Books: Telling not showing

'Humanly shattering, poetically inert.' Ted Hughes's almost unbearable account of his life with Sylvia Plath is a great story but not a great work, says Ruth Padel
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In Birthday Letters (Faber, pounds 14.99) Ted Hughes has produced a heartrending record of a man's seven-year struggle with his wife's mental illness and suicide, plus the 35-year aftermath; children ("Daddy, where's Mummy?''), and the world's unbearable vulturism.

Historically, it is fascinating. Everyone wanted to know what Hughes felt; now they can. The poems look back chronologically on their life in the light of her death. It is the Berlin Wall coming down. You read with awe, from the foreshadowing of her illness in the first poem, where her "American grin" is put on "for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners". That last word eases you into the tragedy. "I saw/the flayed nerve, the unhealable facewound/which was all you had for courage.''

He says straight out they destroyed each other. "Alone, either of us might have met with a life./Siamese-twinned, each of us festering/A unique soul-sepsis for the other, /Each of us was the stake/Impaling the other." But mainly he focuses on a single scene: Plath yelling Chaucer at a load of cows, the ouija spirit which failed to foretell the price of fame; bears raiding their camp in Yellowstone Park. You get her vitality; her piano-playing, her contempt for English beaches. As tragic narrative, as biography Siamese-twinned with autobiography, it is near-unbearable.

At the "about" level, the message is male innocence (reflected in repeated rhythms of uncertainty) faced by female rage:

It was May. How had it started? What

Had bared our edges? What quirky twist

Of the moon's blade had set us, so early in the day,

Bleeding each other? What had I done? I had

Somehow misunderstood. Inaccessible

In your dybbuk fury, babies

Hurled into the car, you drove...

What I remember

Is thinking: She'll do something crazy. And I ripped

The door open and jumped in beside you...

You stared, with iron in your face...

I simply

Trod accompaniment, carried babies...

Despite the mental illness, there's enough archetypal confrontation here for all men to identify with that "I simply" stuff, and for all women to recognise that male bafflement which always seems a cop-out... Brilliant: the first book of poems on the subject.

His bafflement is inextricable from responses to her poetry. One phrase she murmured was "The sole metaphor that ever escaped you/In easy speech, in my company." Why did she keep her images private? "Who caught all/That teeming population, every one./To hang their tortured eyes and tongues up/In your poems?" For this is also the first book of poems based on bitter male awe at a woman's poetic creativity:

Those terrible, hypersensitive

Fingers of your verse closed round it and

Felt it alive. The poems, like smoking entrails

Came soft into your hands.

Her poetry is alien mask, secret weapon. Life gets "reassembled":

In the poem to be written so prettily,

And to be worn like a fiesta mask

By the daemon that gazed through it

As through empty sockets - that still gazes

Through it at me.

His explanation of what happened, though, is Fate. Here's where I draw back. Not morally: aesthetically. The inevitable tragic denouement, via the "other woman", was appalling:

We didn't find her - she found us.

She sniffed us out. The Fate she carried

Sniffed us out

And assembled us, inert ingredients

For its experiment. The Fable she carried

Requisitioned you and me and her,

Puppets for its performance.

This woman, with her mythic sparkle:

Was helpless too.

None of us could wake up.

Nightmare looked out at the poppies.

She sat there...

Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.

But Fate and Fable cannot do all the work. Greek tragedy uses myth to explore moral issues and inner motivation. It is not all external responsibility. Poetry needs something more than capital Fs. The end-stopped lines may suggest defeat by Fate, but they are flat, bathetic.

Les Murray made a searing poem about his autistic son entirely out of end-stopped lines, but end-stopping served the poem; that's how the boy talked. Here, they are just inert; and the "slightly filthy" line is too weak to bear causal weight. In a student's work I'd say "telling not showing", which is what most of these poems, tragically, do. The lit, memorable image is thrown away by explanation, not left to speak for itself.

Robert Lowell said Plath's great poems, whose images Hughes riskily re- works, were "events, not records of events". These poems, though their publication is an event, are not that. Historically, they reveal a soul; poetically, they only explain. The clarity and energy of her poems roar at you off the page; his are clotted, accumulating piles of nouns in apposition, joined to explanatory adjectives at the expense of what moves things forward in a line - the verb.

To call this his masterpiece is to deny his own gold standard; that impacted power letting buried myth flicker briefly out from physical things, unexplained. Hughes's genius is for the undermood of landscape, animals, plants; the sudden revelatory image; rhythm-driven concentration. His Laureatey things have been slack, but Tales From Ovid was a wonder. Through myths of love gone wrong, of bodies tragically changed, his own experience flamed through rich physical description. I wish I found that fire here.

There are striking passages - daffodil stalks rivalling the bluebells in Hopkins's diary; clouds like flying laundry; landscape. Some lovely poems (like "I Hated Spain") stand by themselves. But despite the terrible narrative, the single poems mostly enact the same Carmen script: a man caught up in a woman's self-destructive myth ("I was being auditioned/for the male lead in your drama"). Humanly shattering, poetically inert.

This is searing autobiography. But most of the poems depend for their power on readers knowing the biographies, the saga; an admiration and sympathy for him derived from things outside the poems, not on the tension of language and music. He evokes Plath beautifully - face, hands, terrors, eyes - but has withdrawn his own active presence, sexually and poetically. This absence is only half the story. Call it mystic, if you like: an invocation of Fate. But it means giving up his own strengths as a poet: "Poetry did not tell us. And we/Only did what poetry told us to do." In his best work, he is more magnificently equal to what poetry tells.