03 June 2009

A Review of After Ted & Sylvia by Crystal Hurdle

People like to write about Sylvia Plath. I've built a blog and a website on the very subject. Lately, people like to speak for Sylvia Plath just as much as they like to speak about her. Crystal Hurdle's 2003 poetry collected After Ted & Sylvia was one of the first poetry collections focussed solely on the poet. When I reviewed Catherine Bowman's The Plath Cabinet in March, I neglected to include Hurdle's earlier book. This was accident, afterall I heard her read some of the at the 2002 Sylvia Plath 70th Year Symposium at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In the area of writing about Plath creatively, I recall being impressed with Kate Moses, whose novel Wintering was well under way, but not so much with either Bowman's or Hurdle's poems. Reading the collection now, after thinking Bowman's work was at least a little unique, I now find that Hurdle was quiet a bit ahead of her. And this unfortunately makes Bowman's The Plath Cabinet slightly less impressive.

Hurdle's poems show evidence of archival research both at the Lilly Library and at Smith College. She also states that she did some research in the United Kingdom, though it is not clear whether or not she worked archives or if she "wandered through each chartered street / Near where there chartered Thames does flow", to quote Blake. There are a few nice poems in this book, but on whole the story of Sylvia Plath works best when based on fact - the imagination of the write held in check - and written in the genre called non-fiction, which is how the once living and the currently living are normally written. As with Bowman's work, there are a number of factual errors which are really inexcusable and taint the work for me. As with Bowman's, it is a biographical book: but unlike Bowman's (or her publicists), the book is not purported to be biographical. Instead, Hurdle states in the Acknowledgements, "This book, while based on the lives of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, is a work of the imagination."

And, it is clearly a work of imagination when once considers the following:

"Laureate I: Blooms"
Page 13
Line 2: 'of two dead wives'
While this is a common enough mistake, Ted Hughes was not married to Assia Wevill - the presumed second dead wife in this poem. Ted Hughes's second wife is Carol Hughes. Let's move on.

"Laureat III: To You, Dear Ted"
Page 18
Stanza 3, Line 5: 'What about wifey #3?'
Broken record here. Unless polygamy is legal in England, or was legal...

"Laureate V: Poem for Sylvia"
Page 27
Stanza 4, Line2 1-2: 'No yew tree in sight / Chalcott Square'
Can't find that on my London A-Z. Chalcot has one 't'. This occurs throughout the book. Consistency in this case is simply annoying. And the yew tree was in North Tawton, not in London, so of course it wouldn't be in site: not even from top the Post Office Tower.

Page 28
Stanza 1, Lines 4-9: 'but didn't you ... /know that gas rises?'
Some gas does rise, as Plath thought her gas would in the flat. However, coal gas is heavier, and sinks, which Plath didn't know or didn't remember. This whole stanza is rotten.

Stanza 2, Line 2: '123 Fitzroy Road'
The poet is clearly leading people to the wrong places in London. The correct address is 23 Fitzroy Road.

Stanza 2, Line 5: 'You only wrote most of Ariel here.'
No. Implying that most of the collection was written at 23 Fitzroy Road (or 123 Fitzroy Road). No no no. Ariel was written in North Tawton, with a few of the earliest poems composed in London at 3 Chalcot Square. Of course some of the poems Plath did write at 23 Fitzroy Road were included in Ariel as assembled by Ted Hughes, but by the time these poems by Hurdle were written, the table of contents of Plath's Ariel was well-known.

Stanza 4, Lines 1-2: 'I had been at the wrong address / Number 3 not 7 Chalcott square'
Again with the Chalcott. And, Square should be capitalized. When I read this I get the feeling she's saying Plath and Hughes lived at 7 Chalcot Square, not 3, which is just wrong. If you were at 7 Chalcot Square then you were at the wrong address. Regardless, it's awkward. Punctuate.

"Laureate VI: Wife"
Page 33
Stanza 4, Last Line: 'longer of the years of the two dead wives'
We've already been through this...

Page 36
Stanza 1, Line 2: 'his two dead wives'
Seriously?

"Milk: Apocrypha"
Page 42
Stanza 2, Lines 5-6: 'He is in Devon with that woman / her name a hot hiss'
In the lines immediately above, it's 'almost Valentine's' in 1963. He is Ted. "That woman" is Assia. Ted, in Devon, around Valentine's, with Assia? Not bloody likely. Try in London and Heptonstall seeing the inquiry in the Plath's death and subsequent funeral.

Page 43
Stanza 4, Lines 1-2: 'one floor above / bodies sluggish from the rising gas'
This is tiresome. The bodies 'one floor above' could not have been 'sluggish from the rising gas' because the gas was heavier than air and sunk.

