Here is my second recording in the Romantic Poets series. It is “A Poison Tree” by William Blake. I intend to do a few more from the “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. They are obviously intended as songs and are just the right length. Blake is a particular inspiration to me. In 2019 I went to an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London of Blake’s art and poetry. It displayed the work in it’s original context, in book form. Some of the books are tiny, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Seeing the words and pictures together, in print form, really enhanced their meaning for me. It was probably the first time in my life that I really understood these poems. It has encouraged me to undertake far more original work of my own, a real inspiration!
I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears, Night & morning with my tears: And I sunned it with smiles, And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night. Till it bore an apple bright. And my foe beheld it shine, And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole, When the night had veild the pole; In the morning glad I see; My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Here is a remix of the song. I have taken out the drums and harpsichord and added accordion. Which do you prefer? Let me know!
I have started a new project setting works of the Romantic Poets to music. Here is my first attempt “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats. I visited his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. It was a strange and spiritual experience! I recorded this at home using Cubase 9.5 and various instruments and plug-ins!
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
I recently posted a piano arrangement of this. Well, I had a request to do a vocal version. So here it is, recorded in my home studio with me playing all the instruments. It is a wonderfully evocative song that I first learnt when I was at school.
Emily Van Duyne on the Lure of Charismatic, Abusive Men
Each time I left the Charles Woodruff Library at Emory University during my week-long visit there, I set off the alarm. I carried nothing but a tote bag with my laptop, cell phone, wallet, and one book—Charles Newman’s The Art of Sylvia Plath, a discarded library book from the early 1970s. This last was the culprit. The librarian at the front desk ran it through a scanner intended to de-library it. Still, the alarm sounded. Still, I walked quietly backwards, removing the book from, and handing over, my bag. Plath in hand, apologizing.
I went to Emory in November 2019, because Ted Hughes’s papers are there, and I needed to round out several chapters of my forthcoming book, Loving Sylvia Plath. Hughes and Plath were famously married from 1956 until her suicide in 1963, but estranged at the time of her death, with Plath actively seeking divorce. Because Plath died intestate (without a will), Hughes inherited all of her published—and, importantly, unpublished—writing. Loving Sylvia Plath deals with the ways Hughes used the editing and censorship of his late wife’s work to construct an image of a maniacal, death-obsessed Plath that was simultaneously a publishing phenomenon.
The Emory archive contains the bulk of his correspondence related to this editing and publishing—so, three days after Halloween, I flew south to Atlanta, my stomach in knots. I felt like I was facing the twisted history of Plath, Hughes, and the many fans and scholars who have tried to write about the whole complex mess. Until his death in 1998, Hughes was an immovable force—feminist scholars, in particular, were anathema to him, and he often forbade access to Plath’s work, or permission to quote it, to a range of writers. And while I have been sniffing around this story since I was a very young woman, I have too often (and probably too easily) been put off the scent—plenty of friends, and teachers, had told me I was wrong about Hughes’s character and his role in creating Plath’s iconic image. What if those people were right?
My fear that there was nothing to find went deeper than turning out to be the literary-feminist equivalent of Geraldo forcing open Al Capone’s vaults to find a handful of empty aspirin bottles. If I went to Atlanta and discovered there was nothing to discover, what did that mean for my understanding of Sylvia Plath? And since Sylvia Plath means so much to me, means so much to my life, its odd trajectory—what would my life mean, then?
In an essay I once wrote about Plath, I decried the idea that my work on her was “a Grail-like quest.” But maybe I had spoken too soon.
When I landed in Atlanta, I tweeted about being in the archive. Heather Clark, a fellow Plath scholar saw it. Happy Hunting, she replied.
Loving Sylvia Plath is partly about the way that Hughes used his power and influence to market a death-obsessed Plath to the reading public, and how, when this worked, he hoisted the blame for this (mis)perception of Plath onto others, including Plath’s friends and family, and women readers as a whole, as Janet Badia has brilliantly shown in her work. He reserved a particular disdain for young women students who he dubbed “cultists” and “unauthorized” biographers.
