Saturday, December 16, 2017

Teddy Boy

Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

The first time I met Bill Manhire was at a poetry festival in Tauranga in 1998. He was standing there discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes with fellow featured poet Brian Turner. The two of them seemed, if anything, quite respectful of Hughes's oeuvre.

With bumptious self-confidence, I thrust myself into the centre of their conversation and remarked how seond-rate I thought most of Hughes's poetry was.

"Well, perhaps," replied Manhire, politely. "But Tales from Ovid was good."

"Yeah, I'd hoped that would be an exception, but even that seemed pretty bad to me," I riposted.

After that Manhire didn't seem to want to talk to me any more. I wonder why? It remains a bit of a mystery to me to this day, twenty years on.

Tony Lopez: False Memory (1996)

It wasn't the first time that Ted Hughes had got me into trouble. When I first went abroad to study, I recall a conversation in a pub where I ventured the opinion - to the young visiting poet Tony Lopez, who was spending a few semesters teaching at Edinburgh University - that people had seemed to rate Ted Hughes' work quite highly before he was appointed as Poet Laureate, but that the job was definitely the kiss of death for poets.

Lopez denounced this view with fierce indignation. No-one serious had ever rated Ted Hughes, according to him, and the comparison I'd dared to venture with Seamus Heaney was simply ridiculous, and showed how little I knew about the matter.

Lopez could be quite a gentle, nurturing person - but he also had this fiery, vituperative side. After a while we took to referring to these two aspects of his personality as 'Jekyll Lopez' and 'Hyde Lopez.' Certainly I was a little taken back by the vehemence with which he cut me down to size. Clearly it mattered deeply to him that Ted Hughes remain where he belonged: in the dogbox (or should I say the crow's-nest?).

That exchange with Lopez must have been in the late 1980s sometime. The conversation with Manhire was in March 1998 (I known because I just looked up the dates of that poetry Festival online). I'm not sure if news of Hughes's last book Birthday Letters had yet reached New Zealand, but it may well have formed the topic of Manhire and Turner's discussion, given it came out in January 1998 (according to Ann Skea's very useful Ted Hughes timeline).

Hughes died on October 28th 1998, shortly after being awarded the OM, but also shortly before Birthday Letters won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the South Bank Award for Literature, and the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and the Book of the Year prize.

Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)

It's hard to convey now, twenty years later, just how bizarre the appearance of Birthday Letters seemed at the time. Talk about a twice-told tale! Sylvia Plath had died in 1963, some 35 years before. Her work was legendary: taught in virtually every tertiary institution - not to mention high school - in the English-speaking world. There had already been a whole slew of biographies and "responses" to her life and sufferings.

This is just a selection of the ones I happen to own copies of myself:

Sylvia Plath: Self-portrait (1951)

  1. Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. Afterword by George Stade. 1973. London: Faber, 1976.

  2. Kyle, Barry. Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait, Conceived and Adapted From Her Writing. 1976. London: Faber, 1982.

  3. Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. With Additional Material by Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy. 1989. New Preface. London: Penguin, 1998.

  4. Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. 1993. Picador. London: Pan Macmillan General Books, 1994.

While still at Edinburgh, I'd gone to a most interesting talk by Sylvia's biographer (and near-contemporary) Anne Stevenson where she discussed the difficulties of working with the Hughes estate (and, in particular, with his redoubtable sister Olwyn) on her Plath biography. She said that Olwyn would have to be regarded as virtually the co-author of the book, so extensive was her involvement with each chapter of it.

Ted, she said, by contrast, remained aloof from the whole business and seemed to regard it as all water under the bridge.

There seemed a certain dignity in this attitude, this Olympian refusal to comment, and while it did seem a little odd that - by a strange accident of history - Hughes had ended up in complete charge of Sylvia Plath's literary estate, and had thus edited all of her posthumous books, from Ariel (1965) onwards, including the Collected Poems (1981) and (most controversially) a selection from her Journals (1982) - there didn't seem to be anything much there to indicate any systematic desire to falsify her legacy.

But now, in the last year of his life, he'd come back punching, determined to comment on virtually every aspect of their life together, particularly those parts recorded in the searing personal poems written towards the end of her life. Talk about wanting to have the last word!

And the poems were so strange! He claimed to have been writing them continuously over the previous thirty years, but they read as if they'd been poured out in one amorphous mass, taking their cue from the taut, coiled-spring artefacts Plath had bequeathed to the world.