"Sivvy: Bowdlerising"
Page 98
Stanza 1, Line 1: 'but mostly those four dots'
Ellipses - used for marking omissions, pauses in speech, unfinished thoughts, etc. - are denoted by ...

"Sivvy: Climate Control"
Page 101
Stanza 4, Line 1: 'in Whitsun House in Cambridge'
Whitstead. 4 Barton Road. Plath wrote a poem called "Whitsun", though not whilst living in Whitstead.

"Sivvy: Furlough in Las Vegas"
Page 131
Stanza 1, Line 5: 'I tried for Truro, Wellfleet, even Providence'
Truro and Wellfleet are on Cape Cod... Providence is not. Did the writer mean Provincetown?

Page 132
Stanza 5, Line 3: 'at Chalcott Square'
One more time! Encore!

Clearly a work of the imagination. When all is said and done, there really isn't much poetry to read. The hatred expressed for Ted Hughes 'Get lost, Ted. Go fuck yourself' ("Laureate V: Poem for Sylvia", p. 30) does not make for good poetry. It's more appropriate for a private journal. Nor does a question and answer stanza on the color of urine and semen ("The Sylvias: a Fantasy", p. 30). While humorous if I had a few pints in me and I was in a bar, this sort of stuff is distracting.

Poetry works best when it is imaginative: when it's the poets imagination driven by experience or the mind (or something similar). Poetry about other people, such as this work, simply is boring and, perhaps not surprisingly, uninspired. To bring Bowman back in, whose had the most recent last words in the sub-genre/industry of poetry about Plath, hopes that her poems will inspire people to read Plath and Hughes' poetry. I hope this is an actual outcome because then the reader will get to read real poems.

8 comments :

Anonymous said...

Peter, if you will permit me, I'd like to re-post here the comment I left after your March 29th review of Bowman's "Plath Cabinet":

This is actually a very strong collection of poems in which the author struggles with her own obviously intense emotional connection to Sylvia. It includes a poem called "Fetish" about Aurelia's collecting locks of Sylvia's hair. And there's one about Nicholas called "The Son Speaks" that suggests a connection between tracing the spawning of salmon and the need to return to one's origin in the mother, an odd mix of over-simplification and insight. Part of the text on the back cover reads: "At points, the poet-narrator forms a literary menage-a-trois with the two poets as she struggles to understand their lives as individual artists and their love-torn relationship. The final section begins in Purgatory with the furious Plath having read Birthday letters even as other voices from the wider public domain attempt to control the narrative." Of course, there are high points and low points in the collection, and some of the poems persist in the need to blame Ted on Sylvia's behalf, but all-in-all the poet has a strong voice of her own that shows some originality and doesn't depend so heavily as others on Plath's own words. Here is the entire poem called "The Son Speaks":

Migration of the salmonid
the histological model
home-stream interaction
habitat culture

They really want to return
to their place of birth
They really want their mothers

Mommy!

riverriverriverriverriver

There is also a dialogue with the writer's psychiatrist in which the doctor comments on the intensity of Hurdle's Plath-identification. Inevitably, there are excesses, like the poem about incest...but they are further evidence of the poet's sincerity, if you will.

Yes, there are factual errors and misapprehensions on the speaker's part. It's possible the double "t" in Chalcott may be an artifact of Canadian usage (the poet is Canadian)... I don't know. But,
what is striking about this collection is the depth of the poet's emotional involvement in Plath's story and her identification with Sylvia, which leads to quite a bit of self-dramatization and striking out. They are the poems of a young writer, most of them probably written while she was a student. This sets them apart from the more dispassionate approach of Bowman's poems, for example, which rarely give evidence of any real emotional charge to the poems.
--Jim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jim, thank you for reposting your response. Believe me when I say that your review encouraged me to read the collection, and I had it in mind as I was reading the book and writing the review. I suppose I just come at this from a different angle/approach than you. I trust your summation of the poems much more than I do my own. I let, continually, those factual mistakes take over - this is a shortcoming on my part.

I think I need to positively review something...stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

Of course, it's natural, Peter, for you to focus on those "factual mistakes." You are, after all, a biographer...the accuracy of your facts is of the utmost importance. But it's my feeling, or at least my gut response, that in a production as subjective as Hurdle's collection, so "cathected", if I can use a psychiatric term, with the emotions surrounding her identification with Plath and her need for catharsis through that identification, that the secondary facts--things like an address, or whether coal gas will rise or fall in a closed room-- are very nearly immaterial; they don't matter any more to the poet than it mattererd to Sylvia whether Trevor Thomas would suffer any effects from her plan. What matters are the emotional facts. This is part of what I meant by her "sincerity"--it's just a pleasure to come across a young poet who is SO open, not to say vulnerable, to what she reads, and so irrepressible in her responses. In this, I think, she comes closer than these other, more conventional poet's and researchers to Sylvia's spirit.
--Jim

panther said...

