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Birthday Letters

3.91 of 5 stars 3.91  ·  rating details  ·  5,545 ratings  ·  200 reviews
Formerly Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, the late Ted Hughes (1930-98) is recognized as one of the few contemporary poets whose work has mythic scope and power. And few episodes in postwar literature have the legendary stature of Hughes's romance with, and marriage to, the great American poet Sylvia Plath.

The poems in Birthday Letters are addressed (with just two exce
Paperback, 198 pages
Published March 30th 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published January 10th 1998)
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Feb 21, 2011 Matt added it
Ted Hughes has an uncomfortable place in the room where Sylvia Plath killed herself (and another in the room where his next wife, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their only daughter) -- he was the gas, he was the ovens, or he was the mark to which the the dial was turned. Maybe he was the sealed doors.

In Birthday Letters he places himself in and around that first room, Plath's room. And those places are horrifying, those he occupies and also those spaces he seems to have to leave empty.
I need to get something off my chest with this one. I'd read Birthday Letters a few years ago, I guess when I was first getting into Plath and was not particularly interested in the warzone of the Plath/Hughes legacy. I also didn't really give much thought to poetry at the time--if it was pretty or vaguely shocking, I'd nod and think, 'Well, look how smart I am, for reading this.' So I think I let Hughes off the hook last time--and I should clarify to say that I don't hate Hughes' poetry; I'm no ...more
Sep 27, 2012 Jonathan rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: university literature students, poetry lovers, anyone interested in Sylvia Plath
Recommended to Jonathan by: university course
Shelves: poetry, university
Ted Hughes wrote Birthday Letters across his life and published it shortly before his death. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had once been married and divorced before Plath committed suicide. This anthology of poetry is as a result a collection of poems addressing Plath as 'you' like a letter, a response to her Ariel (as seen in the references to 'ariel' and 'bees' in various poems. One problem of criticism of the poetry however, is a criticism that haunts many books unfairly. That this is merely ...more
Justin Sewell
Aug 11, 2013 Justin Sewell rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Fans of confessional poetry, Ted Hughes fans, Sylvia Plath fans, and Hanged Men
Shelves: poetry
As a typical self-loathing teen poet, I was drawn like a moth to a shocklight by Tragic Poets And Their Works of Great Suffering. Plath was, of course, the Queen Mother, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd memorized "Edge" word for word- grasping only enough of it to know it was the one of the Greatest Works of Great Suffering Ever. Poetry meets suicide note and becomes the exclamation point on the short life sentence of Sylvia Plath.

Like many teens invested in the literary drama of the tragi
Tom Bensley
My last review for a book of poetry (Plath's Ariel) was only a few lines long. Perhaps it was because I was tired, I'd just written another review or, the more plausible, I was scared of reviewing poetry. Poetry is not something you casually bring up with your mates after a few beers or during a penniless poker game because chances are that they couldn't care less. Or, you just don't want to sound like a fool. My reason was the latter. I was convinced that to review poetry one is required to hav ...more
Alexis Hall
I'm not actually a huge fan of Ted Hughes as a writer.

As a human being--whose life and misdeeds are basically publicly property--I have no comment.

I like this, I'm almost afraid to say, because it is ugly. Self-justifying and painful and tender and unpleasant. An raw mixture of unspeakable things.
Oct 12, 2010 Zoë rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: poetry
"A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found."

