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Books / Fatwah / March 24, 2009

Without that mass hysteria it would be impossible for any sane person to assert that Hughes “killed Sylvia.” Sylvia Plath, a lifelong depressive, killed herself. Hughes didn’t give her the idea for that; it’s laid out in loving, sick detail in her youthful novel, The Bell Jar. I yield the floor to the fine people at Bantam Books, who supplied this jacket summary to The Bell Jar, from which they have managed to cull a big chunk of female first-year college students’ allowances for several generations:

“A vulnerable young girl wins a dream assignment on a big-time New York fashion magazine and finds herself plunged into a nightmare. An autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath’s own mental breakdown and suicide attempt….”

It’s hard not to laugh now, at what drove those pampered Freud-steeped elite Yankees to suicide in the years of their power. Oh no. a dream assignment to an NYC fashion magazine! Naturally she wants to die! I guess she had, um, “fear of success” or one of those other 70s syndromes that go along with a rising market, and vanish instantly once good ol’ fear of poverty and death return to slap us into acting serious again.

I read the Bell Jar back in its glory days, hating its pampered heroine on every page. The suicide attempt is the high point of the novel, its climax, and I use that word advisedly. By her teens, Sylvia was more than half in love with easeful death. She was head over heels for the man in black. If you redid those old “Death and the Maiden” paintings with Sylvia as the maid in question, they’d have to show a sturdy college girl yanking the old skel out of his recliner to dance down the path with her, while he grumbles that Wheel of Fortune is coming on, can’t she wait?

So, to belabor the obvious (the kind of obvious nobody ever mentions), when she first tried suicide, Plath had never even heard of Ted fucking Hughes, let alone been driven to her death by the heartless cad. Death was her first love and the love of her life; she just tried out sex with mortal men before going back to her main squeeze for good-and poor Hughes was the patsy she chose.

The story went that Ted drove her to her death with his affairs. Another insane lie by people who must know they’re lying. It was the Sixties! At a university campus! In the fucking, and I do mean fucking, English Department! Every heterosexual male on every university campus in the English-speaking world with the possible exception of New Zealand was under constant siege by eager female students who wanted to check off the “picaresque adventure #17: Affair with Professor/Poet” from their to-do lists. I remember a certain wizened Berkeley prof of my acquaintance, a malign dwarf who vaguely resembled Woody Allen but was even sicker than the Manhattan cradle robber waxing nostalgic about the hordes of gorgeous students who threw themselves at him back in the Bergman era. You were supposed to be having affairs left and right. Those were the rules, and they applied to men and women. If Sylvia didn’t console herself with affairs to match Ted’s, there’s a simple reason: she was already involved with the guy with the scythe and not interested in men with a pulse.

No doubt she had clinical depression, a condition I understand all too well. Indeed, the fact that “her” son just killed himself suggests-unless we want to blame this one on Ted too-that depression ran in her family. It usually does. It fucking gallops in mine. So fine, OK; just don’t keep saying that it was all Hughes’s fault.

Of course Hughes’s next wife killed herself as well, and their daughter too. This is supposed to prove that he was some kind of telepathic Blackbeard who got his wives to kill themselves. What it really proves is (a) most of the people in poetry during that time were unstable, to put it mildly; (b) Hughes liked’em crazy; (c) if you really wanted to hurt a man who was already wrecked over his ex-wife’s suicide, and you were crazy and selfish enough to take your daughter with you, what would you come up with?

And all because Hughes fucked around? If Hughes had not been promiscuous during that period, there would have been something deeply wrong with him, just as any American of that generation who claims never to have taken drugs proves that there’s something very wrong about him or her–either a habit of telling absurd lies or the fact that he or she was a hopeless dweeb.

Promiscuity was the norm, for men and women. I remember when I saw Hughes read his own verse, at the Center for Fine Arts in San Francisco. This was when Crow had come out and Hughes was as close to a rock star as any poet was going to get, so there was a big crowd, excited, way better looking than the typical poetry crowd. Hughes came to the stage, bigger and more impressive than I’d expected-he had that ex-RAF look that I thought only existed in movies-and before he could get started, this hippie guy stood up and screamed toward somebody several rows back, “You are still my wife, Karen! You are STILL MY WIFE!” His target audience, shall we say, was this tall dark-haired gypsy-looking woman who flipped him off and laughed at him while he ranted. Tough crowd, is what I’m saying here, and not always the guys who won. Martyred virgins…you didn’t see too many of those. If Sylvia took that road, it was because she wanted to. I ‘spec’ poor ol’ Ted had very little idea what was going on; that’s what usually happens when you play straight man to a suicidal drama queen.

