Stronger Than Death:
A Note on Poetry and Grief

I am transitioning from an Emily Brontë obsession into a Ted Hughes / Sylvia Plath research hole. (I have a tendency to become obsessed with the literary history of wherever it is I am living.) This has been triggered by a recent re-reading of Deleuze’s essay, “Bartleby, or, the Formula”, in which he draws on that zone of indiscernibility that revolves around Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”, Catherine declares.

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary … I am Heathcliff — he’s always always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being…

For Deleuze, this is reminiscent of various relationships from the novels of Herman Melville. The romantic and/or sexual unions found there are more than just the coming together of two individuals, he suggests. Like the wasp and the orchid, they represent something altogether more immanent that your average patriarchal union. In the case of the characters in Melville and Wuthering Heights, what haunts them is the reconciliation of two “originals”, two singular entities, that are nonetheless symbiotic. What troubles them and us is the reconciliation of a singular originality “with secondary humanity, the inhuman with the human.”

What Catherine declares, then, when she says “I am Heathcliff” is not a reciprocal ownership but a tandem and impersonal being. Not “my” Heathcliff or “my” Catherine, not “our” relationship, but a tandem becoming that cannot, by its very nature, be possessive. It is, as Deleuze would write in his final essay, a kind of pure immanence. Not “his” life or “my” life but a life. This, too, is how we should constitute our communities, Deleuze writes in his essay on Melville:

A brother, a sister, all the more true for no longer being “his” or “hers”, since all “property”, all “proprietorship”, has disappeared. A burning passion deeper than love, since it no longer has either substance or qualities, but traces a zone of indiscernibility in which it passes through all intensities in every direction…

How is this community realized? How can the biggest problem be resolved? But is it not already resolved, by itself, precisely because it is not a personal problem, but a historical, geographical, or political one? It is not an individual or particular affair, but a collective one, the affair of a people, or rather, of all people.

Deleuze makes a compelling argument in favour of this becoming-community in the context of a young America, not yet reterritorialised by European flows. But there is a tension that lingers in his mention of Emily Brontë…

Over the weekend I read Anne Carson for the first time. Glass and God. I was struck by her narration of a trip to see her mother at home on the Yorkshire moors.

She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books —

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

my lonely life around me like a moor,
my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation
that dies when I come in the kitchen door.
What meat is it, Emily, we need?

The great Gothic gestures made within Brontë’s writings, her poems especially, come from this isolated existence. Spring opens [her] like a blade there. Spring, the collective transformation of a world in harmony, only exacerbates one’s alienation from humanity at large. Ben Lerner, in his magnificent essay The Hatred of Poetry, excavates this gesture from the very heart of all poetry, which is nothing less than “the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence” — or perhaps to launch our humanity into the inhumanity of nature at large. Of course, the poem is, in this regard, unfit for purpose. Still, it constitutes a “noble failure”.

In this light, Carson’s fear of becoming Emily Brontë is translated into a more general fear of becoming a poet — a fear Lerner articulates well (and which I found resonated a little too closely with my own feelings about becoming a “photographer”) when he talks about the strange dance that occurs when poets and non-poets meet:

If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their calling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now. They will tell you they have a niece or nephew who writes poetry. These familiar encounters … have a tone that is difficult to describe. There is embarrassment for the poet — couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you? — but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet, because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self…

For Lerner, the ubiquitous adage “You’re a poet and you didn’t even know it”, which we might association with children, demonstrates how fundamental poetry is to us. Though we commonly denounce and despise it, we talk about poetry as a kind of universal potential in us all, which makes poetry simultaneously attractive and pretentious. This is laid bear when a “professional” poet comes into contact with the amateur or non-poet:

The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet … is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable ‘poetry’ is from our imagination of social life. Whatever we think of particular poems, ‘poetry’ is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: My capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry, or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me.

In the BBC documentary about poet Ted Hughes, Stronger Than Death, there is a constant wrestling of private lives with public reputations.

I watched the documentary somewhat astounded. Though most of its details are hotly contested, I was embarrassed to admit to myself that, in a recent conversation with a friend, I had noted that all I knew about Hughes was that he was horrible to his wife, Sylvia Plath. They had mentioned him with some enthusiasm, which I inadvertently pissed on. (I meant my lack of any positive knowledge to be an admission of ignorance rather than a dismissal; I fear it came off as both.)

But the documentary revealed just how wrong I was. Whilst Hughes may have had a cruel streak, the message from family and friends presented by the documentary is that, no, Hughes did not kill Plath, her depression did. Though he was flawed, perhaps even deeply so — he was a serial adulterer — he loved her and respected her far more than those who have come to her defence over the decades since.