Take their respective poems entitled "The Rabbit Catcher," for instance:

Sylvia Plath:
The Rabbit Catcher

It was a place of force —
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.

There was only one place to get to.
Simmering, perfumed,
The paths narrowed into the hollow.
And the snares almost effaced themselves —
Zeros, shutting on nothing,

Set close, like birth pangs.
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.
The glassy light was a clear wall,
The thickets quiet.

I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands round a tea mug, dull, blunt,
Ringing the white china.
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.

And we, too, had a relationship —
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.

Given it's already available online here, I've taken advantage of this fact to quote the poem in full. I wouldn't normally do this, but it's so tightly constructed that it's hard to make sense of otherwise.

Plath brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of an oncoming fugue or other psychological event ("a hole in the hot day, a vacancy / The glassy light was a clear wall") but otherwise concentrates almost entirely on her own reactions to this "place of force."

The imagery of the snares ("Zeros, shutting on nothing, // Set close, like birth pangs") contrasts them tellingly against the "little deaths" that excite the man who set them "like sweethearts".

And, of course, at the end of the poem, the snare she's been carefully constructing throughout springs shut and catches her own man, with his "mind like a ring / Sliding shut on some quick thing, / The constriction killing me also."

Is it a fair, a balanced poem? Not really, no. Should it be? According to whose criteria? Clearly it's struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of readers since it first appeared in the early sixties. It may not be as anthemic as "Lady Lazarus" or "Daddy", but it's perhaps all the more effective for that in portraying a woman's experience of a constrictive relationship.

So what of Ted's poem? (Which I've once again been able to quote in full, thanks to its previous appearance on the crushed fingers blog: apologies to any copyright holders I may have inadvertently offended by reprinting it here: I promise to remove it immediately if there are any complaints):

Ted Hughes:
The Rabbit Catcher

It was May. How had it started? What
Had bared our edges? What quirky twist
Of the moon’s blade had set us, so early in the day,
Bleeding each other? What had I done? I had
Somehow misunderstood. Inaccessible
In your dybbuk fury, babies
Hurled into the car, you drove. We surely
Had been intending a day’s outing,
Somewhere on the coast, an exploration —
So you started driving.

What I remember
Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy. And I ripped
The door open and jumped in beside you.
So we drove West. West. Cornish lanes
I remember, a simmering truce
As you stared, with iron in your face,
Into some remote thunderscape
Of some unworldly war. I simply
Trod accompaniment, carried babies,
Waited for you to come back to nature.
We tried to find the coast. You
Raged against our English private greed
Of fencing off all coastal approaches,
Hiding the sea from roads, from all inland.
You despised England’s grubby edges when you got there.
The day belonged to the furies. I searched the map
To penetrate the farms and private kingdoms.
Finally a gateway. It was a fresh day,
Full May. Somewhere I’d brought food.
We crossed a field and came to the open
Blue push of sea-wind. A gorse cliff,
Brambly, oak-packed combes. We found
An eyrie hollow, just under the cliff-top.
It seemed perfect to me. Feeding babies,
Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet,
Would not translate itself. I sat baffled.
I was a fly outside on the window-pane
Of my own domestic drama. You refused to lie there
Being indolent, you hated it.
That flat, draughty plate was not an ocean.
You had to be away and you went. And I
Trailed after like a dog, along the cliff-top field-edge,
Over a wind-matted oak-wood —
And I found a snare.
Copper-wire gleam, brown cord, human contrivance,
Sitting new-set. Without a word
You tore it up and threw it into the trees.

I was aghast. Faithful
To my country gods — I saw
The sanctity of a trapline desecrated.
You saw blunt fingers, blood in the cuticles,
Clamped around a blue mug. I saw
Country poverty raising a penny,
Filling a Sunday stewpot. You saw baby-eyed
Strangled innocents, I saw sacred
Ancient custom. You saw snare after snare
And went ahead, riving them from their roots
And flinging them down the wood. I saw you
Ripping up precarious, precious saplings
Of my heritage, hard-won concessions
From the hangings and transportations
To live off the land. You cried: ‘Murderers!’
You were weeping with a rage
That cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked
Into some chamber gasping for oxygen
Where I could not find you, or really hear you,
Let alone understand you.

In those snares
You’d caught something.
Had you caught something in me,
Nocturnal and unknown to me? Or was it
Your doomed self, your tortured, crying,
Suffocating self? Whichever,
Those terrible, hypersensitive
Fingers of your verse closed round it and
Felt it alive. The poems, like smoking entrails,
Came soft into your hands.

