Top positive review
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An Excellent Handbook
on 29 April 2016
Birthday Letters is not an easy book. The poems are very well executed, so it is possible to read them just for the poetry alone. However, there is so much biography underlying these poems that, to get the full value from them, it is necessary to do some pre-reading.
The good news is that Erica Wagner has done much of this for us. She has read her way through Sylvia Plath’s surviving diaries and letters; she has read the memoirs of friends of the couple; and she is familiar with the prose and poetry of both Hughes and Plath.
I note that some of the reviews on Amazon criticise her book for being a rather superficial, “sixth-form” level analysis. I did not come to the book expecting high-level academic poetry criticism. I took it to be a simple handbook for the general reader, helping her or him identify and comprehend the biographical and poetic references hidden in Hughes’s poems.
If the book was intended as the latter of these two alternatives then it succeeds very well, certainly so far as the biographical references are concerned. I feel, now that I have read Wagner’s book, I am not missing much through not knowing the facts - the names of family members, the key events of Sylvia’s life, her father’s interest in bees, etc.
As Wagner points out, Sylvia Plath herself often gave up to three different versions of the same event – firstly in her diary, then a self-censored one in her letters to her mother and finally one or more fictional takes in her prose. Add to this her poetry, which draws heavily on her life, and the memoirs written by friends and acquaintances, and it is clear that Ted is laying his late-arriving version of events on top of several others. With due archaeological diligence, Wagner sifts through all of this on our behalf, uncovering consistencies, highlighting differences of emphasis and pointing out the odd outright discrepancy.
Wagner is good on the biography, but she is less so on the poetry. Birthday Letters is full of references to Plath’s work. No-one knew her prose and poetry better than Ted, who was her literary executor and editor. He deliberately draws his poem titles from those already used by Plath and relies heavily on symbols, metaphors and phrases borrowed from her poems. Wagner points out some of these, but there are many more.
Ariel’s Gift was published within two years of Birthday Letters, so one can say Wagner did a wonderful job unravelling the biographical threads in the time. Fully unravelling the poetical links and resonances will take longer and will probably keep academic critics in grants and awards for years to come.
Thank you, Erica Wagner, for helping me get more out of Birthday Letters than I would have done otherwise. Here’s a well-deserved four stars, plus a hearty recommendation for your book.