In the archive, I found much evidence for said marketing in his official correspondence with editors and publishers, from the poet Donald Hall, who first acquired Ariel for American publication by Harper & Row, to Frances McCullough, who eventually became both Hughes and Plath’s American editor at the same press. But Hughes’s official correspondence is mixed in with his personal missives. It felt impossible not to be drawn into Hughes’s personal papers, despite telling myself I shouldn’t “go there,” that what I needed existed in his business letters.
Reading Hughes’s letters to friends and family, I felt more strongly than ever—since, now, here was hard proof of my long-held suspicions about his character, his actions, his intent for Plath’s work and legacy—that I was right. We—as in, feminist critics of Hughes, feminist fans of Plath—were all right. Ted Hughes was a morally corrupt person who exploited the women in his life, from his sister to his lovers to his editors and publishers, and his letters proved to me beyond a doubt that he was abusive, manipulative, and black-humored. He lies. He cajoles. In a 1962 letter to Olwyn Hughes, he tells her that he left Plath and their children after Hitler came to him in a dream and ordered him to do so.
In one letter to Hughes, Susan Schaefer, an American novelist and his close friend, spends two typed pages apologizing for calling Hughes on the phone to congratulate him for being named Poet Laureate of England, as though in doing so, she had committed a sin. Faced with a woman who won’t capitulate to clear tactics of manipulation, like British critic Jacqueline Rose, Hughes retreats in a rage, then makes threats. Rose made this discourse public when she wrote a letter about it to the Times Literary Supplement in 1992, but it is ultimately remembered as part of the larger narrative of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, in which Malcolm declares her frank sympathy for Hughes when she writes, “I, too, have taken a side—that of the Hugheses… .”
Hughes’s arresting personality and life force are the stuff of literary legend. I came of age reading books like Malcolm’s, or Diane Middlebrook’s equally pro-Hughes Her Husband, both of which expend thousands of words celebrating his magnetism (Middlebrook names a chapter heading “Ted Huge,” supposedly his nickname at Cambridge, where he and Plath met—nothing gets a bigger laugh/groan from my undergrads). For years, I’ve waited, reading him, to feel the same pull, to no avail. Blame it on loving Sylvia Plath, but sitting in his archive, all I could think was, why did so very many smart women fall for this guy’s line?
Of course, I know the answer to that question.
For two years, I lived with a charismatic psychopath, who is now the long-estranged father to my son. He was also a poet. We met during an online poetry contest, when I was about to leave a bad marriage and in an especially vulnerable emotional state. I won the online poetry contest, but I temporarily lost my mind, my heart, and control of not only my life, but, crucially, the narrative of my life, as he spent considerable time—especially after I began trying to leave him—telling anyone who would listen about a version of myself that was unrecognizable to me, and anyone who knew me. By that point, he had cut me off from my friends and family, moving us 1500 miles away from my New Jersey hometown to his hometown, in southeast Texas. I knew no one there; more to the point, no one there knew me. He could make me into any woman he liked to those people, and he did, inventing a violent, enraged person, so that when I sought help, there was little to be had.
Small wonder, perhaps, that when the dust settled and I found myself a single working, writing mother, that Plath’s story—and the story of everything that followed her death, as Hughes turned her into someone unrecognizable to her family and friends—presented itself with such clarity.
In the Hughes archive, I read letter after letter to his sister Olwyn, to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, to his long-time lover Assia Wevill (also the mother of their daughter, Shura), in which Hughes talked them out of any details that contradicted his agenda. I felt swept on an angry tide into the past. I wanted to tell these women’s stories. But—Who cares? So what? My critical brain nagged at me each time I thought I picked up the thread of an argument. All of these people are dead, some of them for half a century. What does it matter? Get back to the matter at hand.
But my brain fought back against itself—it does matter. It has to matter. Like so many writers, I have been trained in two ways, often simultaneously: as a critical reader and a creative writer. As a critical reader, I am forced—I force myself, gratefully, joyfully—into the box of the text, having been told that to look elsewhere is dangerous. As recently as 2013, I watched an AWP panel about Plath that asked the audience to look away from her biography and into her poetics. Ironically, the panel’s creator and moderator, the poet Sandra Beasley, opened by telling the packed Boston auditorium the story of how, when Hughes and Plath met at a party in February 1956, she bit him on the face. Ignore the personal details, said that panel, says that training. Yet, as soon as we try, the biography bares its teeth.