He certainly looked bemused while the cuckolded hippie screamed, simply waiting at the podium until the hippie’s buddies made him sit down and shut up. I suspect he was bemused by Sylvia in much the same way. Ain’t nobody who can chew scenery like an American with a saleable symptom-I should know-and it’s hard to stop us once we get a head of crazy up. All we want you to do is look concerned and weep when we’ve finished our big threnody. And that, I think, is all Sylvia wanted from Ted. Odd, then, very, very odd, that we’re supposed to glorify her monogamous devotion to self-extinction while demonizing Hughes’s appetite for sex with consenting adults.

But we’re not talking about a great moment in Western intellectual history here, we’re talking 70s feminism, Victimology 101, a required first-year course. Later they altered the undergrad requirements so you could substitute a lesbian affair instead of actually Vic 101 for credit, and most cool first-years opted for the work experience rather than the course credit. But back in the 70s the taboo was still more or less in force, so for every one who had the good genetic luck or sheer moral rigor to switch to lesbianism fulltime and for good, there were a thousand who felt they had no choice but to be angry hetero victims, at least while in class. After sundown, they changed–but in the daytime, in class discussion, they were angry.

Literary fortunes soared on that stylized public anger. If you were a wealthy American woman with no talent, a massive ego, and a willingness to simplify the world’s most lax gender rules into a simple passion play where the girl plays Jesus, your literary future was assured, as shown by the lionization of a whole coven of rich, dumb American women like Erica Jong and Marilyn French (author of The Women’s Room), along with a dozen-odd Canadian ladies like Atwood who were included on the grounds that they were so mopey and sulky that they must be, at the least, fellow travelers, and a few genuinely talented outsiders like Doris Lessing and Jean Rhys, whose nihilism was overlooked because at least she agreed with the “men are bums” part of the group song, if not its second line:

Men are bums.
We’re better than they are.

(From the “Adrienne Rich” entry in the Brand X Poetry Anthology.)

By that time Sylvia was safely dead, suitable for canonization. Her poetry was often explicit in stating her preference for death over male company; that’s the whole fucking point of “Lady Lazarus,” for God’s sake. And as for quality-and I realize this is at best a side issue for most literary consumers-Plath’s poems are typical Whitmanesque boasting larded with the gaudy catachreses popular in the 1950s. They stink of the lamp, of the workshop, but they strike a simple and very imitable pose, like a good pop song. And like that song, they were worshipped for their ability to sketch a pose, an entire life. If you really like that kind of stuff, I recommend the lyrics of Iggy Pop, which do this sort of thing much better using about one-twentieth as many words-and with a great bassline, too. But of course highbrows will be served, and they were too insecure and pretentious to embrace the elegant simplicity of the Stooges, and far, far too soft to appreciate the real talent among man-haters, the great Jean Rhys. Those suckers always swoon for boasting with linebreaks, and Saint Sylvia was their dead poster girl.

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Add your own

  • 1. hobo  |  March 24th, 2009 at 1:08 pm


  • 2. Woz  |  March 24th, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Your great writing shows when someone who isn’t interested in reading poetry can appreciate it. Good stuff.

  • 3. Moo  |  March 24th, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Okay, my interest is piqued. I’m reserving a Ted Hughes collection at the library.

    That said – can we set some end date by which the Irish all promise to stop whining about the potato famine?

  • 4. mechagodzilla  |  March 24th, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Whoa, damn! This is a well written article!

  • 5. tuffghost  |  March 24th, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    good post, as usual.

    I call BS though, on dismissing an entire movement at one point in time as “victimology”.
    I remember thinking Goddamn here we go: Dolan writes, yet again, about the Irish oppression. Whether it’s about James Frey, dead poets, abortion,whatever – it always, always comes back to them English bastards being mean to the Irish, (or if it’s too much of a stretch, we can work that in via digressions on “Ulster America”). However, that’s the thing about being forced to hear about oppression that isn’t yours or something dear to you: you get resentful having to hear about it another damn time. Annoying injustices! Don’t Bother me with that crap!
    Hence me getting tired about hearing the poor, poor Irish, or Dolan using the “vitomology” dick move like some weasling, intellectually lazy neo-con. That’s what they, do, BTW: when they can’t dismiss the cold hard reality of social inequality or historic injustice because people people won’t STFU about it , they turn “victim” into a category of derision. Whether it’s the feminists, or people who have that annoying habit of pointing out the virulent anti-Irish bigotry that historically runs through Anglo culture – the lazy way to say “STFU, I don’t want to hear about it” is to accuse them of celebrating victimhood.