Well, first of all, you'll notice its length. It's immense! Sylvia gets all her effects in 30 taut lines. Ted, by contrast, takes 77 to refute - or should I say, more politely, supplement? - her version of events.

it's written in a loose, conversational style - with Hughes' usual plethora of adjectives and analogies as as substitute for thought. Essentially, it's a 'she-said, he-said' rewriting of the narrative of this particular picnic.

And, guess what? It was all her fault. She was the one who was in a "dybbuk fury" over something he doesn't even remember doing ("What had I done? I had / Somehow misunderstood"). He, by contrast, was the essence of cool reasonableness: "I simply / Trod accompaniment, carried babies, / Waited for you to come back to nature."

What's more, she shows a distinct lack of respect for the beauty of the English countryside: "You despised England’s grubby edges" - all in all, "The day belonged to the furies." In fact, if it hadn't been for him, they wouldn't even have got to the coast: "I searched the map / To penetrate the farms and private kingdoms ... Somewhere I’d brought food ... We found / An eyrie hollow, just under the cliff-top. / It seemed perfect to me."

I'm a guy myself. Self-justification comes naturally to me. I guess that's why I notice all the techniques of defensiveness in the passage above. I bought the food; I read the map; I found the perfect picnic spot - so what's your problem, bee-atch?

Actually, maybe it's a cultural thing: "Your Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet, / Would not translate itself. I sat baffled." Oh, right, it's because you're such a Nazi that we weren't getting on that day. I suppose Hughes was entitled to feel a little peeved at that famous passage in Plath's poem "Daddy" which appears to equate him with:
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
But, hey, listen up: you're the one who's a big fascist, not me. Ripping up the snares, which Plath describes as such an act of liberation, is in reality an offence against his "country gods" and the "sanctity" of "Ancient custom":
I saw you
Ripping up precarious, precious saplings
Of my heritage, hard-won concessions
From the hangings and transportations
To live off the land. You cried: ‘Murderers!’
You were weeping with a rage
That cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked
Into some chamber gasping for oxygen
It's a bit hard to tell at this stage, but do those last two lines equate her with someone in a gas chamber? Plath herself got into trouble with her propensity to draw parallels between herself and the victims of the Holocaust:
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
Is Hughes meaning to confirm the equation here, or undermine it? In any case, one thing's for sure, her rage "cared nothing for rabbits'. They were just bit-parts in her own one-woman show, shaped by the "terrible, hypersensitive / Fingers of [her] verse".

So, to sum up: Sylvia in a temper was not a pretty sight, and there seemed every risk that she might even harm the children ("What I remember / Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy"). She was quite inaccessible to reason while in this "dybbuk fury", and drove like a maniac while Ted was kept busy minding babies, buying food, reading maps, and steering them towards ideal picnic spots. She simply didn't understand about traplines and snares, seeing them (wrongly) in terms of "baby-eyed / Strangled innocents" instead of as providing pennies for the "Sunday stewpot". In short, she was wrong and he was right, and it's about time the record was set straight on the matter.

It's hard to explain precisely how I feel about this approach to past woes. On the one hand, Birthday Letters is a fascinating book to read, in a kind of tell-all, spill-the-beans way, and the loose, anecdotal nature of the verse certainly doesn't detract from its page-turning qualities.

On the other hand, while I'm no stranger to relationship discord and the passionate desire to justify oneself, there seems something intensely ungentlemanly about setting the record straight in this bald, completely one-sided way, so many years later, when the only other substantive witness has been dead for thirty-odd years. It's one thing to plead one's own cause: it's quite another to publish a whole book on the subject, a book which might as well have been entitled "Why I was Right All Along and She was Quite Wrong". The timing of the whole thing seems odd, too.

I respected the dignity of his silence: his refusal to talk about anything substantive except the canon of his wife's work. It was difficult not to. But it's a little harder to respect the impulse that gave rise to Birthday Letters, though, however much you may admire it as poetry (I don't, really).

I can't help recalling the passage in Elizabeth Bishop's great letter to Robert Lowell, protesting the use, in his book The Dolphin (1973), of edited excerpts from his wife's letters, sent to him while he was in the process of leaving her for another woman:
One can use one's life as material - one does, anyway - but these letters, aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission - IF you hadn't changed them ... etc. But art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins's marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived - higher than a "Christian," even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way — it's cruel.
- Elizabeth Bishop. One Art: Letters. Selected and edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994): 562.

