Crow Steered, Bergs Appeared: A Memoir of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
by Lucas Myers
Mechanical Innocent: A response to Lucas Myers’ Crow Steered Bergs Appeared from William Bedford
I was going to write a traditional review of Lucas Myers’ Memoirbut the note-taking process was so irritating, I decided to let my immediate responses stand. These are not the responses of a critic or academic – though I spent a good part of my life reviewing and teaching – but of a novelist and poet. As I read through Myers’ shambling reflections, I found myself getting more and more infuriated, and infuriated specifically as a writer. The nub of my anger is Myers’ unsupported claim that Plath wasn’t a genuine poet. The following notes explore that and several other issues which seem to me to be important if you are claiming to publish a serious contribution to the study of two major poets.
Part of the difficulty lies with Myers’ prose. He can’t write. His prose style is atrocious, and this interested me. The “Memoir” published at the end of Bitter Fame is well written. I can only conclude that a fair bit of editing went in to that.
When he is talking about “Visit” from Birthday Letters, he completely loses me several times with a careless use of the word ‘selves.’ Instead of saying ‘The two selves’ why can’t he say ‘we’? (p. 29). In fact the rest of the paragraph seems to be wholly about Hughes, so why bring himself in to it at all? Am I supposed to think he had a similarly tough time? Is that significant for my understanding of Hughes, or Plath?
By the time I got to the third paragraph on this page, I was completely lost. ‘But the one self, in its mythic discourse, could have been corrected in a few historical details found in Birthday Letters by the more ordinary self if that ordinary separate self had been sitting around the fire at Court Green with the poet before he went upstairs to his desk to compose “Visit,” “St. Botolph’s,” “18, Rugby St.,” and perhaps one or two of the other poems.’
This is extremely difficult to read, and when you’ve read it you have learned nothing worth knowing. The constant comparisons between Myers and Hughes are distracting, and by the end of the book, ludicrous. I simply don’t care how many times Myers has been divorced. It’s bad enough having to listen to biographical intrusions about Plath and Hughes without being told about their biographies in the same breath.
Myers describes himself as ‘a mechanical innocent,’ (p. 20) and that seems accurate. I was constantly disappointed by the shallowness of passing judgements and statements. On the very first page, he recounts the Fox dream about which Hughes has written himself in Winter Pollen. Myers makes this entirely mechanical. ‘Ted liked his supervisor and was deeply engaged with the subject but received a communication in a dream that dictated his withdrawal from the faculty of English’(p. 1).
In fact Hughes’ relationship with the faculty of English was difficult from the start, and as I remember it was an essay on Johnson which finally made Hughes give up. He was not suited to the Cambridge style of analysis, particularly that practised by Leavis, which tended to put anybody off trying to write forever. To suggest that Hughes was enjoying his English studies but made the decision to study Anthropology because of a dream is ridiculous. The dream spoke to something deep within Hughes.
When it comes to talking about actual poems, it seems perfectly obvious why Myers changed his own studies from English Literature to Social Anthropology. He doesn’t seem to have an ear for poetry at all. This struck me most forcibly when he came to talk about “Visit,” one of the finest poems in Birthday Letters.
‘In fact, some lines of some of the Birthday Letters poems, such as the last lines of “Visit,” ‘It is only a story./Your story. My story,’ fall below Ted’s customary standard.’ He goes on fatuously, ‘I don’t think their story is “only a story.” It is a story but not only a story.’ (pp. 18-19).
It is difficult to credit such a crass failure of reading. I know irony doesn’t always travel well, let alone tragic irony, but “Visit” builds to these lines with a force rarely seen in any lyric poetry. The whole poem is a masterly construction working towards those lines: the original incident recounted in memory, then read about ten years later in the Journals, this reading disrupted by the arrival of the daughter with the awful reality of her ‘Daddy, where’s Mummy?’ followed by the anguish in the midnight garden and then back again to ‘the book of the printed words’ and the achingly painful irony of ‘You are ten years dead. It is only a story./Your story. My story,’ the dying fall of the closing final line capturing precisely why it is not ‘only a story,’ a conclusion the entire poem has been working towards. In other words: this is our lives they are talking about, a message Myers might have taken to heart.
When I read this brief excursion into literary criticism, I dreaded what he was going to say about Sylvia Plath. Wanting to abandon reading, I turned to the photograph of Plath with her daughter Frieda on the last page. What an extraordinary photograph that is: haunting, wary, vulnerable, the smile hesitant, the eyes full of something I can’t make out, as if she is offering a present but knows we won’t want it.