I am yet to read the Crystal Hurdle poems but I find myself agreeing partially with both Jim and Peter. Hurdle's collection is cathected (I've learnt a new word today !) to such an extent that secondary facts don't matter. I would concur that they might not matter to HER, but I as a reader find the inaccuracies grating because these facts are so easy to find. If she were writing about Elizabeth the First, say, and put in lots of little details about her housing arrangements, who would be any the wiser ? I don't think a lot of those details are on record.

Peter,I'm not necessarily against writing poems about real people, historical or contemporary. It can be done well. But to write of someone as famous/notorious as Sylvia Plath is looking for trouble. And to write poems IN HER OWN VOICE, well, this is something that particularly bothers me. Again, because her own voice is so easy to access nowadays. Also, because she is so recent and there are people walking about who were closely involved and stand to be hurt. The hostility to Ted Hughes shown in the poems is, to put it mildly, cheap.

Bowman commits , I feel, almost the opposite poetic sin : not being emotionally involved enough, falling into a strange form of reportage. Which leaves me unmoved.

Anonymous said...

You're both right...it is a shame that the collection (Hurdle's) wasn't edited more carefully. Any knowledgeable editor should have been able to recognize the errors you mention...especially the thing about Ted's "two dead wives". But of course Hurdle teaches at the college level and should have been on top of her information enough to be able to get it right. But, as I said, I think she was too close to these poems to be able to see them that clearly. And they clearly go way overboard in some cases, suggestign that she was working through some personal issues quite apart from Sylvia's case. For example, the very distasteful "The Sylvias: a Fantasy", with its suggestion of sexual abuse. But then I come across something so surprising that it reminds why I'm so intrigued by these poems...like the ending of "Laureate V: poem for Sylvia", which is addressed to Sylvia and which ends with these lines in which the poet's anger is unleashed on Sylvia herself...and I can't help thinking what a brave thing to do:

...I am weeping with frustration now
Its too big
there's way too much for this poem...
...I am tired so tired
but I will hunt you
through the neat paw print phonemes
of your poems.
Out of your blackness
I will drag you by your hair
so that you might live
into the sun into the fucking sun
so sue me
you self-righteous, too clever by half, wearying
Ted was right
bitch

--Jim

Anonymous said...

I just want to add one more comment, and then I'll keep still.

Regarding the references to Ted's "two dead wives"; even though Hurdle is technically wrong, she perhaps catches the true sense of the relationship better than we give her credit for. In Elaine Feinstein's bio of Hughes, "Ted Hughes: the life of a poet", she quotes a letter Hughes wrote to Assia's sister Celia after Assia's death. In the letter (quoted by Eilat Negev in an article in the Guardian, April 1999) Ted refers to Assia as "my true wife". I'm not suggesting that Hurdle ever read this...only that I can forgive her mischaracterizing the relationship. And, of course, Ted may have just been saying what he thought Celia would want to hear.

Since I seem to be a cheerleader for Crystal Hurdle's book, maybe a disclaimer is in order: I do not know Hurdle and have never communicated with her in any way, and have no stake in whether anybody ever reads her book. I just find it vastly more authentic and interesting and entertaining than the other collections written around Plath's life.
--Jim

Anonymous said...

I hesitate to weigh in since I have not yet read either book, but I do understand what Peter means about details being erroneous. I found the same sort of thing very annoying when reading Ted & Sylvia by Emma Tennant. I am wondering if the errors in these books are deliberate in order to qualify as works of fiction and avoid lawsuits. Guess I need to read up on copyright law.

As far as Hurdle's book, I don't mind the "two wives" repetition, because Ted and Assia were together for a long time, had a child together and he did refer to her as his wife in that infamous letter. The kind of errors I find annoying are the mispellings, or when dates are wrong, etc. I don't see this as being creative or taking poetic license. It just feels lazy to me. And let's be honest, the primary audience for these books is a very narrow band of people who know Plath's work and the facts of her life very, very well. The average reader is not going to be all that interested in reading someone else's thoughts on Plath and Hughes. So, IMHO, if you are going to write for this particular audience, you should get the basic facts straight. Not only are they annoying but they interupt the flow of the poetry or prose. So I don't think you are alone in feeling this way, Peter. If you know the material well, these are mistakes that are hard to ignore and you end up ennumerating the mistakes rather than enjoying what you are reading. Kim

Rehan Qayoom said...

Thanks for the much-need corrections. The author has clearly not lived her subject as a true writer ought to (as described most perfectly by Keats' Chameleon Poet theory). Poetry composed under such an inspired state writes itself as is its own proof. It corroborates its own true facts, independant of the writer, who functions as a mere instrument or what Plath would call 'mouthpiece of the Gods'.

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