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Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Writing Between Them by Jennifer D. Ryan-Bryant

Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Writing Between Them: Turning the Table by Jennifer D. Ryan-Bryant, a professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo State, and published by Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield (website), was published in February 2002. The ISBN is 978-1-7936-1415-5. It is 193 pages and has a retail price of $95. 

From the website: 

"Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Writing Between Them: Turning the Table examines early draft manuscripts and published poems by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in order to uncover the compositional approaches that they held in common. Both poets not only honed the minutiae of individual poems but also reworked the shape of overall sequences in order to cultivate unique theories of an ars poetica. The book incorporates drafts of their work from Indiana University’s Lilly Library, Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, and the British Library. After assessing the writing and revision strategies that the poets’ early drafts reveal, the book investigates the material that they borrowed from one another and then reimagined through two major sequences: Plath’s Ariel and Hughes’s Crow. The book enhances its analysis of the poets’ shared techniques by discussing several pairs of poems from Ariel and Hughes’s Birthday Letters that respond to one another. Its final chapter also includes an evaluation of some of Hughes’s unpublished journal entries and unpublished letters that comment on his last collection’s public reception. In the conclusion, the author chronicles Hughes’s and Plath’s own remarks on their writing process as further evidence of their ars poetica."

Jennifer Ryan-Bryant's Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Writing Between Them: Turning the Table explores some of the best known poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and the various states these works take in their composition, including the revision and refinement of both individual poems and the collections in which they ultimately appear. The focus on archival materials is a strength, as well as the related quotations from excised lines of verse, correspondence, and other background information not typically part of the public, well-known stories of the poets. One should be extremely grateful for the archival material present in Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Writing Between Them which has never before been in print. And it leads one to wonder if this model of more lax Estate permissions (control) is here to stay. It would be a great service to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes studies if so. Or, is this done solely because the writing, inquiry, and conclusions Ryan-Bryant draws are strictly literary and not controversial? Ryan-Bryant is a very good reader of the poems discussed, and introduces novel connections of themes, imagery, and creative practices.

The most successful of the four chapters is the fourth, which discusses "Plath's and Hughes's work within similar thematic material and historical contexts", largely focusing on the poems in Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers (27). The introduction is a slog; I admit it took me nearly eight hours to read. Largely a dense, laborious, and dry literature review, the most important pages are the chapter summaries on pages 25 to 28. The conclusion is beautifully concise. 

Chapter Two is a problem. Do not read further if you are squeamish. In parts it is atrocious to a person of my sensibilities. I realize this is a "me-thing." I almost do not even know where to start.

Ryan-Bryant endeavors in her book to eschew biography and it is to the detriment of the Plath chapter "Figures and Flowers" that she does this. The utter carelessness of the start of the chapter is sad. How can someone write about Sylvia Plath and not heed to the biography? The journal entry Ryan-Bryant cites as "19 February 1955" was, in fact, written on 19 February 1956. The entire premise of her discussion of the journal entry along with the 1957 story "Stone Boy With Dolphin" and Plath's earlier poem "The Bronze Boy" is flawed beyond belief. Not just because she muffs the date of the journal entry, but she also botches the composition date of "The Bronze Boy", claiming it is contemporaneous to the 1956 journal entry. In actuality, "The Bronze Boy" was written when Plath was still a resident of Haven House at Smith College, or, possibly up to four years prior to the journal entry and her fondness for the stone boy statue in the Newnham College garden. In short, Ryan-Brant should be mortified. I can only toll a bell and somberly say "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

There is a transcription error on page 56 of a comment made my Plath's teacher Alfred Young Fisher. Ryan-Bryant types it up as "too lavish both in auditory and usual imagery" but does that really make sense? No. The actual word is "visual." And on the following page there is some discussion surrounding "Patch the havoc" in "Stone Boy With Dolphin" yet with no mention of Plath's 1956 poem "Conversation Among the Ruins" which ends with the rather well-known question: "What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?"

Just when you thought it could not get worse it turns ridiculous. On page 59---which should just be removed from the book completely---we read about Plath's uses of three pseudonyms: "she includes three pseudonyms that suggest a keen interest in imagining a new version of her creative self." Wow. What about the fact she submitted the poems for contests and prizes and had to do so using a fictitious name? Continuing gross negligence is biographical aptitude, Ryan-Bryant claims "April Aubade" was composed at 4 Barton Road in Cambridge. Wrong, it was composed on 14 February 1955. There is a typescript at the Lilly with the Cambridge address on it, but that was because she was trying to get it published when she was living at Whitstead. Also, "Snakecharmer" was composed at 337 Elm Street, Northampton and not at 9 Willow Street, Boston. And "Candles" was not written in December 1960, but two months earlier on the 17th of October. Lastly, I hope...Perry Norton was the younger brother of Dick Norton, not the older brother. And Plath did not date Dick Norton in High School. "Shame! Shame! Shame!" I strongly suggest, Jennifer D. Ryan-Bryant, that you spend some time with Heather Clark's Red Comet.

There is some confusing treatment to "Thalidomide" and "The Rabbit Catcher" that I do not particularly want to get into too deeply. I found it baffling to see these poems referred to by their earliest, variant titles "Half-Moon" and "Snares", respectively. She treats them as separate, distinct poems but also rightly acknowledges they are just the earliest version and drafts. Pretty confusing and even calls "The Rabbit Catcher" at one point, "the second poem" (75). 