As a creative writer, I mine my own life for the conversation, the image, the moment that reveals itself as a deep metaphor for a universal lived experience. As a creative writer, I am stuck on the image I began this essay with—myself, apologizing, Plath in hand, as I leave behind Ted Hughes’s letters for the day. Me, feeling that every act of reading and decoding his work is an act of subterfuge. That library alarm went off because it knew—I was a thief, stealing the evidence of what he did before someone can stop me, the evidence of what I felt in my bones all along.
According to Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev’s biography of Assia Wevill, when Wevill made her will in 1968, she “left” Hughes “my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.” She also asked that she be buried “in any rural cemetery in England,” and that her headstone read, “Here lies a lover of unreason and an exile.” She spoke literally—Wevill was indeed a German-Jewish refugee who fled Hitler’s Third Reich with her family, so the latter seems a crucial wish to grant. Upon her death, Hughes, despite having no legal connection to her, scattered her ashes with no marker. Koren and Negev’s biography is called, tellingly, Lover of Unreason: two sympathetic strangers finally had the grace to give Assia the epitaph she asked for, in print.
Sylvia Plath, an American, is buried alone in Brontë country—the land of Hughes’s birth. Paul Alexander, in his controversial biography of Plath, Rough Magic (1991), notes that the plot next to Plath is empty, indicating that when Hughes joins her there, the story would finally end. But the story continues. When Hughes died in 1998, his ashes were scattered on Dartmoor, near the home he kept in Devon, England. He had two funeral services. The second took place in Westminster Abbey, attended, according to his latest biographer, Jonathan Bate, “by the great and the good of the nation, including Ted’s fishing companion Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother… The Prince of Wales privately described his poet as the incarnation of England… .”
From the perspective of a feminist scholar, there is a terror in all this grandeur: right before our eyes, Hughes can erase Wevill from the earth, and turn Plath into a stranger, but we never see him do it. He can author all this, simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. Elizabeth Sigmund, Sylvia Plath’s close friend, wrote in her memoir about Sylvia coming to her in distress, after she discovered Hughes was having an affair:
I tried to explain to Sylvia the terrible, crushing class system in this country, and how people like the Hugheses suffered from it in ways which would be hard for an American college girl to understand. I asked her if she didn’t think that, somewhere, Ted had a feeling of inferiority. Her answer was a bitterly scornful laugh. ‘Ted has lunched with the Duke of Edinburgh,’ she said, which of course was no answer at all.
But Sigmund’s anecdote, while fascinating, falls short in its analysis of Plath’s response, which was not only an answer, but a prescient one. Already in 1962, Plath knew the power her husband wielded, in circles that moved well beyond literary ones.
What was I thinking, going off with a man like Ted Hughes? What was Sylvia thinking?
Plath’s headstone has been repeatedly vandalized, her grave ignored so badly that feminist academics took up the case to make it a national monument in British newspapers, for fear she would be forgotten. Ted Hughes was eulogized by England’s future king.
For every book written, there is a shadow book: the stuff that doesn’t make the cut. When I started Loving Sylvia Plath, I thought it was a book half about Sylvia and half about me. I had a central question: When I met Hank’s father, I thought of him privately as “my Ted Hughes.” But I had spent my entire post-secondary education reading and writing about how dangerous Ted Hughes was to the women who fell in love with him. Why, then, would I have entered willingly into a relationship with someone who I associated so closely with him?
After a while, the book morphed. My story was getting in the way of Sylvia’s story. Editors confirmed as much. It changed from one that braided my life with Plath’s to one almost exclusively about Sylvia, albeit by a woman who loves her unabashedly, who is profoundly influenced by her work and her biography: a pro-Plath polemic, I called it in the proposal, feeling a small shiver of triumph run through me as I typed the words.
I don’t know the answer to the central question of my shadow book, yet. But I write Loving Sylvia Plath with the profound hope it leads me closer to the kind of resolution survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence are rarely granted—to the kind of resolution Sylvia Plath, who survived both, never got. A full-time professor and a mother of two, I write it in stolen moments, snatching time, snatching silence, wrenching the words from a world that sometimes feels like it holds them under lock and key. From one that hisses, Everything about her has already been said. Or, she deserved it.
