01 November 2008

Frieda Hughes at the Ted Hughes Festival

The following is a contribution to the blog by Gail Crowther, Research Student, Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. Gail attended the Freida Hughes reading during the Ted Hughes Festival on 24 October, 2008, in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, and was kind enough to write this review of the reading for Sylvia Plath Info Blog readers. Thank you, Gail!

I’ll paint my life in abstracts now,
These poems as the key
To the incidents that shaped me,
And celebrate my journey through
The thickets and hedges,
The maze of thorny edges
Thrown up by family and circumstance
From which I am now free.

(Frieda Hughes, 2006: 96-97)

In the dark and ragged valley of Calderdale on a winter’s evening, we gathered in a small theatre to hear Frieda Hughes read a selection of her published, and soon to be published work.

Starting from a chronological point of view, Frieda began reading from her first book Wooroloo beginning with "Three Women", a poem about an unsavoury stay in a London hospital and the attempts at dignity of the elderly women sharing the ward. This was followed by Frances, a lyrical portrayal of one of these women, poignant in its description of illness and age. "Birds", came next a poem which Frieda said “I wrote about my father but my father thought I’d written about me. May be he was right”. This was followed by "Stonepicker", a sort of mythical creation who encapsulates all the qualities that are unpleasant in certain people. Then came "Dr Shipman" and a discussion about the power such people can have over us. Frieda ponders that the answer we want most is to the question ‘why’, and yet through asking this question we sustain the power of the person. Therefore, the only power you can gain back from them is to not want to know the answer in the first place. "The Bird Cage", Frieda tells us refers to a toy of a childhood friend which created much jealousy. Land mines, crowded with imagery of dismembered limbs was introduced with a anecdote about a reading at Oxford University years earlier where a member of the audience claimed it was a response to a poem from Birthday Letters, "You Hated Spain". “No,” Hughes smiled wryly, “it’s just a poem about land mines”.

"The Writer’s Leg", a poem about a friend in Australia came with the humorous introduction that the friend was no longer speaking to Hughes as he took the poem the wrong way. "Breasts", was a light hearted look at cosmetic surgery with a cracking final line and the humour of this was countered by "The Signature" a sobering poem about Plath’s books being divided between her children by their father before his death, one book of which had the signature snipped out by a prying visitor.

Waxworks was introduced as a book that drew on biblical characters and mythology and classical characters all updated with Hughes’ own stories and experiences. This began with "Rasputin" – "I think we have all known a Rasputin con man". "Vlad the Impaler" followed, a wonderfully gruesome splash of colour poem that Hughes claimed "wrote itself". "The Four Horseman" finished the readings from Waxworks, the character in this poem representing how people can turn against each other.

The final readings came from Frieda Hughes book which will be published in the US in Spring and in the autumn in the UK called The Book of Mirrors. She began with a poem on a subject which she said “I have never written about before” – "Puberty", a bittersweet reminiscence of the crippling insecurities of the developing female body. This was followed by "Flea", a wonderful poem about moving house and finding her new home infested with small inhabitants. With ankles full of blistering bites, this is a poem about how it felt to finally catch one of the fleas and hold it between finger and thumb. “It is,” said Hughes after the reading, “the small things that please us most.” "Letter Bomb" is a poem about the anxiety and immediacy of letters; the fact once something is written it can’t be undone, the sometimes awful physicality of a letter and its contents. "Woman Falling" described the feeling of having done something you really wish you hadn’t and "Stoncle’s Cousin" is a relative of "Stonepicker", the sort of person who rather than focusing on your brilliance, highlights your shortcomings in their own favour. "Message to a Habitual Martyr" is a poem about responsibility. Hughes stated she is a great believer in taking responsibility for your own actions – “If you trip over a paving stone is it really the fault of the council or were you just not looking where you were going?” "Poet with Thesaurus" is about Hughes’ father giving her the gift of her mother’s thesaurus thinking this would help with her own writing. "Things my Father Taught Me" was read with no commentary and followed by a beautifully melancholic poem Letters describing the loss of her father. The final reading was a poem called "Endgame" which is a poem about wars. Hughes introduced this poem saying “I wanted to end with a happy poem, but this is also a goodbye poem…actually it’s a cute poem.”

Following the reading, Frieda signed books and chatted to people. The night gone too quickly. We leave the theatre and enter the dark.

GC 29/10/08; photograph of Frieda Hughes, cropped, from http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.