So is that all there is to Ted Hughes? The ogre of legend, the wife-killer - Assia Wevill, the woman he left Sylvia for, also killed herself (and her daughter), unfortunately. What is it Lady Bracknell says in The Importance of Being Earnest? "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." That applies even more to Significant Others, one would have thought.

And yet, and yet ... his poetry has never precisely appealed to me, but there's so much of it - he was so prolific, and the sheer ambition and heft of his Collected Poems surely deserves some closer attention.

I can't say he's been terribly fortunate in his biographers (so far, at least). I've read both the fairly anodyne one by Elaine Feinstein which came out within a couple of years of his death, and the far fuller and really quite terrifying "Unauthorised" one by Jonathan Bate, which appeared in 2015: in fact it's glaring at me from the shelves right now.

What I have enjoyed reading, I must admit, is the volume of his letters, edited by Christopher Reid, which appeared in 2007. He comes across as a very human character, finally, in these. Opinionated, certainly, but one begins to understand the charisma of his personality.

There are some other very worthwhile Ted Hughes books out in the world now: the Collected Poems for Children has an almost Walter de la Mare like charm (as do his four small volumes of Collected Animal Poems). His Selected Translations show a really formidable talent for making foreign-language poetry sing in English - and a far greater engagement with verse translation than I think anyone would have suspected.

So, all in all, I feel like a bit of a fool for my easy dismissals of Ted Hughes back in the day, back when I was young and brash and opinionated and ready to rely on snap judgements rather than giving each writer the benefit of the doubt (at least initially). In fact, if it weren't that I read so many precisely similar dismissals - generally on even dafter grounds - in Hughes's own letters, I'd feel quite ashamed of myself.

Teddy Boy, yes: it seems to fit somehow. Those Teds sure dress up fine, but there's a basic violence in their hearts. I still think that it's right to retain one's suspicions of outright Ted Hughes fans, but there's no doubt that he remains a force to be reckoned with - and many of his poems, especially the animal and childhood pieces, are just excellent of their kind. It makes a big difference hearing him read them out loud himself, too: his Yorkshire accent picks out the details of the words in ways a plummy Home Counties voice never could.

Here's a list of my Hughes-iana to date:

Poetry Foundation

Edward James Hughes


  1. The Hawk in the Rain. 1957. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1972.

  2. Lupercal. 1960. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1973.

  3. Wodwo. 1967. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1977.

  4. Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. 1972. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1981.

  5. Moon-Whales. 1976. Illustrated by Chris Riddell. 1988. London: Faber, 1991.

  6. Gaudete. 1977. London: Faber, n.d.

  7. Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama. Drawings by Leonard Baskin. London: Faber, 1978.

  8. Moortown. Drawings by Leonard Baskin. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1979.

  9. Selected Poems 1957-1981. London: Faber, 1982.

  10. New Selected Poems 1957-1994. London: Faber, 1995.

  11. Collected Animal Poems. 4 vols. London: Faber, 1996.
    • Volume 1 – The Iron Wolf, illustrated by Chris Riddell
    • Volume 2 – What is the Truth? illustrated by Lisa Flather
    • Volume 3 – A March Calf, illustrated by Lisa Flather
    • Volume 4 – The Thought-Fox, illustrated by Lisa Flather

  12. Birthday Letters. 1998. London: Faber, 1999.

  13. Collected Poems. Ed. Paul Keegan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

  14. Ted Hughes Reading His Poetry. 1977. Set of 2 CDs. London: HarperCollins, 2005.

  15. Collected Poems for Children. Illustrated by Raymond Briggs. 2005. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

  16. Translation:

  17. Seneca’s Oedipus: An Adaptation. 1969. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1975.

  18. Selected Translations. Ed. Daniel Weissbort. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

  19. Fiction:

  20. How the Whale Became and Other Stories. Illustrated by George Adamson. 1963. A Young Puffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

  21. The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights. Illustrated by George Adamson. 1968. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1975.

  22. Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories. 1995. London: Faber, 1996.

  23. The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales. London: Faber, 2003.

  24. Non-fiction:

  25. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. 1992. London: Faber, 1993.

  26. Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. Ed. William Scammell. 1994. London: Faber, 1995.

  27. Letters:

  28. Letters of Ted Hughes. Ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber, 2007.

  29. Secondary:

  30. Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift: A Commentary on Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes. 2000. London: Faber, 2001.

