as masterpieces are right. Their intensity of feeling, the clarity of their imagery, the precision, energy, simplicity, and fluidity of their language are still striking."—Paul Levy, "The Wall Street Journal" "An emotional, direct, regretful, and entranced [tone] pervades the book's strongest poems, which are quiet and thoughtful and conversational."—Katha Pollitt, "The New York Times Book Review" "Most of the poems in "Birthday Letters" have a wonderful immediacy and tenderness that's new to Hughes's writing, a tenderness that enables him to communicate Plath's terrors as palpably as her own verse, and to convey his own lasting sense of loss and grief. . . . They sho --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Late Reader on 3 Aug. 2011
Format: Paperback
" There you met it-the mystery of hatred.
After billions of years of anonymous matter
That was where you were found-promptly hated".

from " God Help the Wolf After Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark".

There are many ways to approach the poems in this collection. For example you could experience them as I often I do, as stand alone poems. On other occasions a narrative which needs to be taken in all at once. Or you can read it like a novel or even a film script as there is something very filmic about this collection which represent a seamless unfolding of Hughes' relationship with Plath. From inauspicious and "kitchen-sink" type meeting:

"Which of them I might meet.
I remember the thought. Not
Your face. No doubt I scanned particularly
The girls. Maybe I noticed you.
Maybe I weighed you up, feelingly unlikely.
Noted your long hair, loose waves-
Your Veronica Lake bang. Not what it hid.
It would appear blond. And your grin"

from "Fulbright Scholars"

To the bitter, some would say furious anger of their last years where Hughes portrays Sylvia Plath as an emotional invalid:

"You were the jailer of your murderer-
Which imprisoned you
And since I was your nurse and your protector
Your sentence was mine to"

from "The Blackbird".

As with all Hughes work there are many powerful animal metaphors to some up emotional situations, but the imagery as with the "The Blackbird" becomes bleaker and darker as the poems progress. It is in my mind one long narrative poem punctuated in chapters, written in verse. And frightening making one feel almost as a voyeur witnessing a very personal and uncompromising autobiography.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By J.E.T on 7 Jan. 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Originally a fan of Sylvia Plath I decided to purhase this to get Hughes' own perspective of their marriage. I was not disappointed. A beautiful and touching read each poem maps out a different scene from their lives together and really brings it to life. It clearly shows the beautiful and deep love Hughes truly held for his wife and how much he still felt about her right up until his own death many years later. It is clear from his poignant poetry why he was given the title of Poet Laureate and this work is a credit to his name. I would recommend this to anyone.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 14 April 1999
Format: Paperback
ANSWER: Everything. This book is tremendous. Not just because it is an excellent piece of literature, but because Hughes manages to do something of the impossible. He takes in it two iconic figures and reduces them to what they really were: ordinary people having ordinary problems. Before you read this book you can only see these two people as oversized monumental, almost untouchable, figures. When you have finished reading the collection you see them as a young couple who are afraid of bears attacking them in their tent. It is such an evocative personal account of two young ambitious souls as they bootleg around Europe and America searching for writers that exists in, and embrace, their poetic minds. You see the relationship as it blooms and dwindles so fast. The ecstatic beginnings, the honey-moon period, and then melancholic home coming and the realties of having to find places to live and work to do. Eventually the demise, lazy, sad, excepting the end rather than fighting it. Acutely poignant. A must read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By RR Waller TOP 500 REVIEWER on 26 Sept. 2011
Format: Hardcover
For many people, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are famous only because she gave up her life and he was blamed. For others, they are two great poets whose body of works is first in their minds. Ted Hughes (1930-1998) is "a brooding presence in the landscape of 20th Century poetry"; Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), a writer of short-stories and journals was a poet of great power and her later "confessional" poems were "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse" (Peter Dickinson at "Punch") and Bernard Bergonzi at the "Manchester Guardian" said "The Colossus" was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso' quality".

Sylvia Plath's suicide and the circumstances surrounding it changed everything and overshadowed Hughes's life; he became the "bette noir" to Plath's fans and the enemy of feminists who blamed him for her death; his name (in lead letters) was removed from her gravestone three times. Hughes did not respond for thirty-five years; as her literary executer, he edited her collected works and "Ariel" anthology, although many did not agree with how these had been done and the choices he made. Opinions are still strong on both sides today, a mark of their stature as writers and the fascination with which their lives are still viewed; there is a biographical publishing industry surrounding their lives and works. We have only these biographies and their works to guide us into the shadows of the past.

"Birthday Letters",remembering his first wife and their life together, was published thirty-five years after her death and a short time before his, eighty-eight poems written in letter form which reveal their romance and marriage. It was an instant success and won many prizes.
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