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Entries in ted hughes (3)


In Which Nobody Sees Us Glowing

Living Alone



“Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle,” reads W.S. Merwin’s classic, tiny poem “Separation.” “Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

Some poems go through me like thread through a needle, including that one. I carry them with me, my mind snags on their lines, so that the words color the patterns of my thoughts. They form and they reflect my relationship with myself, my fantasy of myself.


“I am too pure for you or anyone,” I sometimes find my mind iterating on a loop. This is from Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103˚,” a famous poem, and a characteristically Plath-ian one. It combines many of Plath’s preoccupations — heat, sickness and hospitals, purity, flowers, religion, war and atrocity — with her penchant for a keen and forceful melodrama.

The poem cycles through a violent rush of images, presumably mimicking the assault of visions in a fever dream. But the lines I love best reflect a vision that Plath has of herself. “I am too pure for you or anyone,” she writes.

Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern 

My head a moon
of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.


In Plath’s work we see a fixation on personal purity. Esther, the protagonist of her novel The Bell Jar, takes painfully hot baths essentially to re-baptize herself. But Plath’s purity is a hard thing: it is not about innocence, or religious goodness, or sexual abstinence. It is more about wholeness, being a complete and original self, unadulterated by any other personality.

The purity in “Fever 103˚” is coupled with a ravishing delicacy, the image of a body like a flower or a paper lantern. These all work to establish the speaker of “Fever 103˚” as separate from other people — both blessedly and painfully so. To think of oneself as set apart by purity, by beauty, and by delicacy is also to think of oneself as constantly being sullied, tarnished and damaged by other people. 


When I was in eighth grade we read Plath’s poem “Mushrooms” out loud over and over. I can hear my English teacher, Mrs. Hodgin, saying in her Louisiana accent, “Nobody sees us,/Stops us, betrays us;/The small grains make room,” pounding her fist on the accented syllables. “So many of us!/So many of us!” we shouted, and at that point in the poem I sometimes felt slightly nauseous. It was not until I reread the poem as an adult that I realized that it was actually and concretely about mushrooms.

The ritual repetition of this poem whose only meaning for me was the synesthetic evocation of an olive-brown color along with a slow, uneasy feeling has caused its lines to stick with me, as mysterious and grave as enchantments. “Our toes, our noses/Take hold on the loam” are the lines that will come creeping terribly through my mind, settling in, permeating everything.

We talked a lot about Plath’s suicide then. Plath maybe had not really meant to kill herself, Mrs. Hodgin told us. She frequently put her head in the oven on days when she knew her mother was visiting, as a cry for help.

Who knows if that story’s true. I’ve never bothered to confirm it.


This was around the same time that I felt my own separation from other people revealed to me. The summer after eighth grade, I was convinced I was going to die before my thirteenth birthday in August. I stopped sleeping. I turned on my overhead light one day and then it wouldn’t turn off. After a week, I cut its wires with kitchen shears. Even after I didn’t die, something monstrous followed me, I felt my heart and my brain rush, I was tense all the time. I sometimes have a perverse sense looking back that this suffering was the raw truth of my identity. “Today, recognizing it as the sadness I’ve always had,” Marguerite Duras writes in her novel The Lover, the story of a teenage girl discovering herself stricken by separateness, “I could almost call it by my own name, it’s so like me.” Eventually I was put on antidepressants and I read The Bell Jar, of course. I knew the feeling of being set apart by sadness, Sylvia and I, alone together.


I talk to myself often in lines from Anne Carson’s “On Defloration,” from her prose poem series “Short Talks.” “The actions of life are not so many,” Carson writes.

To go in, to go in secret, to cross the Bridge of Sighs. And when you dishonored me, I saw that dishonor is an action. It happened in Venice; it causes the vocal cords to swell. I went booming through Venice, under and over the bridges, but you were gone. Later that day I telephoned your brother. What’s wrong with your voice? he said.

I think of the scene of Esther losing her virginity in The Bell Jar, and the traumatic, torrential bleeding that follows. It makes sense that someone with such fiercely guarded purity would take this invasion of her body harder than most.