Or, you deserved it. What was I thinking, going off with a man like Ted Hughes? What was Sylvia thinking? What if I hadn’t left that shitty east Texas town, all those years ago? What if I didn’t take back the story of my life? What if I didn’t try to (re)write the story of Sylvia’s life, of her afterlife, didn’t cast my voice into that chorus? Would it matter?
I don’t know. But for now, rather than wonder if I’m deserving, I’m subverting. I’m writing this love letter to Sylvia Plath. She deserves it. We all do.
In September, 1974, Bob Dylan spent four days in the old Studio A, his favorite recording haunt in Manhattan, and emerged with the greatest, darkest album of his career. It is a ten-song study in romantic devastation, as beautiful as it is bleak, worthy of comparison with Schubert’s “Winterreise.” Yet the record in question—“Blood on the Tracks”—has never officially seen the light of day. The Columbia label released an album with that title in January, 1975, but Dylan had reworked five of the songs in last-minute sessions in Minnesota, resulting in a substantial change of tone. Mournfulness and wistfulness gave way to a feisty, festive air. According to Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard, the authors of the book “A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ ” from 2004, Dylan feared a commercial failure. The revised “Blood” sold extremely well, reaching the top of the Billboard album chart, and it ended talk of Dylan’s creative decline. It was not, however, the masterwork of melancholy that he created in Studio A.
For decades, the first “Blood” circulated on a bootleg called the New York Sessions. The compact disc that I picked up in a basement Greenwich Village store had a pleasant overlay of vinyl noise—the result of a transfer from a test pressing. Although several of the tracks have shown up in Columbia’s long-running Bootleg Series, the perennial absence of the full album has made fans wonder whether Dylan is wary of revisiting a turbulent time of his life, when his first marriage, to Sara Lownds, was dissolving. Dylan has denied that “Blood” is autobiographical; in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” he suggests that the songs were based on Chekhov. Artists tend to dislike personal readings of their most personal work.
Last month, Columbia issued “More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 14.” Available both as a single-disk compilation and as a six-CD “deluxe edition,” it is both more and less than what Dylan obsessives have been tiresomely clamoring for. The logical move would have been to include the entire album in its initial guise. Yet the single disk gives you only two of the test-pressing tracks, alongside some admittedly riveting outtakes. The box set has all of the discarded tracks, but they are scattered through a complete chronological survey of the four days of sessions—five and a half hours of Dylan at the height of his powers. You will have to study the track listings to assemble the original record. The elusiveness of “Blood on the Tracks” has been integral to its allure, and so it remains.
The Morgan Library, which owns the autograph manuscript of “Winterreise,” also possesses a five-inch-by-three-inch red spiral notebook in which Dylan wrote down lyrics for “Blood on the Tracks.” A hardback book included with Columbia’s “deluxe edition” reproduces forty pages of sketches. Some of them are sung more or less as written on both incarnations of the album:
He woke up, the room was bare
He could didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care,
pushed the window open wide
Then felt an emptiness inside
to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a Simple Twist of Fate
Other lyrics never saw the light of day, and are brutally confessional: “Doomed (led) by a heart that wanders astray / Trapped by a brain that I can’t throw away . . . Was it really 12 years ago, well, it seems like just the other day . . . And it’s Breaking me up with only myself to blame.”
Clichés about heartbreak feeding genius fail to explain the singular potency of “Blood on the Tracks.” The rawness of feeling is certainly there, but it is joined to meticulous craftsmanship in the working-out of words and music. The notebook shows constant, obsessive revision—a sort of perfectionism of disaster. “Idiot Wind,” the extended primal scream at the heart of the album, is seen in drafts so crowded with marginal additions that they are hardly legible. Often Dylan doesn’t cross things out, instead superimposing alternatives:
The priest wore black on the seventh day and waltzed around on a tilted floor stepped all over me
After you (came down on me) you said you never saw my face before did me in done
(After you stepped all over my head, you said ya never wanted to see my face no more)
I BEG YOUR PARDON MADAM (thru the circles round your eyes)
IDIOT WIND – BLOWIN EVERY TIME YOU MOVE YOUR JAW
FROM THE GRAND COOLIE DAM TO THE MARDI GRAS (blowing thru the hot and dusty skies)
Such collisions of hallucinatory images and dour realism—the waltzing priest, the marital argument—are common in Dylan’s work, yet here the literary touches seem less an artful device than a form of extreme emphasis. What’s more, the writing process is open-ended: images are shuffled around through successive drafts and, later, through successive takes in the studio. That priest waltzes on a tilted floor; then he waltzes while a building burns; then he sits stone-faced. The wind blows from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras, then to the Capitol.
