Should something a poet or a writer could have said or done or have been influence your reading of his or her works, especially when the source of all such information is the garbled testimony of people now dead? People you never actually knew, with their own lives and lies? What difference is there between ‘tall, proud, graceful’ and ‘towering, arrogant, mincing’ save a touch of jaundice in the beholder’s eye?
And yet, having read things about people you cannot unread them. Take Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, for instance. Sylvia Plath I never knew without knowing also that she was dead by her own hand, but Ted Hughes I first read in school, when the writer’s name is nothing more than a squiggle under the title no one really cares tuppence about. His ‘Hawk Roosting’ was the first non-rhyming poem I ever learnt to like … And now the shadow of Sylvia, Assia, Shura, falls across it, and the hawk’s clear piercing gaze has a touch of the vulture about it. Even across the Iron Giant the shadow falls …
Who shall say how the case really stood, looking on from outside, so many years later? And yet the shadow falls, whether you will or no. The shadow of Sylvia, taping a note to a pram, leaving out milk and bread, sealing the kitchen with towels and tape – did she use scissors to snip it off the roll, or her teeth? The shadow of Assia, writing There could never be another man. Never, then mimicking the ghost that haunted her. And Shura. Most of all, Shura. The little girl who went to sleep in her mother’s arms and never woke up. They fell upon everything, the shadows, once I knew, and I have never since managed to cast them off.
Sylvia Plath I never got to read without the shadow. It’s the first thing they tell you about her, that she stuck her head in an oven and killed herself because she was ‘depressed’. She was my first literary suicide. Before that I had never known a writer who had killed herself or himself. I didn’t know writers did that, since to me writing, even at eighteen, was the safety valve, the road back to one’s sanity when life had chipped away at it a little too much. As long as you could eat and laugh and read and write, surely you could never quite bring yourself to kill your self off forever?
I wish I could read them, both of them, just once, without the shadow. A selfish wish, perhaps even a callous one, but I really wish I could read Thought Fox and Hawk Roosting and The Iron Giant without ‘Sylvia, Assia, Shura … Sylvia, Assia, Shura …’ running through my head like potato-blight. I wish I could read Ariel without thinking ‘She put her head in the oven, and she died. She could write splendidly, gloriously and she had children she loved who were one and three, but still she died, she put her head in the oven and she died…’