This is not to suggest that the couples’ personal life was not complex and dark, but their entwined lives and legacies seem to function like poems in themselves. In particular, Hughes’ relationship with his wife — that many have described as being like Heathcliff and Catherine’s in its ferocity and their tandem flirtations with the non- and inhuman — is surely unfathomable to anyone outside of it. But that has not stopped a damaging spiral of gossip based on half-truths and assumptions. Though hardly a model relationship for anyone to implement, there are nonetheless interesting social questions to be asked of their coming-together.

Chief among these are questions of ownership. Some accuse Hughes of having an inappropriate amount of control over his dead wife’s estates; others argue he simply wanted her to receive the recognition she did not have in life, precisely because she had lived under his shadow. Some suggested he did this only to rake in the royalties, but her children report that the money went entirely to them and he saw none of it. His relationship to his wife seems to become most problematic after her death, as if, just like with Heathcliff and Catherine, it was the moment that their collective becoming was arrested that questions of ownership forced their way back into view. Who “owns” the life of Sylvia Plath in death? Nobody owned it when she was alive, least of all Hughes and Plath themselves. In life, a life is revolutionary; in death, a life does not rot but is reified. (Quite the opposite of what Deleuze advocated, it must be said.)

The Hughes documentary goes on to explore how, for the American feminists of the late 60s and 70s, Plath became a martyr. Her feminist poems against the fascism of marriage are interpreted as a subtextual confession that Hughes was to blame for her demise. (Should we read into the fact that Hughes himself assembled the poems for publication?) But there is a further interpretation that she saw the social institution of marriage as unfit for purpose. It boxes up becoming, cages the animal, and gives it something to kick against — or else married couples kick against each other.

Hughes was far from a model husband, but then society failed for decades in its appraisal of husband and wife. Again, their lives becomes poems in themselves — noble failures. Together, they may have failed the social, but the social failed them in turn.

The testimony of Hughes and Plath’s daughter Frieda is most damning in this regard. Discussing the way that her parents’ relationship was seized upon by well-meaning feminists in the USA, Frieda Hughes explains:

I was appauled that something that happened in 1963 could be carried forward and… what an easy way out for somebody to think, yes, we’re right, we’ve got the real story, we know what really happened, and we are going to punish this complete stranger for something we weren’t around to witness, we know nothing about, but we’re the ones with the answers.

For outsiders — because that’s what they are: outsiders — to make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft. It’s an abuse.

But the tension of ownership re-emerges here again, of course. To hear the testimonies of family and friends, who explain that everything that happened was a tragedy, but their tragedy, and one abused by outside parties for other ends, is stark. Though Hughes may remain unlikeable in many respects, his relationship to his wife, both in life and in death, seems quintessentially Brontean. But such is the paradox of the social. This is not the personal colliding with the political, in a dialectic that produces the new, but everything, in all of its complexity, being melted down onto the one-dimensional plane of the social — the schizophrenia of capitalism cast in negative, where everything is connected and simplified in its relations.

It is a telling tale in our present era of social media. Hughes did not comment on the accusations against him, or attempt to refute them, although he later published the collection Birthday Letters, which explored in harrowing detail the extent to which his wife’s love and death so profoundly haunted him. In a world currently obsessed by the causes and affects of so-called “cancel culture”, his private responses are both fascinating and heart-breaking.

The documentary presents a reading of a private letter by Hughes, in which he writes:

Having to suffer watching that freestyle street theatre, presented and accepted and discussed as the final truth about our lives, and having to realize over the years that no mistake can be corrected, no fantasy or lie can be extinguished, and that any attempt to correct the record only gives a weirder energy to the lies. Having the monkey world of all this play upon one’s nerves for twenty-five years induces a stupor of horror. It finely affects your judgement of mankind.

I imagine his fatigue may resonate with anyone who has experienced the oppressive gaze of the public eye, the incessant drone of the social, but still the social is what so many writers and poets strive for. It remains the plane of immanence upon which we hope to dissolve ourselves. But rather than melting into it, we find it has been replaced by a bed of nails. The social is what we desire, but the social continues to let us down. When such disappointment is coupled with a penchant for self-destruction, the worst can happen. The social suffers most under the shadow of suicide. We can rebound and disappear into the “I”, or else float on the surface of reified relations, insoluble and sad.

We seem less capable of thinking fluid relations than ever before, as if our problems are new and the solutions unknowable. But poetry has often expressed profoundly what is now a mundane postmodern existentialism. We need only return to Emily Brontë for a truly Gothic vision of that.

But the hearts that once adored me
Have long forgot their vow
And the friends that mustered round me
Have all forsaken now

‘Twas in a dream revealed to me
But not a dream of sleep
A dream of watchful agony
Of grief that would not weep

Now do not harshly turn away

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