  • 6. Roquentin  |  March 24th, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    You’ve convinced me to give Hughes a chance. I like Plath more than I probably should though, the sheer force of the macabre imagery was all the poems really needed to appeal to me in college. When you consider most of what gets anthologized it makes sense.

    I still firmly contend that “Daddy” is generally misread by most, the feminists first and foremost. The the main theme is really about being German and the father is more of a stand in for the fatherland. Plath barely even knew her literal father, he died when she was eight, so extreme personal hatred of him doesn’t make much sense. The poem is more about being born with the rotten German history she received through him genetically. That reading doesn’t suit victimization very well so most people never consider it, especially in a college classroom. There is an aspect of man hating to it, but it is a secondary theme.

  • 7. FOARP  |  March 25th, 2009 at 2:51 am


  • 8. HASSO VON MANTEUFFEL  |  March 25th, 2009 at 7:52 am

    i hope the magazine goes bankrupt – except john dolan and war nerd

  • 9. BourgeoisEnglishman  |  March 25th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Brilliant, but depressing as usual; it should not take an irredentist Irish republican to tell the simple truth about English poetry.

    I only managed to hear Ted Hughes read in person once – he was the only poet on the stage who didn’t come across like they were only writing poetry because they were too cunting wry and ironic and detached to do anything else.

  • 10. Viking  |  March 25th, 2009 at 9:10 am


    Yes we’ll stop whining about the potato famine when Brits stop patting themselves on the back for survivng WW II.

  • 11. wengler  |  March 25th, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I read it all the way through. And it was about poems even.

    Consider that a pat on the back Mr. Dolan.

  • 12. salamanderbaby  |  March 25th, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I’m guessing it’s about 3 inches, hard. Am I right or am I being too generous?

  • 13. Tam  |  March 25th, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Nice article but I’d take issue with Hughes not getting the attention he deserves. He was made the British Poet Laureate in the 80s after all, and his stuff’s well enough known that even people like me who don’t really ‘follow’ poetry recognise his stuff.
    If highbrow critics don’t like his stuff then that’s got something to do with the fact that he was Margaret Thatcher’s choice for poet laureate which would have tainted him irredeemably in the eyes of the liberal and very right-on poetry establishment.

  • 14. 青岛鲍伯  |  March 25th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    流放不再是滑稽或相关的。 再见,流放。 生活是母狗。

  • 15. E  |  March 25th, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    My compliments, this was a good read.

  • 16. JamesP  |  March 25th, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Claiming that Hughes was somehow scorned by the British establishment is just bollocks, really; he was massively anthologized, spoke all the time, was well in with other poets for the most part, etc, and was one of the best-selling poets in the nation, especially ‘Birthday Letters.’

  • 17. Nate  |  March 26th, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Best prose of the genre I’ve read in awhile. Seriously. Where the fuck does Exiled find its writers?

  • 18. londoninflames  |  March 26th, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Top piece. I was a massive fan of Sylvia Plath as a teenage miserablist, and in many ways I still am a massive fan. But for a while I believed that anti-Hughes horseshit. Fortunately a teacher at school put me right about that, and over the years Ted Hughes has become my favourite poet. Plath is a great poet, but is responsible for probably more bad imitators than any other poet ever. Hughes is a better poet, and his legacy is far more important.

  • 19. Lighty  |  March 26th, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    First time you mention Miller and you dismiss him. I could try and show you how wrong you are but I can’t be bothered. I was going to make a donation but I can’t be bothered with that either – not just yet – and I’m caning the last credit card that works anyway.

    Miller did what he did for his own good reasons. He and Hunter Thompson are giants and John, A Pleasant Hell won’t make the nut. You are ten times better here than you were in that book – which is why it breaks my heart so much when you step over a good man.

    You are right about so many things; which is why I try to read every fucking word you write, but you’re not right about Henry.

    Hope the toe gets better and some money comes in. We’re all going to die anyway – in horrible fucking ways. Make the most of it. Take plenty of drugs.

    If I send you 50 can I plug my book? Whatever…

  • 20. Anonymous  |  March 28th, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I liked this article a lot.

