Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Loveby Maria Popova
“Two people … who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person … one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind.”
In 1960, Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — began recording a series of broadcasts for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice.” At least 17 known broadcasts were produced between November of 1960 and January of 1963, just weeks before Plath took her own life. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive, which also gave us Plath’s beautiful reading of her poem “Tulips” — comes this fascinating 20-minute interview with Plath and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, by BBC’s Owen Leeming. Titled “Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership,” it was recorded on January 18, 1961, and aired on January 31.
Though their actual first encounter was decidedly steamy and salacious, the couple concocts an intellectually revisionist history:
Plath: We kept writing poems to each other, and then it just grew out of that, I guess — a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided we should keep on.
Hughes: The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage, it took a hold. [laughs]
When asked about her childhood, Plath traces the psychoemotional backdrop against which her love of writing developed — the source of both her genius and her tragedy:
I think I was happy up to the age of about nine — very carefree — and I believed in magic, which influenced me a great bit. And then, at nine, I was rather disillusioned — I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers — and became more realistic and depressed, I think, and then, gradually, became a bit more adjusted about the age of sixteen or seventeen. But I certainly didn’t have a happy adolescence — and, perhaps, that’s partly why I turned specially to writing — I wrote diaries, stories, and so forth. I was quite introverted during those early years.
When Leeming asks Hughes whether he thinks their two temperaments are “parallel” or “in conflict” — a “marriage of opposites” — the poet gives an answer that is at once mystical, poetic, and strangely ominous in the retrospective context of what the imminent future was to bring:
We’re very alike — we like the same things, live at the same tempo, have the same sort of rhythm in almost every way. But obviously this is a very fortunate covering for temperaments that are extremely different. But they lead secret lives, you see — they content themselves in an imaginative world, so they never really come into open conflict.
In discussing the various ways in which the two have been making ends meet, Plath articulates something that would resonate deeply with most writers:
We actually look ahead from year to year, and try very hard not to look ahead beyond that … when you’re writing, you don’t do any twenty-year pension plans or anything of that sort, and need a bit more faith and brazenness perhaps than if one has a steady job. [But] I wouldn’t [have it any other way], even being a very practical and domestic housewife as I am — I think the advantages are too great to want to change.
Though jokingly offered, Hughes touches on the “hedonic treadmill” of consumerism and contributes a sad insight on material culture:
You begin to worry about money when you get a job.
(Cue in this wonderful guide to how to worry less about money.)
When asked at what stage they are going to start introducing their nine-month-old daughter Frieda to poetry, Plath, who had herself just authored a couple of little-known and lovely books of children’s verse, argues that there is no room for snobbery when it comes to priming children for poetry:
She already has listened to nursery rhymes, which I consider a poetry — I don’t believe in being self-conscious about it. I think that everything from little nursery rhymes and songs to Eliot’s Practical Cats is perfect material.
Hughes offers a beautiful meditation on the power of creative intimacy — something manifested in this lovely modern-day example — in which two people who are romantically intertwined also serve as springboards for each other’s interpretation of reality:
What she writes out needn’t be at all the contents of her own mind — it needn’t be anything she knows — but it’s something that somebody in the room knows, or somebody that she’s very close to knows. And, in this way, two people who are sympathetic to each other and who are right, who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person — they make up one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind. … It’s not that you choose the same things to write about, necessarily, and you certainly don’t write about them in the same way — it’s that you draw on an experience, it’s as though you knew more about something than you, from your own life, have ever really learned. . .
It’s a complicated idea to get across, because you’ve first of all to believe in this sort of telepathic union exists between two sympathetic people.