Sometimes what gets edited out of a book can be just as interesting as what gets left in. There are many reasons why certain stories or lines of thought get removed. Sometimes it can be to do with word length, or that it takes things off at a slight tangent, or that it simply doesn’t quite fit at that moment in the narrative. I am lucky to have a superb editor, Alison Callahan at Gallery Books, whose judgment is always spot-on, because sometimes as writers we get so lost in our own texts that it becomes difficult to see when we are wandering off and losing ourselves.
One story in my new book Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz that ended up being cut was a story about Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Ted Hughes. It is a story not without humour, because it encompasses a classic literary spat – about associations, reputations, and perceived slights.
It all began when Ted Hughes wrote a piece for the fall issue of Tri-Quarterly in 1966. In his essay he made the claim that Plath was different to Lowell and Sexton. Plath, he wrote, certainly shared characteristics with them, such as “shattering the self” and their “East Massachusetts homeland”. But beyond this, Hughes claimed that Plath’s poems were completely different to Lowell’s and Sexton’s whose work was “truly autobiographical and personal, and their final world is a torture cell walled with family portraits, with the daily newspaper coming under the door.” According to Hughes, Plath used autobiographical details in her poetry quite differently, “She sets them out like masks, which are then lifted up by a dramatis personae of nearly supernatural qualities.” (p. 81)
This claim enraged Lowell who appeared to have an active aversion to being what he regarded as “lumped into” the same category of writing as Sexton (this attitude of Lowell’s alone is worthy of study – but that’s another story). A furious Lowell wrote to Hughes accusing him of “tasteless vulgarity.” He felt that Hughes belittled his and Sexton’s work by comparing it unfavourably to Plath’s and no amount of “uxoriousness” excused this. Having agreed to appear at a London poetry festival organised by Hughes in 1967, Lowell said “of course” he would no longer be attending unless Hughes apologised to both him and Sexton. The drama!
A contrite Hughes wrote to both immediately, though he may not quite have anticipated Anne Sexton’s brilliantly defiant “acceptance” of his apology. In his letter to Sexton, held at the Harry Ransom Center, what he actually meant, Hughes wrote, was that he was trying to show how Plath’s poems operated in the “dimension of the spirit”, whereas Lowell and Sexton’s operated in the “dimension of nature and society.”
In a wonderfully grudging response, the fiery Sexton replied that she would accept his apology (although I have to say her letter implies the exact opposite). And in what must be one of the best uses of underlining ever she finished her paragraph with the devastating retort that she was “not sure what your terms ‘spirit or nature or society’ mean…but if you say so.”
In the end, the waters got smoothed over, they all became friends again, and Sexton at least appeared at Ted Hughes’ Poetry Festival in 1967. It was there that she then got into a tussle with W.H. Auden, but that story did make it into the book…
Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz can be ordered here
The essay referred to in this piece is Ted Hughes, ‘Notes on the chronological order of Sylvia Plath’s poems’, Tri-Quarterly, No. 7, Fall 1966, p. 81-88.
(My thanks to Amanda Golden for clarifying that Lowell did not attend the 1967 Poetry Festival in London)