I don’t know why I thought that, but the photograph reminded me of the Hughes poem, “God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark,” which I have always found upsetting, with it’s powerful theme of ‘Nobody wanted your dance.’ We make so much of her, tearing her behaviour apart, now that we’ve done with tearing Hughes’s behaviour apart. But that face stared out at me, and I thought: we’ve lost you, we don’t know who you are, and yet we’re still trampling over your grave. The same is now going to happen with Hughes.
The difficulty is that the only kind of truth we are ever likely to find is the truth offered in a poem such as “Daffodils”: ‘Remember how we picked the daffodils?/Nobody else remembers, but I remember.’ The fundamental problem, is that “Daffodils” brings us a step closer to the truth by being indirect, by poetic recreation, which isn’t the same as biography. As Aristotle says in thePoetics, the poet tells us more of the truth than the biographer or historian and that truth is found in the poetic distortions. It is an argument well rehearsed between Plato and Aristotle, and fully appreciated by good biographers.
The difficulty with a Memoir such as Myers’ is that he talks of ‘errors of factual detail and one or two misapprehensions,’ (p. 23) in Birthday Letters and again, ‘The trouble is that historically it wasn’t exactly like that. In fact it wasn’t very much like that’ (p. 25). He has set himself to do the thing that Birthday Lettersdoesn’t pretend to do: give an accurate account of ‘what happened.’
Well, it hardly seems worth our time addressing such an ambition seriously. All I can say is that if indeed ‘at the time we had had a tape-recorder’ (p. 26) it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference, because what Myers is after is impossible. Great biographers create works of art which sometimes have a lot to do with the ‘facts,’ with ‘what happened,’ but much more frequently have to do with creating a coherent picture, an impression, which serves a generation until a new picture comes along. And it is usually the facts which give the wrong impression, as Aristotle knew. Birthday Letters may be full of factual errors, but it has something much more complicated and I would argue much more important: the feeling of truth. I felt when I read it the first time: they loved each other, the rest is private.
I did find some things illuminating or at least interesting. What Myers says about astrology on p. 9 for instance, about Hughes seeing it ‘not as a science but as an instrument for the vivid expression of intuitive insights.’ And he ‘loved the opulent lexicon of symbols, the convergences, oppositions, planetary, solar and lunar influences, the cusps and houses with which it organised a description of the human character and destiny.’
I would have liked a lot more about this aspect of Hughes’ imagination, and his work and life with Plath, but Myers has little to say. One of the further irritating features of his Memoir, is the fact that even when he does make interesting observations, he never follows them up or provides evidence. The most important lapse here seems to me to be the whole issue of Buddhism and Tao and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I think all of this would make a separate study, and is going to be one of the most fruitful fields in future studies of Hughes. In the Memoir, I found it interesting and simply presented, but I was constantly frustrated by wanted to know much more.
There are a number of references to the fact that Hughes ‘never allowed his rational judgement to be inundated’(p. 27) or ‘didn’t get drunk since he was always unwilling to lose control of himself’ (p. 32). The claim that he ‘had virtually never done anything ill considered in the thirty-nine years I had, at that point, known him’ (p. 27) isn’t supported, and indeed is contradicted by ‘famously imbricated practical and business affairs and one or two romantic relations’ (p. 27). The suggestion of a psyche needing to be in control is interesting, but this barely rises above the level of gossip.
There are more ludicrous bits of literary criticism when Myers turns to “The Thought-Fox” (p. 42) but then on the same page comes this amazing sentence:
‘However, a vocation of producing and publishing poems as opposed to creating poetry did, I think, support and concentrate the inward-looking forces that ultimately destroyed Sylvia.’
This seems to me to be the heart of what Myers has to say about Sylvia Plath, and I would like to pick up a few more references that come later in the book. In a way, they all seem to centre around another poem in Birthday Letters, “The God,” with the opening lines:
- 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 tell its tale?
- The story that has to be told
- Is the writer’s God, who calls
- Out of sleep, inaudibly: ‘Write.’
- Write what?
On p. 95 there’s an interesting comment on Plath’s method of writing for the market. In a letter to Myers in 1957, Hughes wrote ‘that the “terrible thing” is when you begin a poem thinking of the magazine you will send it to.’ This is contrasted, to her discredit, with Plath’s ‘established practice to start a piece, normally a story but often a poem, with a view to pleasing a specific editor.’