To be dishonored is not an action. It is a state of being, a state of insult continually renewed as a camellia’s delicate petals are bruised and bruised.

“If he’s attracted to you,” my friend Matt said this winter, in a booth near the door of a freezing dive bar, “it’s probably because you have a way of identifying things about people. You can sort of say… what the situation is.” Any man who would be attracted to me, if I understand what Matt was saying, is the kind of man who enjoys the negative attention of being told what his problem is.


Many of the poems I have stuck in my head are badly misremembered. “One day I will say to you how all mixed up I am because of you” is my brain’s mangled version of a line from John Ashbery’s “Worsening Situation”: “One day I’ll claim to you/How all used up I am because of you.” But the song remains the same — the tone is injured, self-pitying, accusatory, the complaint of the dishonored.

Richard Hugo’s poem “Living Alone” tells the story of an eccentric and possibly sinister “animal man” who lives a solitary life in a cabin in the woods. My deep association with this poem is sort of inexplicable; although when the animal man describes how he has named the deer near his cabin, there is the wonderful line, “Alice, I liked best.” It is the poem’s simple title that reverberates for me. “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,” Joan Didion writes. My deepest image of myself is of a person living alone.


In my romantic disappointments it is always the problem of being drawn to people who are “unavailable,” meaning in a relationship, newly out of a relationship, or living in a different state. The coarsest armchair psychology can explain that when a person is attracted to unavailable people, it is because they themselves are unavailable — because they fear intimacy, because they feel must avoid threats to their individuality, because the self is a secret they do not want to disclose, or because they have fetishized their loneliness.

In Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, Mary, played by Diane Keaton, has just been dumped by her married boyfriend, so she goes to visit Allen’s character, Isaac. “You pick a married guy, and when it doesn’t work out, it confirms your worst feelings,” Isaac tells her. “What worst feelings?” Mary asks. “You know,” Isaac says, “your feelings about men and marriage and that nothing works.”

If you are convinced that nothing works out, you can choose a romantic situation that’s already broken. You can confirm your existential separateness by choosing situations where alienation is assured. You can seek to be dishonored because it reinforces your purity.


“Only connect…” reads the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s masterpiece Howards End, his sprawling examination of turn-of-the century London and the effects of industrialization on the national soul. This is the motto of the novel’s innocent and strident and soulful heroine, Margaret Schlegel. She insists that it is a mistake to favor either the abstract or the concrete, the romantic or the practical, the rural or the urban, tradition or progress — it is the marriage of opposites that gives life its meaning and provides true insight. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon,” Forster writes. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no more.”

It is a rejection of purity — no one is set apart, and no one’s identity is completely their own. She seeks to connect life’s diverse aspects and to connect with other people. Margaret’s mission is always to be more trusting and less suspicious, even if it means she gets hurt, even if it means she is dishonored.

And I saw that trust is an action.


In Carson’s short talk “On Sylvia Plath,” she writes, “She said plain, burned things. She said I thought it an excellent poem but it hurt me.” This is a helpful frame for Plath, because it is an image not of a woman but of work — work that is marked by its terrible purity.


I am devoted to Plath, but I still cannot cultivate much interest in her biography, meaning mostly her marriage and death. This is because the portrait that her biography paints — of a fragile, overly emotional, unstable desperate housewife — does not line up with the portrait that I have developed of her through her work. I see Plath as a skillful and deliberate craftsperson, dominant over her words and her subjects. The extreme sentiments displayed in her work were a calculated performance. Lines as exquisite as “All by myself I am a huge camellia/Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush” simply could not have been written by a person who was completely out of control.

That Plath wrote fiercely about difficult emotions should not be ignored, but an idea of her as a figure of tragic separateness is really beside the point. I have learned to let go of thinking of her as pure and damaged and set apart, and I’m trying to stop thinking of myself that way. Now I love Plath not for her sadness, but for her strength.


