Yes, I know it’s February now – but I did read the book in January, I just didn’t get time to do the post until now 🙂
So… ‘read a book you read in school’ was the instruction and I decided that loosely this could mean anything from high school through to my post-grad stuff, which gave me quite a lot of choice. At the same time, I was already halfway through the month and in the middle of reading a couple of other books, so I didn’t want anything too heavy. Don’t worry, you’re not about to read a post about an Allan Ahlberg book, although they are pretty awesome.
In the end, I opted to read some poetry. Partly because it is was faster, but also, I don’t often read poetry – I suppose I don’t really consider myself a ‘poetry person’, even though I have no idea who I would be defining as such. Anyway, as a ‘not really a poetry person’ person, there are only a few poetry books on my shelves and I have a limited list of poets I would say that I enjoy reading. So, my choices were Robert Lowell, who I discovered in my contemporary literature class (I think!) in 3rd year at uni or Ted Hughes, who I first read in high school with things like ‘Crow’ and ‘The Thought Fox’ (for which I can still clearly the images in the poem, despite not having read it in years).
I ended up going with Ted, but re-read his collection of poems Birthday Letters, which I had read at the end of university, after watching the film Sylvia. Birthday Letters is probably my favourite poetry book (if I don’t count Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll). I remember reading both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in high school and again for A-level. I didn’t ‘get’ most of Plath’s poems – the bleakness and images she returned to over again, were perhaps not easily accessible for a younger, immature reader – someone not familiar really with the pain life can inflict. I still don’t enjoy them, but can appreciate something different in her poetry now as an adult than I did before.
Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow as Ted and Sylvia in 2003 film Sylvia
Whether you enjoy the film Sylvia or agree/disagree with the presentation of Hughes and Plath’s life together, what I found for me was that it gave me a context for reading Birthday Letters against. If you’re interested in knowing more on this, check out Wikipedia pages on the book here. Most people believe that the poems collected in Birthday Letters are Hughes’ response to Plath’s suicide and their relationship as a whole – published in 1998 shortly before his own death. Compared to the ‘nature’ poems we had focused on at school, the poetry in Birthday Letters feels to me more personal and precise, like the words have been worked over repeatedly not to create the perfect poem, but to enable the poetry to properly express what had been worked over in someone’s mind, heart and soul over and over again, before making it on to paper.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
As I found Plath’s poetry more vivid and painful re-reading it as an adult, I felt the same about reading Birthday Letters compared to Hughes’ other poetry. When you read these poems you are being taken on a journey, one that is emotional and real – not to tell you a purely fictional story created in their imagination.
Whilst the poems have an autobiographical slant, talking about real events, they are still being interpreted through the medium of poetry. It feels like someone try to write through grief and perhaps bend it to the format that they felt most comfortable with. My own experiences with death have always been that I can express myself better on paper than I ever can out loud – like things make sense of how I’m feeling when written down, instead of being talked about with others or floating around in my head.
Of the many poems in Birthday Letters ‘Visit’ is one of my favourites. However, it is The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes that I’ve posted below for you to enjoy, if you’ve not come across it before. I’m sure it will ‘speak’ to the writer inside you, which I think is why it has stayed with me so long, since I read it over twenty years ago in school…
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.