Living at Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ “Poetical” Boston Address
Moving to 9 Willow, in Search of Time to Write
This essay mentions an instance and method of suicide.
Outside, a woman is yelling the name of the street.
Willow, Willow, Willow.
It is ten o’clock. I consider insanity, then intoxication, and then I remember where I am. I am not in a neighborhood prone to senseless, after-dark yelling. I am in Beacon Hill, where gaslit street lamps are left on all day and flower boxes look prideful and sidewalks decay attractively. After some time, I realize that Willow is not only the name of the street, but also the name of the woman’s dog in the building next to mine. I have never seen her or her dog. In fact, I am only aware of their presence when the dog is not where he should be.
Someone once told me that you should give your dog a name you take pleasure in saying, because you will have to yell it often. Since I moved here, this logic has never seemed sounder.
In person, the studio looked remarkably like its picture online, which immediately made me trust the room, gave me reason to believe it had good intentions. There is no kitchen, but a kitchenette—a small oven, half-fridge, and bar sink. There is no closet, but a tall cabinet with a rod running across the top. The walls are pale yellow, a color you could imagine a person choosing with the hope of “opening the space up.” You cannot play hide-and-seek in this room. You cannot wash a sheet pan in the kitchen sink. You can, however, vacuum in less than 10 minutes.
The room is the smallest in the building, an anomaly in both square footage and cost. The building itself is tall and narrow, eight stories high with only two apartments per floor. The higher floors have large, boxed bay windows visible from the street, giving the appearance of richer lives being lived in those rooms, lives with time to spend window-gazing.They moved to 9 Willow Street in September of 1958, with the intention of spending all their free time writing. Sixty years later, in September of 2018, I moved into the same building with the same intention.
When the rental agent who showed me the room learned I was in a graduate program for writing, she told me a famous writer used to live in the building. She smiled, handed me an application, and said, “I can’t remember which one.”
Which ones, it turns out. In 1958, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes moved to 9 Willow Street. “We’re planning to write here,” Plath wrote of the new residence in a letter to a friend. “We are investing our time & going to work like fury for the first year in our lives at nothing but writing.” During the year they lived in Beacon Hill, Plath compiled a first collection of poems and Hughes taught poetry at the University of Massachusetts. Plath received her first acceptance to The New Yorker. Hughes won the Guinness Poetry Award. This was two years into their notorious marriage and five years before Plath killed herself by inhaling oven fumes.
For years, I had a passive awareness of both poets—Plath’s suicide by kitchen appliance now a widely known fact, and the memory of Hughes, who died of a heart attack in 1998, eclipsed by judgments concerning his culpability in Plath’s death, his abuse and infidelity well-documented. I unintentionally avoided their work through multiple undergraduate poetry seminars and intentionally avoided reading them of my own volition, fearful that I might be more interested in the spectacle of their suffering than in what their suffering produced. Plath’s life in particular is the object of many readers’ fascination—the tormented, attractive young poet’s face now found cartoonized on notebooks and pencil cases at Barnes and Noble, the interest in her misery having grown so large it became marketable. Finding a writer’s biography to be equally or more compelling than this writer’s work has always felt problematic to me, juvenile even, though perhaps this feeling is due to the fact that I am a young writer with no compelling biography of my own.
I am 22 years old. I have experienced no particular literary or romantic achievements. I have kept my writing to myself, and myself to myself. Then this past summer I left home and moved to Boston, and for the first time in my life nothing feels compulsory, everything a result of my own decisions. I chose to pursue an MFA in writing, a luxury degree, not a necessary one. I chose to live in this city, in this neighborhood, in this room.
Perhaps this is why it feels significant to me, that out of all the places I could have picked to live, I unknowingly picked the same building that Plath and Hughes had, their relationship and literary success hanging above my head, written into the past of the building. They moved to 9 Willow Street in September of 1958, with the intention of spending all their free time writing. Sixty years later, in September of 2018, I moved into the same building with the same intention.
Because I am a person easily excited by coincidence, I begin actively looking into the lives of Plath and Hughes. When I discover there is a poem in Hughes’s Birthday Letters called “9 Willow Street,” I walk 25 minutes through heavy rain to the Boston Public Library in a pair of tattered Converse, feeling more exhilarated than stupid.
When I open to the poem, 103 lines long, I realize it looks a bit like the building itself—tower-like, heavily-enjambed:
Willow Street, poetical address.
Number nine, even better. It confirmed
We had to have it. We got it.
A tower of the Muses.
I am instantly amused by how the sound of the address pleased him. I imagine Hughes, the somber, heavy-browed, Cambridge-educated poet, softened by the idea of living on a street named after a tree—willow, one letter away from being a palindrome—willow, a word whose ending echoes its beginning—willow, not poetic but poetical, whatever that might mean. I imagine Hughes concealing his joy every time he wrote out his address. I imagine him getting a dog and naming it Willow.