It is complicated — there is the persona of Plath herself, the mature and technically gifted writer, and the persona Plath creates in her work, who I still sometimes cling to as a totem of resentment and bad-girl energy. Her diaries are so bitchy and self-pitying and dramatic that they are often very funny. The line from her diaries that I say to myself most is “I don’t care about anyone, and the feeling is quite obviously mutual.”

There is freedom in self-parody: the freedom to see that an extreme and romanticized vision of yourself does not account for all the complexities of who you are or could be. At one point I wrote in my eighth grade diary, “I am exceedingly sensitive, but I never let it show when someone hurts my feelings.” This is hilarious because it could not have been less true. It is complicated — the interaction of who you are and the lies you tell yourself about who you are.


If, like Matt said, I have a way of identifying what’s going on in other people’s heads, then that insight could lead me to be more open, to connect more, rather than making me more wary, more unavailable. I am a person who, when giving advice, has been known to repeat Bruce Springsteen lyrics like they are ancient and profound koans: “Don’t make no difference what nobody says,/Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”

The importance of Margaret’s ethos in Howards End is that in connecting, she is not flattening or simplifying the shades of human experience — she is more aware of the varying and contradictory elements that make up our lives and ourselves. “It is part of the battle against sameness,” she says. “Differences — eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.”

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula.. She last wrote in these pages about Taylor Swift. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"What's Your Name?" - Carillo (mp3)


In Which We Flay Ourselves Into Poets

Sylvia Plath: Red and Blue


Sylvia Plath’s favorite color was red. When Ted Hughes left her for another woman, Plath installed a red rug under her writing desk. But she also loved red’s opposite, blue — and other polarizations. Upon Ted’s abandonment, she wrote to her mother:

It’s as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative — which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching and constricting my heart.

Plath’s duality — as a happy-go-lucky American girl and a deeply depressed, deathly ambitious writer — stirs up the darker parts of her audience. We either revile Plath for her cowardice or we celebrate her for her bravery. It depends on whether you look and see blue or red.

Born in Boston in 1932 to a German biology professor and his former student, Plath entered the school of hard-knocks at the young age of eight, when her father passed away. The day he died, she told her mother, “I’ll never speak to God again.” His absence would lead to poor choices in men and eventually to Ted Hughes. The disintegration of their marriage would confirm the first abandonment by her father. In “Daddy,” she writes, “Daddy, I have had to kill you . . . . If I’ve killed one man I’ve killed two / the vampire who said he was you / and drank my blood for a year / seven years, if you want to know.”

with her brother warren
Reading Plath is a bipolar experience. The Bell Jar’s depiction of Plath’s nervous breakdown in the summer of 1953 is certainly horrifying, but Plath’s observations on her peers both in and out of the mental institution are quite funny. The poems of The Colossus, her first collection, are traditional and revelatory. Her lyricism is beautiful but her diction is alien. Her personal writing seems like it was written by two distinct and separate women: the Plath that writes home to her mother that she’s doing fine and the real Plath — the blood red Plath of her journals. This is a woman who, after coming upon two teenage girls destroying a garden (the subject of her poem "The Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers”) she writes in her journal "I have violence in me that is hot as death-blood. I can kill myself or — I know it now — even kill another."

This is the Plath that will change you, the author of Ariel, and the author of these journals. In reading her journals there is no doubt of Plath’s talent, her ferocity and her courage. She is so close to the reader, you can hear her whispering and giggling in your ear, crying on your shoulder; you look behind you as you read the journals, sometimes in fear, sometimes in hope. There’s an ongoing struggle: Plath wants to be a mother-goddess, she wants to cook and clean and provide a safe-haven for her husband and her babies, but the poet in her can’t stand being in the shadows. Standing aside while Ted receives praise from T.S. Eliot and his ilk, being simply “the wife.” Meanwhile, Plath can’t find a publisher in the states for her novel, The Bell Jar. Her anguish in the journals is palpable.

