First poems published by Plath's daughter
Sunday 04 October 1998
There is no doubt that Frieda Hughes has a hard act to follow. Her father is recognised as the outstanding talent of his generation, while the upbringing and motives of her mother, who took her own life in the early Sixties, have been picked over by dozens of biographers and critics.
But such a weighty literary pedigree has not silenced Ms Hughes, whose poems appear in a Faber anthology published tomorrow. She has refused to adopt a pseudonym and firmly resists comparisons: while she is intensely proud of her parents, she says, her own work will speak for itself.
Now in her late thirties, and recently returned from 10 years in Western Australia, Ms Hughes will bring out her own first collection with Bloodaxe early next year, dedicated 'For Daddy with love'. She has already written six books for children and is an acclaimed painter, with work currently on display at the Royal Commonwealth Society in London.
It has taken rather longer to summon the courage to submit her poems for publication, but they have already been accepted by the New Yorker and Paris Review. Ironically - considering the intense literary rivalry between her parents - she claims her two-year marriage to Hungarian painter Laszlo Lukacs has engendered a new confidence.
"I have been painting and writing since I was three." she says. "It is all I have ever wanted to do. My father encouraged me, but it was really up to me what I did. If I needed help he would be my most accurate and sensible critic. But it had to get to the point where I felt that I could no longer not show anybody.
"I am more comfortable with myself, and part of that had to be meeting Laszlo. I had to feel that he was confident and complete in his own right; I couldn't have married anybody who wasn't a superb artist."
The couple now work side by side in their London studio, where she produces vivid, brilliant and disturbing canvases covered in Van Gogh-like swirls depicting bush fires and Australian landscapes; his work is more Cubist in style.
By contrast, her parents' relationship was famously stormy. Plath recorded that when she first met Ted Hughes at a Cambridge party, she bit him on the cheek and drew blood. Hughes himself has refused to give interviews about the relationship, although his recently published Birthday Letters cast new light on its dynamics.
Ms Hughes, who looks strikingly similar to her mother, published her first children's book, Getting Rid of Edna, at the age of 26. She said: "I had only ever thought of writing fiction and poetry, but when I took my paintings to my first publisher, thinking they might give me a book jacket, she asked if I had ever thought of illustrating a book." Her stories were so good that she was commissioned to write more.
Only recently did she begin sending her poems to four critics - including her father and a friend, journalist Libby Purves - for feedback. "They were brutally honest and when it was good, they said so. When you are sitting there in your vacuum, writing away, you don't know what reaction it's going to have. It was important to have the right audience."
One poem, "Readers", published by Bloodaxe and read on Radio 4 just after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, deals with the industry of "ghouls" who have made a living out of dissecting Plath's every move.
"That was one of the first poems she showed me and it knocked me back on my heels," says Ms Purves. "It had such a strong streak of Sylvia Plath in it and yet I knew she hadn't read her mother's poems for most of her youth.
"I do associate her work very much with William Blake; I think she has that quality like nobody else has, and she is going to be one of the notable figures of our age."
Of her father's comments, Ms Hughes says: "He has been wonderful; he's terribly reticent, I would say. He would tell me when something was weak or something was strong, but he would not tell me what I should do. That would make it his, and that would be awful."
Lee Brackstone, who edited the Faber collection, says: "Her poems are packed with startling, very vivid and sometimes violent imagery. She's an incredibly intelligent poet; I think her poetry has been informed by both her father and mother, but she's very original, strange, and quite unsettling."
While it is tempting to liken her work to Plath's - she employs hyphenated words in a similar fashion, and, like her mother, writes of traumatic father-daughter relationships - she is clearly not afflicted by the mental anguish suffered by Plath. "I make an effort not to try and compare myself with my mother," she says. "I can't stop people making comparisons; the only thing I can do is stay true to myself.
"I am very, very proud of both my parents, I have to say that. It gives an awful lot to live up to. It could make me dumb, and it certainly has made me very cautious about what I do where my writing is concerned ... But I am a different person."
She adds: "I would like to get to 90 and know that I have been myself all along ... In life, you are given certain opportunities and handicaps and it's up to you how you use or abuse them. I hope that I have treated my heritage with some dignity."
t "First Pressings" is published by Faber at pounds 4.99. "Wooroloo" is published by HarperFlamingo in the US, and Bloodaxe in the UK, in February.
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