As a child, my summers consisted of trips not to amusement parks but to the homes of famous writers up and down the East Coast. I toured Emily Dickinson’s picket-fenced house in Amherst, Mark Twain’s striking Victorian in Hartford, and the Old Manse in Concord, a gloomy, wooden colonial once home to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I dined at the Algonquin Hotel across from a painting of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Harpo Marx shrewdly staring out of the painting over cigarette smoke and a New Yorker. I hiked in 90-degree heat along the border of Walden Pond to Thoreau’s cabin site, an underwhelming patch of dirt. (In his essay “Walden,” E.B. White writes, “It is a rather ugly little heap of stones, David,” referring to the messy cairn left by Thoreau lovers who visit the site.) These places wore their literary histories proudly. Some had docents, gift shops, email listings you could join. They all, at the very least, had a sign telling who lived there, even alongside Thoreau’s ugly heap of stones.
There is no sign for Plath and Hughes at 9 Willow Street. When I return home from the library, I scan the building before going inside, my eyes climbing the nine stories. I wonder which room they lived in and if whoever lives there now knows about the room’s famous former tenants. If they know, I wonder, are they proud of the fact? Do they share the apartment’s brief literary history, its yearlong rise to fame, with everyone who entered? Maybe they know and simply do not care.
To this day, I do not know which room was theirs. I only know they lived somewhere above me, where the bay windows look out to the river and Cambridge, where the kitchens have normal-sized sinks.
From my window on the raised first floor, I have a clear view of Acorn Street, which runs perpendicular to Willow and which locals call the most-photographed street in Boston. But Acorn Street is not a street—it is a steep, barely walkable, cobble-stoned alleyway, a surviving impracticality of the past.
I watch the visitors as they come and go: tour groups, attentive and sensibly-shoed, often speaking a language I cannot identity; couples documenting their engagements, painfully aware of their hands (where his looks best on her body—think, tasteful but still affectionate—and where hers best display the ring—think, not too obvious but also unmissable); Instagram models, young and self-conscious, accompanied by a trustworthy friend with an iPhone; actual models, tall and thin, accompanied by a crew with reflectors and tripods; vacationing families, hotel-rested and puffy-faced, teetering on the verge of an argument. I watch from my window and know that my building must be in the background of most of their pictures, erect from the ground where the parallel edges of Acorn Street converge to a vanishing point. From my room, I am elevated enough to feel above them but low enough to watch the screens of their phones blink, capturing their smaller selves, and all the while I know that I belong down there with them, that in Beacon Hill, I should only be visiting.What would Plath and Hughes have thought of Acorn Street in 2018, across from their tower of the Muses? Would they have found any poetry in the endless parade of tourists and iPhones, of people partaking in the habitualized posturing of the time?
What would Plath and Hughes have thought of Acorn Street in 2018, across from their tower of the Muses? Would they have still “had to have it?” Would they have found any poetry in the endless parade of tourists and iPhones, of people partaking in the habitualized posturing of the time? Of course, several stories above, Plath and Hughes partook in posturing of their own: the appearance of a happy marriage, of the solace and loyalty that partnership should have promised.
When I read the rest of Hughes’s poem, I realize that other than the poetical mailing address, he did not enjoy much else about living here. Within a few lines, the building is no longer “a tower of the Muses” but “a cage your freedom flew to” and “an airy hell.” He describes himself and Plath moving listlessly through the streets of Beacon Hill, “dream-maimed” and “dream-blind”:
Peered in at your window
Like a wild migrant, an oriole,
A tanager, a humming-bird—pure American
Blown scraps of the continent’s freedom—
But off course and gone
Before we could identify it.
During the day, I walk to the Boston Common, where there is a man who shouts the weather forecast. He rocks side to side, smiling, as if his bench is buoyed on open water. Today is 81, he says in the monotonous tone of an AM station someone left on by accident. Chance of showers. Bring your umbrellas. When we make eye contact, he says, You have a nice day, and I walk faster and wonder if it is possible for a person to receive radio frequencies.
There are days when hearing my own voice surprises me, when I answer my phone or exchange pleasantries with a store clerk and am reminded of how long it has been since I last said something. In an assignment for class, I write: “When silence ends, we say it breaks.” What breaks, exactly, I am not sure. Silence is nothing, an absence, a word used to qualify sound though its very meaning is the opposite of sound itself. I am not a person easily bothered by silence. This, I feel, is something to be proud of. These days, when the world seems louder than ever before, silence is a dying art form. Or maybe the world is as loud as it has always been and these are just things I tell myself.
“It wasn’t the silence of silence,” Plath writes in The Bell Jar. “It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cars were making noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for all the good it did me.”
