One of the major literary events of the year is the publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, an extraordinary portrait of his marriage to poet Sylvia Plath through 88 chronologically arranged poems to her. Hughes, since 1987 Great Britain's Poet Laureate, was married to Plath from 1956 until she committed suicide in 1963. The Bell Jar, as well as the posthumous publication of Ariel, brought her work worldwide recognition and acclaim. Hughes's reluctance to publically address Plath's death and his realtionship with her has been viewed by some as reprehensible. Their marrige has for years been the subject of intense scrutiny and has contributed in part to the mythology surrounding Plath.
Now, with Birthday Letters, the world is finally hearing Hughes's response. His tender, despairing poems make his grief evident and show a couple deeply committed to their work. "And we/Only did what poetry told us to do." But Plath was often troubled. "You were like a religious fanatic/Without a god unable to pray./You wanted to be a writer./Wanted to write?/What was it within you/Had to have its tale? . . . You bowed at your desk and you wept/Over the story that refused to exist."
Hughes acknowledges that Plath's troubles began before their life together, but does partially accept responsibility. He shows his failure to understand. "At that time/I had not understood/How the death hurtling to and fro/Inside your head, had to alight somewhere/And again somewhere, and had to be kept moving,/And had to be rested/Temporarily somewhere."In images tender and frightening, sometimes searing and powerful, we gain a sense of two creative people caught up in something they could not control. "You were a jailer of your murderer /Which imprisoned you./And since I was your nurse and protector/Your sentence was mine too."
This is only one side of the story. The reader may or may not accept it as the truth. As poetry, however, and as at least a partial truth, it succeeds magnificently.
Diane Ackerman is one of our finest writers about nature and the senses, the author of the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses, as well as A Natural History of Love, and The Rarest of the Rare, about endangered animals. She is also a prize-winning poet. Her long-awaited new collection, I Praise My Destroyer, has just been published. She explores nature and science with awe and praise but is always aware of the human dimension. In the title poem she writes: "Our cavernous brains/won't save us in the end,/though, heaven knows, they enhance the drama," and "it was grace to live/among the fruits of summer, to love by design,/and walk the startling Earth/for what seemed/an endless resurrection of days." In "We Die," her poem for Carl Sagan, and "Elegy," for John Condry, she speaks of the pain of loss, the reality of mortality. But she conveys joy and sensuousness in such poems as "The Consolation of Apricots." These poems are rich and intense.
In her acceptance speech upon receiving the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said: "Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating, 'I don't know.' Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying . . ." Szymborska's work always questions searching for a different way to perceive things, another way to understand better what our lives are all about. She does this with an economy of language that is at once intelligent, philosophical, witty, yet always in touch with the real world. A major publishing event this month is her Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. This volume contains virtually all of her poetry to date, including all 100 poems from her popular collection A View with a Grain of Sand. An additional feature is the text of her Nobel lecture.
Szymborska reminds us: "After every war/someone has to tidy up./Things won't pick/themselves up, after all." And that "Reality demands/that we also mention this:/Life goes on./It continues at Cannae and Borodino,/at Kosovo Polje and Guernica." She notes: "We're extremely fortunate/not to know precisely/the kind of world we live in." In "The Century's Decline," she writes: "'How should we live?' someone asked me in a letter./I had meant to ask him/the same question./Again, and as ever,/as may be seen above,/the most pressing questions/are naive ones."
Three years ago poet Jane Kenyon died after a 15-month struggle with leukemia. Her husband, Donald Hall, himself the author of 13 volumes of verse, offers very personal poetry about her life and death, and life for him after her death, in Without. After reading these poems we feel that we know these people and have shared a range of experiences with them. Although this collection conveys sadness and agony and loss, there exists also courage and strength in these poems.