The Lilly Library at Indiana University has about half of Plath’s materials—the other half belongs to Smith. If you are a student there, or a visiting academic, you can visit. Take a look at Plath’s manuscripts: fifteen drafts for one poem, “Wuthering Heights,” witty Valentine’s Day cards written to her mother when she was ten, letters and poems stained with coffee and spaghetti sauce. You’ll also find a box marked “HAIR.” In it, you will find about eight braids, thick and long, of Plath’s childhood hair. You can smell it. It smells like hair. The experience of opening this box must be similar to the experience of opening a tomb. 

Hughes’ last collection of poetry, Birthday Letters, is about his relationship with Plath. In the poem “Red” he describes his resentment of the ‘red’ side of Plath: ‘red was your color,’ and he tells us Plath insisted on decorating their bedroom ‘as red as a judgment chamber,’ or ‘a shut jewel case,’ with fabrics ‘ruby corduroy blood’ and curtains ‘sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.’ Red was the dangerous side of Plath, the powerful side Hughes could not control. “The blood jet is poetry,” she famously wrote, “there is no stopping it.”

her self-portrait Plath was torn between this side of her personality and the call to the calmer, domestic existence: the role of the wife and mother, Plath needed the right man to have both lives. She wanted the babies, the cooking. She wanted to be both muse and artist. Hughes prefers Plath’s blue side, her ‘guardian, thoughtful,’ and he ends this poem, the last in the collection, telling Plath ‘the jewel you lost was blue.’” It’s no surprise, then, that Plath wrote “Daddy,” her most recognizable poem, from her most celebrated collection, Ariel, when she was finally able to escape all the ties that bound her to her blue self: her mother, her bleach blonde hair, her husband.  

Plath terrifies many because, through her legacy, she remains very much alive. Thinking or speaking of Plath, relating to her, brings her immediately to life. Like many writers, she struggled, and like many of us, she wanted much out of life — so much that she found herself burning alive. In “Lady Lazarus,” she tells us “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” Her dramatic ending, if anything, is an honest answer to the promise and threat of power and violence throughout her work, the best of which was created in the struggle between two halves. Picture her, in the morning at 5 a.m., before her children were awake, floating on a concoction of ineffectual sleeping pills and coffee, bleary-eyed and exhausted; picture her typing away at the Ariel poems, watching the sun come up — watching the morning change from blue to red.

Jessica Ferri is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find more of her writing here. She last wrote in these pages about babysitting.

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"Killed By The Morning Sun" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)

"Lachrymosity" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)

"A Secret Society" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)



In Which We Want To Be Important By Being Different

The Abridged Journals


The following selections chronicle the period at Cambridge when Sylvia Plath met the man who would be her husband, Ted Hughes. Plath began keeping a diary when she was 11.

February 19th, 1956

To whom it may concern: Every now and then there comes a time when the neutral and impersonal forces of the world turn and come together in a thunder-crack of judgment. There is no reason for the sudden terror, the feeling of condemnation, except that the circumstances all mirror the inner doubt, the inner fear. Yesterday, walking quite peacefully over the Mill Lane bridge, after leaving my bike to be repaired (feeling lost, pedestrian, impotent), smiling that smile which puts a benevolent lacquer on the shuddering fear of strangers' gazes, I was suddenly turned upon by little boys making snowballs on the dam.

They began to throw them at me, openly, honestly, trying to hit. They missed every time, and with that wary judgment that comes with experience, I watched the dirty snowballs coming at me, behind and in front, and, sick with wonder, kept walking slowly, determinedly, ready to parry a good hit before it struck. But none struck, and with a tolerant smile that was a superior lie, I walked on.

sylvia & ted at cambridgeYesterday night: coming in to the party at Emmanuel (ah, yes) they were hypnotizing someone named Morris in the dark, crowded room, lit with conscious bohemianism by candles in old wine bottles. The fat, yet strong, ugly boy was saying with commanding mastery and power: "When you try to go through the door there will be glass in the way. You cannot go through the door, there will be glass. When I say 'gramophone' you will fall asleep again." Then he brought Morris out of the trance, and Morris tried to go through the door, but stopped. He could not go through the door, there was glass in the way. The fat boy said 'Gramophone', and two laughing, nervous boys caught Morris as he fell. Then they made Morris become stiff as a steel bar; he seemed to know just how stiff that was, and went rigid on the floor.