It is easy to imagine Plath wrote this while living on Willow Street, where at night sounds are rare and never last long. A sleepy siren in the distance. A brief musing of piano keys from the apartment below mine. A woman calling for her dog. On nights when the silence feels apocalyptic, I remind myself of the truth, a simple matter of indisputable geography: Willow Street is walking distance from Charles Street, Cambridge Street, and the Boston Common, some of the most highly-trafficked areas in Boston. Willow Street is blocks away from subway stations, from countless restaurants and bars open past midnight. Several lives are being lived close by, several silences constantly being broken. The truth is, compared to the quiet Long Island suburb where I was raised, Beacon Hill is the loudest place in which I have ever lived.
Humor is tragedy plus time. I do not know who said this, but it is what I think of when I tell people about the building’s former tenants and they ask if my stove is gas or electric. I laugh to mask my discomfort and then clarify that Plath did not kill herself in my building.
Though if she had, I wonder, would I feel differently about living here? How long does an event stay in a space?
Last April, prominent LGBTQ rights lawyer David S. Buckel set himself on fire in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, one hour away from where I was living on Long Island at the time. “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death,” he wrote in a letter to several media organizations before killing himself.
Also in the note: “I apologize to you for the mess.”
The police found his body early in the morning and it was cleared by 11:00 a.m.. When I think about that man and that day, I wonder if any tourists or locals walked by the small patch of burnt grass and could feel something terrible had happened there.
One hour away, I could not feel it. I learned about it from an online article, a chance encounter via the ever-changing, cannibalistic Internet. These days, it seems most of the important things there are to feel require a deliberate turning of our attention to feel them, cannot be intuited by mere proximity. I suppose life could never be that simple—a person feeling exactly what she needs to feel at exactly the right time, at exactly the right place.
In Beacon Hill, everyone knows the names of each other’s dogs. All sidewalks are steep and snow-warped. Every day around noon, young women push strollers holding someone else’s child up and down Charles Street. Large tour buses circle the neighborhood like an omen. Everyone has either been here forever or comes for the afternoon, looks around, takes a picture, and leaves.
I walk to the lake in the Public Garden because it is where the end of Hughes’s poem takes place. On the way, I see the yelling weatherman in the Common again. He looks happier than ever. This time he is singing and shaking an empty coffee can. Change, change, change. His voice sounds like wood being dragged across concrete. Change, change, change. Does anyone have any change, change, change? When I walk away, the song starts to sound like, Shame, shame, shame.
In the poem Hughes sees what he thinks is a “black, soft, wrinkled slug” on the path: “Suddenly, plainly, it was a bat. / A bat fallen out of its tree / Mid-afternoon. A sick bat?” When he picked up the creature: “Its whole face peeled in a snarl, fangs tiny.” In the end, Hughes was unable to grab the little beast’s shoulders, so he let the bat bite onto his finger and lifted him to the bark of a nearby tree.
A crowd collected, entertained to watch me
Fight a bat on the Boston Common.
There are no bats on the Common this afternoon. On the path across from me, a toddler falls off his scooter and immediately starts screaming, upset not from any physical injury but from the very fact that he fell. His face shrivels and reddens. He is three feet of pure outrage: how did this happen? How could I be standing one moment and down the next?
In the poem Hughes returns home to 9 Willow Street after the bat incident, and somewhere in the space above my room, he examines the bite, and remembers: “American bats have rabies.” The poem ends with him staring at his infected blood:
… It confirmed
The myth we had sleepwalked into: death.
This was the bat-light we were living in: death.
I am writing from London, so happy I can hardly speak. I think I have found a place…By an absolute fluke I walked by the street and the house (with Primrose Hill at the end) where I’ve always wanted to live. The house had builders in it and a sign, “Flats to Let”; I flew upstairs. Just right (unfurnished), on two floors, with three bedrooms upstairs, lounge, kitchen and bath downstairs and a balcony garden! Flew to agents—hundred of people ahead of me, I thought, as always. It seems I have a chance! And guess what, it is W.B. Yeats’ house—with a blue plaque over the door, saying he lived there!
Plath wrote this in a letter to her mother on Nov. 7, 1962. Her mother must have been immensely pleased with this news: her daughter was happy—the same daughter whose husband had just left her, the same daughter whom she once found overdosed on sleeping pills in the basement. The woman who wrote this letter was a person capable of making future plans, a person interested in living, a person able to feel joyed by matters of coincidence. This person was so happy she struggled to form full sentences. This person ended the sentences she could form with exclamation points.
“It seems I have a chance!” she wrote.
It seems she did.
The flat Plath described is where she died by suicide just three months later. With this knowledge, her words turn tragic: how carefully Plath had described the apartment, how badly she had wanted to live there, and, what bothers me most, how thrilled she was at the prospect of living where W.B. Yeats once lived, as though two people who share an address might experience life in the same way, as though rooms might retain the memories of those who inhabit them, no matter how brief a time was spent there. Maybe it was three months. Maybe it was just over a year.
“…where I’ve always wanted to live,” she wrote in the letter.
“…so happy I can hardly speak.”