Kara Kilfoil analyses Hughes's remarkable sequence of haunting poems
Ted Hughes’s provocative collection, Howls & Whispers, consists of eleven poems that take as their subject Hughes’s late wife, Sylvia Plath, as well Hughes’s emotional struggles in the tumultuous years following her tragic suicide. The collection is important, unique and worthy of significant study (study that has, in my opinion, yet to manifest itself in any serious form) for several reasons. Firstly, the poems were published in 1998, both the year of Hughes’s death and the year of arguably his most significant publication, Birthday Letters. Because Birthday Letters also concerns itself with Hughes’s and Plath’s relationship, because it uses similar tone, voice and often the same symbols and metaphors as Howls & Whispers, because it also embraces a confessional mode and, with few exceptions, marks his first public treatment of the subject of his late wife, Howls & Whispers can easily be read as part of the larger (88 poems) Birthday Letters project. Carol Bere rightly calls the poems of Howls & Whispers ‘strays’ of the longer collection.
Though Howls & Whispers is now available for public consumption via Hughes’s Collected Poems, the original poems were published in a limited edition of only 110 copies which were mainly distributed among friends. The rarity of the book is not all that gives it its particular value; each poem is also illustrated with a signed copperplate colour etching by Hughes’s long time friend, the artist Leonard Baskin whose Gehenna Press also published the edition. Hughes’s choice, thus, to privatize this collection rather than to publicize it begs readers to closely examine these fascinating eleven pieces with special attention to not only their subject matter but to their peculiar nuances, to what they both reveal and conceal differently than Hughes’s Birthday Letters poems.
Although readers of Howls & Whispers have suggested that the poems are more intimate than those found in Birthday Letters, that they ‘reveal more of Hughes’s painful, unresolved feelings about Plath’s death than many of [the] poems of Birthday Letters’ , I propose that the full strength of Howls & Whispers might only be realized when read as companion pieces to the poems of the former collection. Indeed, many of Hughes’s Howls & Whispers both compliment, or are complimented by, Hughes’s other poems. ‘The Laburnum,’ for example, shares lines with Birthday Letters’s ‘The Inscription’; a reading of each enriches a reader’s appreciation of both. ‘The Minotaur 2’ from Howls & Whispers begs an examination of ‘The Minotaur’ from the former collection. The poem ‘Howls & Whispers’ expands on ideas from, and explores the same themes as, ‘Night-Ride on Ariel.’ ‘Paris 1954’ sees Hughes examining his younger, naive self from a place in the future; the poet watches his life unfold from a third person vantage point, a technique also masterfully employed in poems like ‘The Pan’ and ‘The Machine.’ This poem also provides an interesting contrast for ‘Your Paris,’ where Hughes experiences the city through Plath’s American eyes and ideologies. These are but a few of the more obvious examples of how, when read together, Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers function as one large collection.
Thematically, Howls & Whispers functions as Birthday Letters. Hughes employs a confessional mode to explore guilt, his ‘failures’ as a husband, his inability to understand his late wife, and how he ‘will never get clear’ (‘The Hidden Orestes’) how their future might have been different. Hughes’s poems are certainly an attempt – although the poems acknowledge themselves as a largely failed one – to find clarity and peace. They reveal how he considers Plath’s death his own undoing: ‘the floor close[d] forever over both’ (‘The Difference’) and describe him as stuck in the dark cityscape of her poetry where he finds himself ‘driving through, going slow, simply / Roaming in my own darkness, pondering / What you did’ (‘The City’). Like Birthday Letters, however, the poems also point fingers at others (particularly female others) for their role in Plath’s suicide and struggle: ‘What did they plug into your ears / That had killed you by daylight on Monday?’ (‘Howls & Whispers’), ‘They consoled you / With howls from their own divorce, with the revenge / You could not find in yourself’ (‘The Laburnum’). Plath’s own fury and darkness are addressed; several poems in Howls & Whispers write Plath as irrational and possessed by demons: ‘Bursts from between her lips / With a demonic snarl’(‘The Hidden Orestes’), damaged by the experience of her father’s death: ‘The words of your mouth / Covered his corpse with a healing saliva’ (‘Religion’) and the subsequent relationship with her controlling mother: ‘You wanted to eat your mother. / Murder is of a piece / With the mouth’ (‘Religion’), and forever altered by electro-shock treatments for her depression: ‘These were the masks that measured out the voltage’ (‘Howls & Whispers’). What naturally follows then are a series of symbols and metaphors common to both collections of poems. Images of the minotaur and his labyrinth are important throughout, the moon as muse and as goddess of life and death is an important symbol in both sets of poems, omen and superstition play dominant roles, references to Shakespeare emphasize both the drama and tragedy of the Plath/Hughes relationship, as does Hughes’s use of Freudian references; and these are only to name only a few examples of such parallels.
Perhaps the most moving and importantly different poem of the collection is ‘The Offers.’ In this poem, Plath appears to Hughes three times in dream-like sequences (something she does not do in Birthday Letters). These visions are staggeringly vivid and as Hughes struggles to make sense of their significance, his personal torture is almost tangible. In the poem, Hughes poignantly expresses how Plath’s death has left his own life stagnated, he is ‘a hostage stopped / In the land of the dead’. Plath’s last visit/apparition offers Hughes a chance – albeit fleeting – to redeem himself for his shortcomings: ‘‘This is the last. This one. This time / Don’t fail me’’. The poems of Howls & Whispers and Birthday Letters both respond to Plath’s urgent calling; they are responses to her plea. Here are Hughes’s efforts to do right by Plath. Although the poems of Howls & Whispers, like Birthday Letters, speak to the impossibility of this very task, Hughes reveals the need to publish these personal pieces  as a final attempt, ‘This is the last. This one’, attempt at catharsis, both mental and physical. Through poetry, the magic which unifies Hughes and Plath from day one, Hughes hopes he will not fail Plath again. This poetry then warrants serious study and consideration by both critics and readers; important work concerning both Howls & Whispers, and its relationship with Birthday Letters, remains to be done.
Kara Kilfoil is a recent graduate of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Her doctoral dissertation project consists of selected annotations of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. Two of these sets of annotations appear in the most recent volume of the journal, Plath Profiles. Kara has written numerous papers and presentations on Plath, her poetry and the problems of her estate. Her other areas of research and interest include Canadian regional narratives, pedagogy, the nature of confession / confessional writings, and creative writings that interpret clothes-lines as regional and social narratives.
1. Bere, Carol. ‘Complicated With Old Ghosts: The Assia Poems.’ Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons. Ed.
Joanny Moulin. London: Taylor & Francis, 2004.
2. Erica Wagner, in Ariel’s Gift, claims in her first viewing of the draft of Birthday Letters that ‘The Laburnum’ was the 74th poem of the collection, not, as is the published version, ‘The Inscription’ (25).
3. Hughes’s 1998 letters in to his son Nicholas, among others, are fascinating revelations about this particular need.
4. Hughes was battling cancer at the time of the poems publication. He felt his confessions could be potentially healing.