  31. Feinstein, Elaine. Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001.

  32. Koren, Yehuda, & Eilat Negev. A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill. London: Robson Books, 2006.

  33. Bate, Jonathan. Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life. Fourth Estate. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

And, just to put things in perspective, here are the books I have by Sylvia Plath:

A Poem for Every Day

Sylvia Plath


  1. The Colossus: Poems. 1960. London: Faber, 1977.

  2. The Bell Jar. 1963. London: Faber, 1974.

  3. Ariel. 1965. London: Faber, 1974.

  4. Ariel: The Restored Edition. A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement. 1965. Foreword by Frieda Hughes. 2004. London: Faber, 2007.

  5. Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. Faber Paperbacks. London: Faber, 1981.

  6. Fiction:

  7. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1977. London: Faber, 1979.

  8. Collected Children’s Stories. 1976 & 1996. Illustrated by David Roberts. Faber Children’s Classics. London: Faber, 2001.

  9. Letters & Journals:

  10. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-63. Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath. 1975. A Bantam Book. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977.

  11. Kukil, Karen V., ed. The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962: Transcribed from the Original Manuscripts at Smith College. 2000. London: Faber, 2001.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Why Siegfried Sassoon?

George Charles Beresford: Siegfried Sassoon (1915)

A visitor to the house once asked me why there was so much war poetry in the bookcases in the living room: more specifically, why there were so many books by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas, and nothing by Wilfred Owen, who is generally regarded as the pick of the bunch? I had to admit she had me there. Why wasn't there any Wilfred Owen? I've since repaired that omission, but it's interesting to me (at least) that it occurred in the first place.

I wouldn't say that I was exceptionally keen on war poetry. Certainly I've read all the usual suspects, and have a number of books on the subject, but it's not really one of my absolute areas of fanatical interest. I do love Edward Thomas, though (as my previous post on the subject should testify). And my fascination with the strange reaches of Robert Graves's imagination remains unabated. Why so much by Siegfried Sassoon, though?

Lady Ottoline Morrell: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (1920)

Just about everything to do with the First World War is - quite naturally - very much in the news at present. I've supplied my own tentative bibliography of the subject here. I find some of Sassoon's war poetry as powerful as any ever written: "Base Details," for instance - but also 'Everyone Sang', which is just one of those perfect poems which come out of nowhere sometimes. Not out of nowhere, really, when one comes to think about it: out of four years of suffering and pain and loss of innocence and meaningless machine-age slaughter.

I'm not sure that he's really received his due as an autobiographer, though. Everyone knows Memoirs of an Infantry Office (1930), and most people are aware that it's part of a trilogy, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (his imaginary alterego). But how many readers go on to his second, more directly autobiographical trilogy, The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942) and Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 (1945)? And yet it's every bit as charmingly and precisely written, and perhaps even more evocative of the vanished world before the bombardment (in Osbert Sitwell's phrase).

Siegfried Sassoon: War Poems (1983)

Six prose memoirs is quite a substantial legacy. And when you add in the posthumous publications: Rupert Hart-Davis's beautifully crafted collections of War Poems (1983), together with three volumes of diaries (1981-85), not to mention Paul Fussell's elegant illustrated edition of the Sherston Memoirs, Sassoon's Long Journey (1983), he begins to look even more substantial.

Paul Fussell, ed.: Sassoon's Long Journey (1983)

Like Graves, he did have the advantage of having survived: not through any want of trying to get killed on the part of either of them, mind you. For all the editing and re-editing, Wilfred Owen's legacy remains fragmentary and thwarted because there is (comparatively) so little of the harsh, late war poetry we all admire, and so much of the flowery, fulsome pre-war poet. The fact that almost all Owen's surviving letters are addressed to his mother doesn't help, either - and nor does the fact that most of the biographical information we have about him comes through the filter of his rather jealous brother, Harold (himself a most accomplished memoirist).

Wilfred Owen: Poems (1920)

But what is it, finally, that explains my rather compulsive collecting of Sassoon's books? They are very beautifully produced and designed, of course: fine Faber layouts on pre-Second-World-War paper, for the most part. To some extent it's because of the sidelights it throws on Graves, who remains my main man in the field, I must confess (despite the comparative weakness of his own war poetry: his heart was never really in it like Sassoon and Owen).