In Birthday Letters Ted Hughes offers 88 responses to Sylvia Plath in chronological order, beginning when he first met her, following her 1963 suicide and the years after as he raised their two children amidst the legend his wife left behind following her early death. Although I knew both Plath and Hughes were poets, I had neve
I read this alongside the Feinstein biography of Hughes, which was illuminating. i'd recommend doing the same as it helps place the locations and events that inspired the poetry. The collection is raw in places and reflective in others, frequently nail-on-the-head brilliant. He's a poet who teaches that the big fancy words aren't what's always needed ('wet shops' - God, can you think of a better description of Yorkshire? - 'the canteen clutter of the British restaurant'- this is pre-coffee shop ...more
Courtney Kellner
The freezing soil
Of the garden, as I clawed it.
All around me that midnight's
Giant clock of frost. And somewhere
Inside it, wanting to feel nothing,
A pulse of fever. Somewhere
Inside that numbness of the earth
Our future trying to happen.
I look up - as if to meet your voice
With all its urgent future
That has burst in on me. Then look back
At the book of the printed words.
You are ten years dead. It is only a story.
K Gomez
I noticed that my understanding of these poems is far better seven years after I first read them. I felt less like I needed to 'study' them than I once did. The rawness of the emotion and the sometimes startlingly clear biographical references make these very important poems. The best poems in this collection are, in my opinion: 'The Shot', 'Fullbright Scholars', 'Freedom of Speech', 'Isis', 'Being Christ-like', 'Epiphany', 'Setebos', 'The Tender Place', and 'Telos'. There is a beautiful line in ...more
I feel like Plath has become a becon for many women writers, and Hughes is cast as the villain in her life, the man holding the knife. This collection finally gives readers access to his perspective. Through his lens, we see Plath's unpredictability, self-loathing, and the pressure she put on him: he was her lightning rod. In particular, I loved his verson of the Rabbit Catcher, as that is my favorite of Plath's poems, and his take on it brings the story to fascinating new light. I enjoyed the w ...more
Jun 05, 2013 R. rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2013
Picked this up at the library after viewing the 2003 biopic Sylvia starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as Literature Kingdom's second-best star-crossed angel-handed demon-scratched lovers. Very intriguing how again and again Hughes fetishizes Plath's apple-pie-eating, horseback-riding blonde-tall-muttmix Americaness as some sort of alluring alien Otherness: we in the New World might as well be stepping down from a hovering silvership when we (she, really, she, pretty Plutonian Plath) visit ...more
David Schaafsma
I read this because I am teaching a postwar American fiction class this spring and we are reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (and some of her poetry) for the class. I hadn't wanted to read it so much, I hadn't wanted to revisit my anguished feelings about her life and poetry prior to her suicide, but I had given the enrolled students a chance to choose novels from this period, and some of the class wanted to read it, so I added it. Then, I recalled never having read this book by Ted Hughes, her ...more
I really liked about 80% of these poems. The other 20% just didn't interest me, perhaps because they were so specific that I couldn't grasp Hughes' intent? I loved the way in which Hughes used this book as sort of a good-bye to Sylvia. Though everybody has their theories about the reason behind her suicide, and no one can necessarily say Ted was a good husband, I have to admit that I found a good handful of the poems quite romantic. They were tragic, yes, but I do think, despite Ted's screwed up ...more
Michael Ransom
Ted Hughes can do no wrong, poetically speaking, in my mind. However I only gave 4 stars instead of the 5 I usually give to all his works, because I feel these poems don't quite match up to the lyrical intensity of his wildlife focused poems of either his youth (Lupercal, Crow) or his older, wiser age (Wolfwatching). These poems are remembrances of his former life (many if not all with S Plath) and as such they can't really steer clear of sentimentality because that's the whole point. Nonetheles ...more
I'm sure that many Plath fans will have read Birthday Letters and wished that they could have been a fly on the wall of Sylvia and Ted's marriage. This collection of reflective and emotionally charged poetry will be the closest any of us will come to gaining such a private insight. Although it's painfully clear in these works that Hughes loved Plath dearly, there's also an uneasy tone of sadness and judgement which made some of the poems especially difficult to read. Birthday Letters is a book t ...more
I love Hughes' work, but found the bulk of these poems so obviously personal that I had difficulty finding an 'in', as opposed to the bulk of Hughes' other work. There are, of course, great exceptions to this, and the one poem 'The Dogs are Eating Your Mother' is worth the entire book. I have never been a Sylvia&Ted'ophile, and couldn't care less for all the chiefly political responses to their personal relationship. There are few poets anymore in the way that Ted was---poets that are willin ...more
Dec 13, 2013 Alan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: poetry
just come across some notes on this from my 1998 notebook:
- a cruel, accurate view of Sylvia's suffering and breakdown. To Hughes signs are everything, he is as superstitious, locked into the stars as she was, rationalism has a flimsy hold here; numerical signs, names, stars, omens.

I like Ted Hughes a lot. Parts of this book are very good, but this "personal" style doesn't really suit him, I don't think. Still, it's required reading for those with a serious interest in Hughes/Plath.
"I was a whole myth too late to replace you." - A Picture of Otto

I have to disagree with those who think this collection can stand without its biographical aspect -- these poems, especially as a collection, need Plath (at least some knowledge of her life, art, and death) or else they sink deeper into the shadows of their specially-tailored world.

