Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sylvia & Ted Go Fishing

In Her Husband: Hughes and Plath–A Marriage (Viking, 2003) Diane Middlebrook recounts an interesting story about the poem "Flounders," which appears in The Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) the collection intended by Ted Hughes to tell his side of the tragic, legendary marriage with Sylvia Plath.

Middlebrook writes:

"The time is summer, 1957; Plath has just completed her Cambridge degree, and Hughes has accompanied her home to Massachusetts. They were indulging in their second honeymoon on Cape Cod–––Hughes remarked that learning how much it cost Aurelia (seventy dollars per week) anesthetized him for a whole month. The poem says that they spent a day in a rented rowboat, fishing in the channel, bouncing in the wake of grand pleasure boats owned by the rich. Suddenly the wind shifted and the tide turned, and they rowed hopelessly while their boat was slowly being pulled out to sea. Then their luck turned again: they were rescued by a family in a fast power boat and towed into a quiet channel, where they ended the day happily making a fabulous catch of flounder.

"Hughes unfolds the story as a contemporary faily tale, in which the bountiful catch of flounder is bestowed on them by a beautiful nameless goddess, they have been spoiled by studying literature––it made them uninterested in American abundance. (We have to infer that this is a goddess of the New World.) She is engaged in a competition with her sister, the goddess of poetry, for the hearts and minds of the young couple. The goddess of poetry, however, demonstrates that Hughes and Plath are under her management. She shuts their ears to the siren song of luxury, so that they heard only the calling of poetry in their life."

Here's the poem--a great one, I think--with it's retrospective wisdom, its wonder, its solid, workman-like lineation and visceral, single syllable words. The poem itself is a well-constructed little dory, holding the two poets and their fragile marriage as they venture out off the coast of Cape Cod.


Was that a happy day? From Chatham
Down at the South end of the Cape, our map
Somebody's optimistic assurance,
We set out to row. We got ourselves
Into mid-channel. The tide was flowing. We hung
Anchored. Northward pulling, our baited leads
Bounced and bounced the bottom. For three hours––
Two or three sea-robins. Cruisers
Folded us under their bow-waves, we bobbed up,
Happy enough. But the wind
Smartened against us, and the tide turned, roughening,
Dragged seaward. We rowed. We rowed. We
Saw we weren't going to make it. We turned,
Cutting down wind for the sand bar, beached
And wondered what to do next. It was there
I found a horse-shoe crab's carapace, perfect,
No bigger than a bee, in honey-pale cellophane.
No way back. But big good America found us.
A power-boat and a pilot of no problems.
He roped our boat to his stern and with his whole family
Slammed back across the channel into the wind,
The spray scything upwards, our boat behind
Twisting across the wake-boil–– a hectic
Four or five minute and he cast us off
In the lee of the land, but a mile or more
From our dock. We toiled along inshore. We came
To a back-channel, under beach-house gardens––marsh grass,
Wild, original greenery of America,
Mud-slicks and fiddler-crab warrens, as we groped
Towards the harbour. Gloom-rich water. Something
Suggested easy plenty. We lowered baits,
And out of about six feet of water
Six or seven feet from land, we pulled up flounders
Big as big plates, till all our bait had gone.

After our wind-burned, head glitter day of emptiness,
And the slogging row of our lives, and the rescue,
Suddenly out of water easy as oil
The sea piled our boat with its surplus. And the day
Curled out of brilliant, arduous morning,
Through wind-hammered perilous afternoon,
Salt-scoured, to a storm-gold evening, a luxury
Of rowing among the dream-yachts of the rich
Lolling at anchor off the play-world of the pier.

How tiny an adventure
To stay so monumental in our marriage,
A slight ordeal of all that might be,
And a small thrill-breath of what many live by,
And a small prize, a toy miniature
Of the life that might have bonded us
Into a single animal, a single soul––

It was a visit from the goddess, the beauty
Who was poetry's sister––she had come
To tell poetry she was spoiling us.
Poetry listened, maybe, but we heard nothing
And poetry did not tell us. And we
Only did what poetry told us to do.


Blogger Mark Granier said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Mark Granier said...

I immediately knew which poem you meant; I remember it (more as an event than a poem) from Birthday Letters. Fabulous, thanks for reminding me.

5:09 AM

5:10 AM  
Blogger Gary Parrish said...

Simple love at tide and ebb.

10:32 PM  

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