    Other commenters, Dolan’s “harping” on Ireland is too much for your taste? Cry me a river!

    Perhaps I’m just biased, since my ancestors were allegedly more Irish than anything else. However, I allegedly have plenty of ancestors from England, France, Germany, and all over the rest of Europe, my trailer trash forebears haven’t shared with me any records of their ancestors that go back beyond those born in the US, and I have never heard so much as a peep out of any of my relatives about anything having to do with Irish history, which appears to be a subject that does not interest them any more than Belgian or Guamanian history.

    It all comes down to “write what you know.” Dolan’s view of the world is that it is the fundamental nature of humans to abuse one another, for shortsighted gain, and xenophobic hatred, and the sheer joy of hurting someone when you’re angry, even if you’re just angry because you’re 16 and male and pumped on testosterone, or because your life is imperfect like everyone else’s, or some other non-reason. Frankly, I think the tale of England and the Irish makes a perfectly good habitual case in point. Not to mention, it’s clearly something Dolan’s aggrieved and dysfunctional family drilled into him at an early age, so he knows a lot about it and wants quite badly to discuss it.

    What would you have him use instead?

    Darfur, because the feckless “Free Tibet” college trustafarians have shifted their sights there, lusting as always to make friends with an Exotic Other ethnic group so desperately persecuted that they’ll suck up to Americans who have bothered to learn roughly one sentence about their history and culture?

    Nazi Germany and the Jews, like a peabrained Republican who sincerely believes WWII veterans are The Greatest Generation?

    Israel and the Palestinians, like a bored kid irrevocably wasting precious minutes of his tragically short youth by trolling the peabrained Republicans?

    The Columbine shooters and their bullies, because Dolan’s articles just aren’t long and complex and offensive enough for you yet?

    England and the Irish is a well-documented, recent, probably mostly finished conflict, where both sides were white, English speaking, and undeniably like us.

    The Ottoman Empire and the Armenians is the only case that might be as suitable, and the War Nerd loves Turks, who are still busily denying the Armenian genocide, so Ireland it is.

    As long as he doesn’t entirely lose the thread of whatever other story he’s telling, why not humor Dolan’s digression, especially in the interest of bringing the occasional new fan up to speed?

    And tuffghost, you’re right that Dolan does write with a lot of fear and anger toward women as a group, and does unfairly ignore the entire women’s rights movement. Furthermore, I do think the 70s feminists were correct that Hughes’ Nietzschean attitude was and is a stupid and dangerous mistake entirely characteristic of Thatcher’s Tories, even if it was also the balm that Dolan’s soul wanted in college, and I haven’t read enough of Hughes and Plath to confirm Dolan’s contention that Hughes was much better at expressing his ideas than Plath was. However, I think Dolan makes an excellent case that 70s feminists unfairly laid the blame for Plath’s suicide at Hughes’ feet, and that no one has refuted that claim yet.

    (Admit it, exile comment moderator(s): you’ve missed my mind-numbingly long rants lately, haven’t you? Now that I’m a subscriber I feel entitled.)

  • 21. supdogg  |  March 28th, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Lighty, are you retarded? That’s a serious question.

    Stop trying to take the high-road with comments like “but I can’t be bothered” …. that’s the kind of thing you say when you’re PRETENDING you know what you’re talking about. I got a GOOD laugh at your “can I plug my book” comment. Let me guess … a book about your “mental breakdown” … kind of like the one you tote around on your site? Good thing you quit smoking and drinking to recover, my man … those habits may increase your chances of getting cancer!

    PS: Stop dragging Thompson’s name through the mud, it’s really sad.

  • 22. Lighty  |  March 29th, 2009 at 11:54 am

    No, you’re wrong Supdogg. I couldn’t be bothered because I was just so tired, and near the end. John knew what I meant.

    And this is book…

    Free and shit. ‘Cause that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

  • 23. Peter  |  March 30th, 2009 at 9:12 am

    These are the two sides of Dolan. The first side is him fighting the stupid, irrelevant battles of his youth. Who gives a shit about the 70s feminists? As far as I can tell, I couldn’t be bothered with either them or Hughes, although I’ll concede his point that Hughes sounds a touch more honest, and hell, reading Dolan blather about the 70s is actually pretty good fun even if it’s slightly embarassing.