Chris then sat a red-dressed girl on his lap, and then they went to dance. Meanwhile, Win and I talk very wisely and the appalling easiness of this strikes me down: I could throw everything away and make a play for John, who is now making a play for the earliest and easiest. But everybody has exactly the same smiling frightened face, with the look that says, "I'm important. If you only get to know me, you will see how important I am. Look into my eyes. Kiss me, and you will see how important I am."

I too want to be important. By being different. And these girls are all the same. Far off, I go to my coat with Win; he brings me my scarf as I wait on the stair, and Chris is being red-cheeked and dramatic and breathless and penitent. He wants to be scolded, and punished. That is too easy. That is what we all want.

February 21st, 1956

Crash! I am psychic, only not quite drastically enough. My baby "The Matisse Chapel" which I have been spending the imaginary money from and discussing with modest egoism, was rejected by The New Yorker this morning with not so much as a pencil scratch on the black-and-white doom of the printed rejection. I hid it under a pile of papers like a stillborn illegitimate baby. I shuddered at the bathos in it. Especially after I read Pete DeVries' recent scintillant "Afternoon of a Faun." There are ways and ways to have a love affair. Above all, one must not be serious about it.

with ted's parentsFebruary 25th, 1956

So I am, however, not worth the really good boys; or is it me? If poems were really good, there might be some chance; but until I make something tight and riding over the limits of sweet sestinas and sonnets, away from the reflection of myself in Richard's eyes and the inevitable narrow bed, too small for a smashing act of love, until then, they can ignore me and make up pretty jokes. The only cure for jealousy that I can see is the continual, form positive forging of an identity and set of personal values which I believe in; in other words, if I believe it is right to go to France, it is absurd to feel pangs because Someone Else has gone to Italy. There is no compare.

February 26th, 1956

A small note after a large orgy. It is morning, most sober, with cold white puritanical eyes; looking at me. Last night I got very drunk, very very beautifully drunk, and now I am shot, after six hours of warm sleep like a baby, with Racine to read, and not even the energy to type; I am getting the dts. Or something.

Then the worst happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes. I started yelling again about his poems and quoting: "most dear unscratchable diamond" and he yelled back, colossal, in a voice that should have come from a Pole, "You like?" and asking me if I wanted brandy, and me yelling yes and backing into the next room past the smug shining blub face of dear Bert, looking as if he had delivered at least nine or ten babies, and bang the door was shut and he was sloshing brandy into a glass and I was sloshing it at the place where my mouth was when I last knew about it.

We shouted as if in high wind, about the review, and he saying Dan knew I was beautiful, he wouldn't have written it about a cripple, and my yelling protest in which the words "sleep with the editor" occurred with startling frequency.

And then it came to the fact that I was all there, wasn't I, and I stamped and screamed yes, and he had obligations in the next room, and he was working in London earning ten pounds a week so he could later earn twelve pounds a week, and I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off, my lovely red hairband scarf which has weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never find again, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked.

And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face. His poem, "I did it, I." Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists. The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders. And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh to give myself crashing, fighting, to you.

I shall never see him again, and the thorny limitations of the day crowd in like the spikes on the gates at Queens last night: I could never sleep with him anyway, with all his friends here and his close relation to them, laughing, talking, I should be the world's whore, as well as Roget's strumpet. I shall never see him, he will never look for me. He said my name, Sylvia, and banged a black grinning look into my eyes, and I would like to try just this once, my force against his. But he will never come, and the blonde one, pure and smug and favored, looks, is it with projected pity and disgust? at this drunken amorphic slut.

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Sylvia Plath reads her poetry (Side 1)

Sylvia Plath reads her poetry (Side 2)