Hughes has a knack for beautiful observations and so far this is what I like most in his works. There are fragments, phrases, that I cherish and a few f
Karlo Mikhail
'Drawing calmed you. Your poker infernal pen / Was like a branding iron. Objects / Suffered into their new presence, tortured / Into final position.' I like two or three of the more than eighty poems here. But in general I find Ted Hughes an abominable figure and this aestheticized denigration of Sylvia Plath distasteful. For instance: 'What I remember / Is thinking: She'll do something crazy. And I ripped / the door open and jumped in beside you.' Most unfortunate is the fact that Plath can no ...more
I know a lot about Plath. Like many women, I discovered her as a teenager. "The Bell Jar" was on a required summer reading list for my high school, and I loved it at the time. I started reading her poetry, then her unabridged journals, then the published collection of her letters to her mother, the collection of essays and short fiction Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts, then all the biographies I could find. Even the verse fictionalization of her life ...more
May 22, 2013 Amy rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: poetry
Ugh, what a chore this was to get through. I've read random Hughes poems before and have liked them, so I was surprised and disappointed that I did not like this collection--at all. Where to begin? Maybe with "You had a fever. You had a real ailment." This was the condescending tone that Hughes employed throughout many of his poems. I am sure he had a very complicated relationship with Plath, and being involved with someone with mental illness is very challenging (and I can imagine the anger I'd ...more
I didn't really read many of the poems in depth. Like any collection of poems (or short stories), some of them were really interesting while others were boring and it constantly changed to different ideas every few pages. We're studying Conflicting Perspectives in the Hughes-Plath relationship in class and we're studying about six of the poems in this book, so while I didn't have to read this collection it did help with creating a better understanding of the situation. My natural inclination is ...more
An amazing collection full of pathos and tenderness. I'm glad I read it as part of a poetry class and at the same general time as Ariel, because I didn't know anything about Sylvia Plath's story before and these poems would be pretty pointless without at least a basic understanding of that relationship. That said, there is a lot of powerful writing, some fabulous insights and metaphors in here. Some of the highlights for me were:
The Tender Place
Karlsbad Caverns (I love the comparison of the b
Christopher Ingham
This is a stunning collection of poetry. The poems were written over the period of years since Sylvia Plath's death and published in 1998, just before Hughes himself died. All of the poems, with the exception of two which are for his children, are addressed to Sylvia Plath and trace their love and somewhat tempestuous relationship. Whilst all of the poems are beautifully constructed and moving in their examination of both Hughes and Plath, my two favourites are "Wuthering Heights", which could b ...more
I wanted to hate this.

I've read enough by Sylvia Plath to know that I love her.

I've read enough about her relationship with Ted Hughes to know that I hate him.

What bullshit is that?

Of course I know nothing about either of them.

I know what's been written of their marriage, it's breakdown and the next chapter of suicides in Ted's life.

That tells me nothing.

What I read in this collection was rawness of love and loss. His side of their relationship.

Was it any truer than the accusations that f
Not being a Plath scholar or having much of a stake in the Hughes/Plath situation, I'm not going to comment on who was to blame for what, or why he wrote the poems. I'll just say that for me these poems rarely seemed to sing. Yes, they were full of symbolism, personal details, thoughts, feelings and experiences, but 'Red' was the only one to reach the jewelled, faceted brilliance of Plath's best work. Let me be clear here: I'm not a literature student, and I am certainly not casting aspersions o ...more
I am in love with this kind of poetry. Although it's got not much rhyme and rhythm, it's so full of sensation and intellect and creative images, that u don't feel the need for any kinda rhythm to move you.
Birthday Letters was my first introduction to the acrimonious Plath/Hughes battle that seems to have been dragged around and kept well-fuelled by the literary world over the many years since Plath's death. I was, and still am, struck by the openness with which Hughes confronts his relationship with Plath. He does not portray her spitefully or viciously, highlighting the problems that her problems caused, but with an enduring emotion that speaks volumes to me about Hughes himself. I don't see him ...more
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  • Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters
  • The Colossus and Other Poems
  • North
  • Love Poems
  • Collected Poems
  • Satan Says (Pitt Poetry Series)
  • Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath - A Marriage
  • The Wild Iris
  • Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love
  • Rapture
  • Collected Poems
  • What Is This Thing Called Love: Poems
  • Diving Into the Wreck
Edward James Hughes was an English poet and children's writer, known as Ted Hughes. His most characteristic verse is without sentimentality, emphasizing the cunning and savagery of animal life in harsh, sometimes disjunctive lines.

The dialect of Hughes's native West Riding area of Yorkshire set the tone of his verse. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, he found folklore and anthropology of particular
More about Ted Hughes...
The Iron Man: A Children's Story in Five Nights Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (Faber Library) Collected Poems Letters of Ted Hughes The Hawk in the Rain

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“Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter, your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give.”
“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it”
More quotes…