The music that Dylan wrote for these lyrics has a chilly, clammy air. His guitar is in open-E tuning, meaning that all six strings of the guitar are tuned to notes of the E-major triad: E, B, E, G#, B, E. As a result, the tonic chord rings rich and bright. But each verse begins with a jarring A-minor chord, which tends to land awkwardly. The middle note easily strays off center, souring the sound. Occasionally, a stray F-sharp bleeds through, adding a Romantic tinge. The unwieldiness of the progression is at one with the fraught atmosphere of the text.
The emotional violence is troubling. The word “idiot” is flung down twelve times. Some lines are openly assaultive: “One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, / Blood on your saddle.” Here, Dylan’s original approach makes a substantial difference. He made four complete takes in New York, plus several rehearsals and false starts. Each time, he has only a quiet bass guitar backing him. (A ghostly organ was later overdubbed.) The tempo is slow, the delivery subdued. All this is at odds with the song’s smoldering rage, and the contradiction gets resolved in the final chorus, where Dylan shifts from the second person to the first-person plural: “Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats / Blowing through the letters that we wrote . . . We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Many Dylanists will disagree with me—the second “Blood” has eloquent defenders—but to my ears the later version, recorded with six pick-up musicians in Minnesota, cuts out much of the complexity. Mannerisms overtake the singer’s delivery. “Idiot” becomes “yidiot,” and a goofy pirate yowl periodically intrudes: “I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes aaahhhhhrrrre.” (When he does this on one of the New York takes, Tony Brown, the bass player, laughs out loud.) The admission of shared responsibility at the end doesn’t register: you’re carried away by the momentum of the band.
All through the New York sessions, you hear a persistent downward tug in the voice, a grimace of regret. Even the album’s livelier numbers, such as “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” can be wrenched into the abyss; on one take, the tempo drastically slows, giving an almost tragic tinge to a line like “I’ve only known careless love.” The potential downside is a tendency toward relentlessness: one piece after another in the key of E, spiralling through love and loss. The final album offers more variety. The Minnesota band gives a rollicking energy to the cinematic yarn of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Arguably, that song suffers under the austere New York style, though I love it anyway.
Ultimately, the long-running debate over the competing incarnations of “Blood on the Tracks” misses the point of what makes this artist so infinitely interesting, at least for some of us. Jeff Slate, who wrote liner notes for “More Blood, More Tracks,” observes that Dylan’s work is always in flux. The process that is documented on these eighty-seven tracks is not one of looking for the “right” take; it’s the beginning of an endless sequence of variations, which are still unfolding on his Never-Ending Tour. In an article from 1999, I notated some of Dylan’s live revisions of “Simple Twist of Fate.” The “More Blood” book reproduces alternate lyrics that were written on stationery from the Hotel Drei Könige am Rhein, in Basel. Dylan is still at it. The other night, in Durham, North Carolina, he sang:
He woke up and she was gone
He didn’t see nothing but the dawn
Got out of bed and put his shoes back on
Then he pushed back the blinds
Found a note she left behind
What’d it say? It said you should have met me back in ‘58
We could have avoided this, ah, little simple twist of fate.
To assemble the original “Blood on the Tracks” from the eighty-seven takes on “More Blood, More Tracks,” select tracks 69 (CD 5, No. 3), 71 (CD 5, No. 5), 34 (CD 3, No. 3), 76 (CD 5, No. 10), 48 (CD 4, No. 2), 16 (CD 2, No. 5), 11 (CD 1, No. 11), 59 (CD 4, No. 13), 46 (CD 3, No. 15), and 58 (CD 4, No. 12).