    Then there’s the glaringly, painfully relevant side, and the Famine is part of that. It’s not because of its victimology but because it was the beginning of something that shaped the whole world but that no one wants to talk about; the British reshaping of the globe into their own image, rights and lives of other people be damned. Dolan is the only person I can think of who writes cogently and readably on this, just like Ames (who’s another one with a substantial pitiful-bullshit side) and rampage shootings.

    What ties the two together is how people use literature to evade obvious truths and make palatable stories out of the world. The anti-Hughes faction did and do it and so do the Tory apologists, and that’s why they’re both in this article (as well as Dolan’s habit of digressions, but fuck it, I’d rather read his digressions than most writer’s main points anyday).

  • 24. Some Random Asshole  |  March 30th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Sylvia Plath was fucking hot though. And with all these mental problems, you know she’d just about rip your dick off.

  • 25. Slithe  |  April 1st, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Some Random Asshole,
    You must be looking at a different picture ( than I am. I would do her (if she were alive and still looked like that picture), but I am a horny basement-dwelling nerd.

    Dolan, I am surprised that as a lover of opium and an appreciator of fantasy that you don’t give more credit to Coleridge. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is BY FAR the best work of fantasy (real fantasy i.e. phantoms and fancy as opposed to untalented ripoffs of Dark Ages England) in the English language (to my knowledge). Despite it being a poem, it is vastly superior (in the area of storytelling) to the plodding Lord of the Rings. Also, do i have to mention “Kubla Khan?”

  • 26. Tim  |  April 1st, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Brilliant. Every. Fucking. Word.
    I’m trying to say something besides amen.
    When I read the obits, I was, at first, shaken at the tragedies that seem to hover like the Furies around Ted Hughes when I read his son’s obituary (his son sharing the same love of the wild and of fish as his father), but then, pissed, too at the slighting.
    More than that — I feel a bit the same way when I found someone else who liked Joy Division back in the day. I’ve never met any one who shared my enthusiasm and admiration for Hughes. I can’t tell you the useless hours I spent making a case for Hughes with the members of the Plath coven. I was serious enough that I blew my chance for certain sex with some of them. Well, one of them, anyway (Now that seems like a rare example of good taste and good judgment on my part, then, it was a minor tragedy.) I’ve lost hours, maybe weeks of my life, trying to defend Hughes against the W.H. Auden devotees, too. To find out someone — really, any one, let alone someone whose work I deeply respect — fought the same battles and shared the same cause — is just a magnificent relief.
    Thank you for your generous and grand article.

  • 27. L'artista precedentemente conosciuto come principe.  |  April 6th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Parole vuote di uno studente del secondo anno di invecchiamento.

  • 28. privileged ape  |  April 8th, 2009 at 4:10 am

    No, a weak article. Plath and Hughes don’t need to be foils for each other – both have idiosyncratic strengths — nor has either poet been in any way neglected by the poetry-reading community.

    Pleasant Hell is a great piece of writing – Lighty is wrong.

    I hope you detest the intellectual parasites that stick to the bottom of your articles as much as I do.

  • 29. JB  |  April 12th, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Hi John,

    Great article and I really enjoyed the podcast. I read that a critic should not simply grade art but adds value by placing it in context. Nobody will remember you as a critic because you create art. I recall the cyanide bullet poem with fondness, though only Googling around much later did I figure out WTF you were talking about. I will read some Hughes, since I can see that same dark joy.

    You sounded good during the interview. You were very on point and prepared. I was a bit disappointed with the ambush comment against Britain that your interviewee never got to respond to, and the apology of self-indulgent length. Also, the intern who said “copyright 2009” sounded like McLovin from Superbad.

    Best wishes,

  • 30. Leianna Zohs  |  November 9th, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Interesting read.Nice voice. You should write more often eh?

  • 31. BGR  |  February 18th, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Although I, too, adore Hughes, I find it very disappointing that on the occasion of his son’s death, someone would publicly refer to him as “that guy that Plath popped out.” Camp Hughes or Plath, doesn’t matter. But to exploit a person’s tragic death, using it as an excuse to propagate a personal agenda exalting one man and denigrating many others is, in a word, uncool. Yes, Nicholas Hughes was most famous for his parents (both of them, in spite of your self-pitying rant against the so-called Hughes haters), but he was above all an accomplished scientist and idividual in his own right, and he deserved to have his name mentioned independently, at least in death. Personal attacks aside, I thought this article was pretty exceptionally written, but great art does not a shameful opportunist pardon.

  • 32. A Concerned Mom  |  February 28th, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Why do you appreciate women so much?

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