This Old Poem #62:
Frieda Hughes’ Medusa
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/23/03

    Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath spawned. The result of that act (at least 1 of those acts) was the foisting of Frieda Hughes into being. Born of a poetaster & a great poet, which side’s talents & traits would she garner? You guessed it- ‘Daddy, daddy, you….’ Actually FH went in to the painting field to express herself. After no real success there she decided to cash in on her brand name & ‘publish’ poetry. I parenthesize ‘publish’ because it’s always amusing how people with connections make it seem so easy- that they decide to ‘publish’- & not struggle to be published, like the woe-begotten unconnected masses.
  Here are some unintentionally humorous snippets from FH’s assorted online bios: 

  ‘Frieda Hughes has exhibited her paintings in several solo and group exhibitions in Britain, the United States, and Australia. She is the author of seven books for children. Ms. Hughes's poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and London magazine, among others. Her debut collection, Wooroloo, was published to wide acclaim. She is married to the painter Lászlo Lukács and lives in London.’

  ‘Frieda Hughes is the daughter of Sylvia Plath and former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. She says: “As a teenager, I thought I was attempting to define my own identity and this meant I wanted to be as different from my parents as humanly possible. I decided I was going to be defined by something else. I was going to paint. “I hated even reading poetry because I felt as if it dragged me back into the world in which my parents excelled. Even though my mother was dead, her poetry lived on. But I was nonetheless compelled to write poetry. "The fact that I needed to write poetry while wanting at the same time to avoid it because my parents were both poets made my personal tug-of-war very painful.”’


  ‘As Frieda approached her 40th birthday, in 2000, she found herself seeking a new way to develop her work further. She says: “There’s is something about turning 40, looking back at all those years behind you and taking stock of what you have done with them. “I had been looking for a subject on which to base a cohesive series of paintings and hit upon the idea of a painting for each one of my 40 years – and a poem to accompany it. Since the paintings would be abstract, the words would be the key. “I didn’t have the money to support such a project. Without funding, I would have had to stagger the work over 10 or 12 years. It would have missed the point, they would not have hung together as a sequence. A friend mentioned NESTA, so I applied. Without their support, this project would have ended up on a shelf somewhere.”’

  Would that we would be so lucky. But, the universe is cold & indifferent to our sensitivities. Thus FH has had several books of poems published. All bad, with occasional crests into mediocrity. Of course, don’t tell that to the professional blurbists:

  Like Wooroloo, Frieda Hughes's debut collection, the poems of Waxworks will haunt a reader's imagination.

  Causing nightmares is not a positive thing, though. But like her mom, FH is rapt by the idea that poetry is all about feelings & the more blatant aspects of ‘Confessionalism’: ‘The challenge has been to face aspects of the past to which I thought I would never have to return. The emotion strikes you as though it is still current and that comes as a surprise. You think you are immune to it, because it’s in the past. But more often, you’re not.’ Wow, another detailed self-analysis of one’s art.
  On to the poem:




She is the gypsy
Whose young have rooted
In the very flesh of her scalp.


Her eyes are drill-holes where///
Your senses spin, and you are stone
Even as you stand before her.


She opens her lips to speak,
And have you believe.
She has more tongues to deceive


Than you can deafen your ears to.
If you could look away, the voices
From the heads of her vipers


Would be heard to argue.
If you could look away,
The pedestals of your feet might move.

If you could look away,
The song from the cathedral of her mouth
Would fall to the floor like a lie.

  The humorous thing about this poem, online, was that several sites had a link explaining that the Medusa was a Gorgon, the snakehead, etc. Talk about condescension! OK, lemme state that there are a few egregious clichés & 1 bad line break- so marked. But this poem is utterly flaccid, devoid of any energy. What we get is a mere recitation of the myth with a few banal post-feminist posturings: the need to tune out the world, the lies falling to the floor, etc. The last line, especially, is meant to invoke or evoke her mom’s devastating ability to turn an interesting phrase on a dime. Let’s scalpel this:


In the very flesh of her scalp

Her eyes are, and you are stone
Even as you stand before her.


She opens and you believe.
She has more tongues to deceive

Than you can deafen your ears to.

If you could look away, the voices
Of her vipers would argue,
Would fall to the floor like a lie.


  ½ the length & quite a bit better, although still not a good poem- just passable with possibilities. Gone is the banality, & the compression aids in making this poem’s narrative more striking. As example we end with merely her snake head emoting. What? Don’t know, but there’s room for imbuement- not just the predictable pap of the original.
  Let us, before we’re done, take a different tack, & compare FH’s take on this theme with the same titled poem her mother wrote. Here is Sylvia Plath’s Medusa:

Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
Eyes rolled by white sticks,
Ears cupping the sea's incoherences,
You house your unnerving head-God-ball,
Lens of mercies,

Your stooges
Plying their wild cells in my keel's shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very center,
Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of departure,

Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?
My mind winds to you
Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair.

In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking.

I didn't call you.
I didn't call you at all.
Nevertheless, nevertheless
You steamed to me over the sea,
Fat and red, a placenta

Paralysing the kicking lovers.
Cobra light
Squeezing the breath from blood bells
Of the fuchsia. I could draw no breath,
Dead and moneyless,

Overexposed, like an X-ray.
Who do you think you are?
A Communion wafer? Blueberry Mary?
I shall take no bite of your body,
Bottle in which I live,

Ghastly Vatican.
I am sick to death of hot salt.
Green as eunuchs, your wishes
Hiss at my sins.
Off, off, eely tentacle!

There is nothing between us.

  Need I say that mom towers over daughter? Look at the imagery, descriptions, & the stark roiling narrative. Also look at the last lines. FH’s is deliberately melodramatic, whereas SP’s is a very banal seeming line- on its own. But coming in the context at the end of this harsh poem it startles by its ability to end the poem with a falling out of emotion. Ba-boom. This is the Plath style that so few of her critics & devotees notice- they focus just on the anger & personalisms. This is what FH also tries to mimic, & fails at, because that is not the reason her mom was a poetic titan- it was, indeed, for those little, subtler things. But, why should a painter be expected to see or understand that?

Final Score: (1-100):

Frieda Hughes’ Medusa: 58
TOP’s Medusa: 66

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