There are two points that might be made here, and they are only superficially contradictory. Jacqueline Rose (The Haunting of Sylvia Plath) discusses the whole business of penetrating markets with great skill, and few writers trying to earn a living with creative work would find fault with what she says. More significantly, Myers’ case seems to bear no relation to the detailed process of revision Hughes himself discusses in Winter Pollenwhere he goes through several drafts of one of Plath’s finest poems, “Sheep in Fog.” Myers doesn’t seem to be aware of either Hughes’ careful analysis of Plath’s writing habits or processes, or the issues which Jacqueline Rose discusses, and simply makes a reductive judgement of Plath’s concerns and ambitions as a writer. In other words, there is a paradox here: a creative tension between Plath’s habits as a creative writer and her eye for the market. Only a ‘mechanical innocent’ could imagine writers live in total isolation from their culture. As Samuel Johnson said, only a fool writes without thinking about the money.
Myers touches upon the great difficulty with Plath on p. 103 when he talks about the problem of the ego. This takes us back to the Hughes poem “The God” in Birthday Letters, and again I feel frustrated because I think Myers could write a useful book (or a useful book could be written) about the Plath who emerges from “The God.” This whole issue of what a writer is, the screaming need to write or murder, which Hughes himself talked about in the famous London Magazine interview with Egbert Faas in 1971, is central to an understanding of Plath’s imagination. The blank or emptiness that appears to be at the heart of Plath is fascinating, and we are entitled to reflect on it because it is so clearly established in the Journals. It is something to do with regression, and the infantile, but I think we really need to look at Plath’s imagination and murderous impulses much more in terms of myth and the Greeks and her own interest in The White Goddess.
Myers raises the most important questions on p. 106: what actually is a writer and was Plath one? Freud has already said more than enough about this in my opinion. There are people who fill their own psychic emptiness with things to do, and they often try writing – think of all those dreadful creative writing workshops full of damaged souls and rejects from woodwork classes – but I don’t feel this to be remotely the case with Plath. It seems either ludicrous or obscene that we should even be asked to consider the question.
She wrote a novel, stories, poems, letters and journals. She actually wrote relentlessly. And we ought to remember that when she died, Hughes had published The Hawk in the Rain andLupercal. If we compare the two of them, their creative careers at the time of her death, then it would be difficult to say which was the more achieved writer.
She was always a writer in the way she studied other writers. Myers even seems to count this against her. And yet her search for the ‘food’ of other literature is absolutely normal. I don’t know a single serious writer who doesn’t read all the time, and consciously read for sustenance. I’m not talking about ideas: but literally the sustenance that comes from living with Shakespeare or Dickens for a few minutes every day.
On p. 107 Myers continues this line of argument. Claiming that Hughes ‘had much more ready access to the forces that control our lives and was seized of a consuming will to bring significance to his own life,’ Myers goes on to say that in the case of Plath, ‘the ambition to acquire the skills a poet needs required no inflation because her determination was a great as his own, though lacking inspiration of her own.’
This reminded me of the phrase I think Alvarez used in the BBC 2 documentary about Birthday Letters: that she had ‘instant access to the inferno of her unconscious.’ I can’t find the quote, but it is something like that, and sounds like Alvarez. I remember talking to an eminent psychiatrist who said that she was incredibly lucky and rare if she really did have such instant access, and that that would have guaranteed a lifetime of creative writing.
And she hardly lacked material: she had a childhood, a dead father, a mother, a marriage, two children of her own, an intellectual life, a life in London and Devon. If she could have recovered some sense of her ‘self’ (with or without Hughes) who can say what she might not have gone on to write. To say that she lacked ‘inspiration’ is another of those banal remarks. Writers don’t write from inspiration. I have no idea what it is. I write from sickness, from experience, from reading, from will. I don’t sit around waiting for flashes of lightning.
Elsewhere, Myers again contrasts Plath’s attitude to material with Hughes’ attitude. Hughes was genuinely interested in birds and insects, but Plath wasn’t. Her attitude was ‘utilitarian’ (p. 120). But there is something very post-modernist about Plath’s treatment of her subjects, or the texture of her poetry. She had to find images and metaphors, and took a whole range of sources, much as Hughes found images and metaphors in astrology (though Myers allows him that of course).
