Saturday, March 21, 2015

Was Assia One Of Those Girls?

What a place America is. Everything is in cellophane.
— Hughes to Olwyn in a letter, 1957

I've been reading up on Plath and Hughes, which I have done for class so many times, and this time a small detail I'd overlooked has caught my imagination. Plath's depression and eventual suicide is an enduring subject; Hughes' role in her creative work and in her life is equally interesting. They both hoped to become myth, and that they indeed apotheosized only intensifies the scholarship. But I'm starting to think about Assia.

I can't help but wonder if Assia was One Of Those Girls.

If you're a female, you know the type. She appears to be powerful because of her beauty, she incites jealousy because of her luck and her genetic inheritance, but it turns out that these are smokescreens, incidentals. She carries a much more devastating charm in that she is...well, what word will work here? Maybe unscrupulous is the right term for this quality. She uses it in a way that is invisible to men. They just can't discern it. It's like a dog whistle that only women can hear.

No, that isn't right. It may read as unscrupulous, but it's survival. She is focused. And here's where it befuddles me a bit. Hughes' grasp on Nature was invigorating to poetry, and troubling to civility. When his prizewinning first book Hawk in the Rain came along it was important in part because it spoke in a way that The Movement Poets—the UK poetry in fashion in the fifties—stylistically denied. Though poets such as Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin spoke of death, of loss of faith, or purposelessness, of most unsavory feelings, they did so with such restraint you barely saw the glimpse of fang. Even in his remarkable "Deceptions," Larkin's deep empathy could destabilize the most clear-eyed reader were it not in such tight, polite words and meter. It's a beautiful accomplishment, this.

Hughes on the other hand, was straightforward in awe of Nature's design, of its brutality, its efficiency. How he loved the single-mindedness! The thrush's efficacy, utility in killing to survive: "this bullet and automatic / Purpose"; the pike's rapacious mouth as its whole reason for existence: "A life subdued to its instrument."

What the civilized reader saw as brutal and violent, Hughes understood as essential. "My poems are not about violence but vitality. Animals are not violent; they are so much more completely controlled than me."
When my Aunt calls my verse “horrible and violent” I know what she means. Because I know what style of life and outlook she is defending. And I know that she is representative of huge numbers of people in England. What she has is an idea of what poetry ought to be… a very vague idea, since it’s based on an almost total ignorance of what poetry has been written. She has an instinct for a kind of poetry that will confirm the values of her way of life. So to define their use of the word violence any further, you have to work out just why her way of life should find the behaviour of a hawk “horrible” or any reference to violent death “disgusting," just as she finds any reference to extreme vehemence of life “frightening somehow." It’s a futile quarrel really.
How Nature was open about living for need. "With a man it is otherwise[,]" Hughes complains in "Thrushes," lamenting a civility that would sterilize dark temptations into denial. Isn't that what civility is? The refinement of rudeness, in order to avoid the kind of things that cause trouble. But it's really just wrapping paper on the loins. I think of Plath, who struggled so majestically to be both pure and herself, to be the fifties girl she was raised to be, while being, also, a magnificent sensual being. One only has to read her journals to see the deep jealousy she felt for boys who could roam:
I have too much conscience injected in me to break customs without disasterous effects; I can only lean enviously against the boundary and hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled. The whole thing sickens me.​
One could write a series of encyclopedias on the female animal and propriety, and the entry on Plath would be terrific. Once married with children, you either fly right and behave or you kindle come what may. Assia was relentless, which is to say, one can admire her for her focus and efficiency. In pursuing Hughes, and in letting herself be pursued, she was like any animal stimulated and awakened by hunt, by hunger. Like Hughes, she was unmoved by appeals for tenderness to others, as is Nature.


Photo of Assia on her Wedding Day to Richard Lipsey, October 1952. Courtesy of Celia Chakin, in Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev's Lover of Unreason.

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