By the time on page 66 where the author writes that "Thalidomide" was "Written in November 1962" the composition date was already made clear. Why is "October poems" in quotes? And, how could Plath have written the poem "perhaps anticipating Adrienne Rich's famous 1976 critique in 'Motherhood in Bondage'."? How?

On page 70, she erroneously states that the drafts of "Tulips" were "originally held in the Woodberry Poetry Room" at Houghton and cites the Smith as the holding library. Smith has photocopies; the poem is very much still held by the Woodberry Poetry Room.  She then writes "the poem was evidently drafted during a happily productive period" yet this seems an odd way of stating Plath had undergone both a miscarriage and an appendectomy before writing the poem. She sent the drafts to Sweeney about five months after writing the poem at a period of time that, yes, it might be possible to say she was in better spirits. 

On page 71, discussing "Kindness", Ryan-Bryant writes strangely, "The second typescript of the poem...includes Plath's final London address, 23 Fitzroy Road, at the top. We know, therefore, that it was written during the couple's final separation, just before Plath's death, and its drafts may reflect an incomplete version of the piece, rather than a final version." Was not the first typescript draft also written at this address? Does not the fact Plath submitted the poem to The New Yorker on 4 February 1963 indicate that the poem was finished? In truth, Plath's practice was to type copies with her address on it only once she brought it to a final state. Yes, there are occasionally further revisions she makes, but her practice was then, consistently and certainly in the case of "Kindness", to produce a new, clean, final version.

On page 72, the author writes on some of the Birthday Letters poems that addresses engage "with specific passages from the poems [Plath] wrote as early as 1957..." She either forgets or ignores that Hughes's Birthday Letters poem "Caryatids" talks to Plath's 1955 poem "'Three Caryatids Without a Portico' by Hugh Robus."

A general comment: Ryan-Bryant refers to drafts throughout and in one instance cites a draft as "Smith Holograph" and in another as "Smith Autograph". If there is a difference between the two it should have been defined. 

Page 80/82. The author writes on page 80, "'Words,' written just weeks before her death..." and then on page 82, she writes that "Words" "was written just ten days before Plath's death..." This is potentially confusing as there are two different time frames given. The latter is of course both correct and more accurate. 

On page 84, she writes concluding her chapter, after discussing the late poem "Words", and the slightly earlier poems "The Rabbit Catcher" and "Thalidomide", that "These transitional poems...." Plath's transitional period is considered to be 1960-1961. Yet though she discusses "Tulips" this poem is traditionally viewed in the lens of being an Ariel poem because it was included in that volume. 

Page 84, Footnote 4: Marianne Moore did not judge Plath at "a poetry contest at Smith". The contest was down the road at Mt. Holyoke College. In Footnote 5, Ryan-Bryant has misread the handwritten annotation on the poem "Have You Forgotten?" It does not read "Peter", there is no "t" in that name. It is clearly "Perry" with a misshapen "y". 

The Nit-Pick Section (though you would be right to ask what the above was...):

Page 34: SP learned of the affair in July 1962, not June 1962.

General: Ryan-Bryant discusses Ariel 1 (Plath's arrangement) and Ariel 2 (Hughes' arrangement) but there is no mention of the differences between the US and UK publications. Additionally, though the two versions of Ariel are referred to many times in the text, they are grouped together in the Index with no differentiation between the two very different texts. 

Page 126: In discussing "The Lady and the Earthenware Head", a missed opportunity when quoting the poem that the head might "'leer' and 'Lewdly beckon' the unsuspecting" to tie into Plath's later poem "Lorelei". 

Page 132: "In Ariel 1, Plath followed 'Stings' with 'The Swarm',..."  Did she though? It was Plath's practice to put either questioned or cut titles in parentheses and in the table of contents for her edition of Ariel, "The Swarm" was put into parentheses. 

Perhaps this was done because she added "Death & Co." Perhaps we'll never know, but the point is that Plath removed it ultimately. And in Ariel: The Restored Edition, it was excluded from the volume and insert as an appendix.  

Page 135: "As previously discussed, Hughes's ordering of the Ariel poems has been one of the central controversies in Plath scholarship since 1965..." I am fairly certain that Plath's order remained unknown until The Collected Poems was published in 1981.

Page 139: Discussing "Visit": "This piece, which depicts the tie when Hughes first met Plath..." No. They met rather famously before this at the St. Botolph's Review party, and the poem "Visit" recalls an event from a short while later. Also, Plath was not in that evening...and so in point of fact they very much did not meet that night.

Pages 147-148: Discussing "The Table" and "Elm": "As I note in the introduction, ['The Table'] draws its central image from Plath's work: the elm of which the table is built, the subject of her 1962 poem 'Elm'." The way this sentence is written, it makes it sound as though Plath's poem "Elm" is about the very elm wood table on which she is writing. Am I wrong? I might be wrong. But of course Plath's poems were about the very real clump of elm trees on her property at Court Green, pictured below in the early seventies. 

Also, please note, the trees survived Dutch Elm disease and came down in a storm much later, in 1992.

Page 167: Fr. Michael Carey attended Oxford University, yes, but his letters are held by Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., where he went for undergraduate school. Also, there is so "Oxford's Assumption College."

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