I would want to say that Hughes was just as interested (in a utilitarian sense) in the mythical meanings of birds and insects (the wren, the hare, the grasshopper) but that Plath came from a different culture, and was a different kind of writer. She was searching for a language to express her own inferno. She sought that language anywhere, even in mediocre magazines likeSeventeen, but who is to say that that is somehow a wrong choice, a ‘less dignified’ choice. Why is her method ‘utilitarian’ but Hughes’ method creative? She might well have reflected her culture much more powerfully than Hughes if she had gone on writing.
I must say I am very tempted to argue that the reason Myers makes the judgement he does is obvious: she was a woman, and as he revealingly says: ‘a woman of her ability might have found a path easier than writing’ (p. 120). I don’t know how he’s survived in America all these years, but he is doing Hughes no favours with remarks like these.
So why does Myers raise these questions of Plath’s integrity as a writer? Is it all because of Hughes’ poem “The God”? Or her appalling personal behaviour, for which he can’t forgive her? Or the appalling behaviour of his feminist ‘Red Guards,’ for which he blames her? Whatever the reason, he needs to ground the charge in the poems. If she isn’t a genuine poet but a hack trying to make a name through scandal and sensation, then it will show in the poems.
Hughes never believed that for a moment. She was the real thing as far as he was concerned. And in 1963, dare I say, she had achieved poems that are at least as powerful as anything Hughes had written. He went on to write great books – Crow and Gaudeteand Birthday Letters – but I wonder whether he wrote great individual poems? She wrote great poems. Birthday Letterswouldn’t be the wonderful book it is without Plath, which may seem a trite thing to say, but it seems to me very important: the more I live with Birthday Letters, the more I see it as both their achievements.
Just to complete this attention to the actual poetry, Myers claims (pp. 140-141) that Plath was written out, but that is emphatically denied by Hughes in his wonderful analysis of “Sheep in Fog.” I think he knew how she had developed with the Ariel poems, and how she was perfectly clear that one way of writing was finished, another was opening up. She was growing as a writer. I think Hughes has been admirable here in the way he has nurtured the growth of understanding of Plath’s imagination, and he has written better about Ariel than anybody else I have read.
The rest is trivia. The whole Memoir is full of throwaway judgements which leave the reader desperate for more, or less. ‘Possibly health and a sound understanding of herself were foreclosed by the treatments’ (110) he says of the ECT. The details about the letters and journals remain interesting, but the publishing history is no clearer after reading Myers than before. Yet again, Jacqueline Rose is both more intelligent and more informative, though actually that isn’t much of a compliment. I do agree with Myers that the Journals will harm Plath, but I think in the short term rather than the long term: in the long term hopefully people will be a bit more eighteenth-century in their attitudes to the behaviour of writers. Samuel Johnson would have been astonished at our dreadful mixture of prurience and naivety.
I thought Chapter 31 had some interesting material about Assia and what was going on around the time of the death of Plath, but when Myers says ‘Assia told me that she would never have got involved with Ted if Sylvia hadn’t been so nasty to her’ (p. 129), I felt a kind of disgust, a feeling that I didn’t want to read any more trite judgements on real situations which must have been psychic nightmares for those involved. This is cheap gossip which would struggle to get published as journalism. Assia ‘dressed with taste but a good deal of panache, had striking looks, spoke with great articulation and a kind of bejewelled accent,’ Myers twitters. I read that and had a fleeting vision of Angela Carter leaning right back in her chair and fixing me with her wicked stare and saying: ‘Yes, but could she walk on both legs?’
I found Crow Steered Bergs Appeared a thoroughly depressing read. Myers’ loyalty to Hughes is obvious, and almost prevents one from making an objective judgement. But the Memoir is also about Plath, and in any case, I’m not convinced that Hughes is well served by the kind of things I’ve tried to write about. Myers comes across as a man who befriended a great poet by accident but hasn’t really the imagination to know what a poet is. ReadCrow after reading Myers and you can hardly believe Ted Hughes wrote it.
I believe Plath was a fine poet, and the range of her interests seems to me proof that she might have gone on to be a great poet: she took from her culture what she needed, and much as Myers may dislike this or somehow see it as unworthy, that is how great writers work. Coleridge upset everybody by using things in The Ancient Mariner and Christabel which prissy Wordsworth regarded as low, just as Bellow writes about both the demotic and high culture in his extraordinary novels. Shakespeare and Dickens both stretched their imaginations to include everything. I think Plath would have fed from the demotic and shown us a great deal about our times had she survived.
17th June 2002