Robert Graves: War Poems (2016)

I suppose, to some extent, it's because his work shows just how much can be accomplished with limited talents if you similarly limit your objectives. Graves was a far more unruly genius than Sassoon, but did he ever write anything as moving and perfect as the Sherston memoirs? I suspect not. Owen proved himself a far more gifted poet in the few months of mature work he was able to complete, but it was Sassoon who liberated him from his Georgian shackles, encouraged his work, and put up with his adolescent hero worship.

What's more, if you actually sit down and read a collection such as Counter-Attack (1918) from cover to cover, I think you might find it hard to sustain your belief in that label of "minor poet" which now hangs around him. It's a pretty powerful book, with poem after poem on its pages destined for immortality. How many other poets of any era can say the same?

Glyn Warren Philpot: Siegfried Sassoon (1917)

Siegfried Sassoon: Memoirs (1928-45)

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon

  1. Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1947.

  2. Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems 1908-1956. 1961. London: Faber, 1984.

  3. Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1983.

  4. Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man. 1928. The Faber Library, 1. London: Faber, 1932.

  5. Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. 1930. The Faber Library, 2. London: Faber, 1932.

  6. Sassoon, Siegfried. Sherston’s Progress. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948.

  7. Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston: Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man / Memoirs of an Infantry Officer / Sherston’s Progress. 1928, 1930, 1936, 1937. London: Faber, 1945.

  8. Fussell, Paul, ed. Sassoon's Long Journey: An Illustrated Selection from Siegfried Sassoon's The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. 1928, 1930, 1936, 1937. A Giniger Book Published in association with Faber & Faber. London: Faber / New York: K. S. Giniger Co. Inc., 1983.

  9. Sassoon, Siegfried. The Old Century, and Seven More Years. London: Faber, 1938.

  10. Sassoon, Siegfried. The Weald of Youth. London: Faber, 1942.

  11. Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920. London: Faber, 1945.

  12. Sassoon, Siegfried. Meredith. 1948. A Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books Ltd., 1959.

  13. Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1915-1918. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Book Club Associates, 1983.

  14. Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1920-1922. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1981.

  15. Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1923-1925. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1985.

  16. Sassoon, Siegfried. Letters to Max Beerbohm: with a few answers. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1986.

  17. Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet. A Biography 1886-1918. 1998. New York: Routledge, 1999.

  18. Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches. A Biography 1918-1967. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd., 2003.

Siegfried Sassoon: Diaries (1981-85)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Pictures from the Paper Table Booklaunch (3/12/17)

Bronwyn and I would like to thank everyone who came to the Paper Table novella launch yesterday, and were generous enough to buy so many books! We'd also like to thank our two brilliant speakers, Stu Bagby and Tracey Slaughter; our visionary designer Lisa Baudry; Leicester's cousins Dave and Viv Kyle, who were there to represent the Kyle family; our two helpers Niamh and Hatty Fitzgerald, and all the rest of you who were able to spend your Sunday afternoon with us.

We really appreciate it.

If you have any questions about either the books or the imprint, please visit our Paper Table website.

Brand design: Lisa Baudry

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Doubting Thomases (3): R. S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)

When I was in the third form at school - I guess that would be Year 9 in the new nomenclature - we used to have our French lessons in a classroom shared with an English teacher.

There were a series of posters around the wall which had been created by that 'other' class (whom we never met, though I came to envy them intensely). What with one thing and another, I spent an awful lot of time in class staring at these posters. They contained a series of short pithy statements, written out with bright crayon illustrations. I never consciously memorised any of them, but I can still recall some of those inscriptions, as well as the pictures that accompanied them:

They said:
Take hold of the nettle
seize it with both hands
and I did
and it stung me.

I don't know where that comes from, and Google has provided me with no assistance. Perhaps it was the poster-maker's own inspiration. A bit dark, maybe, but certainly memorable. Then there was:

And I thought about books.
And for the first time I realized
that a man was behind each one of the books.
A man had to think them up.
A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper.
And I'd never even thought that thought before.

That one seemed a bit banal to me at the time (not to mention, now, a bit sexist). It wasn't till some time afterwards that I ran across it while reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and suddenly realised that it'd had been a quote from him all along. All at once that made it sound much more pithy to me, little snob that I was.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

The other wonderful thing I discovered in that first reading of Bradbury's masterpiece was the page where the narrator reads out the last two stanzas of "Dover Beach" to his depressed, suicidal wife and a couple of her friends:
"Dover Beach.” His mouth was numb.

“Now read in a nice clear voice and go slow.”

The room was blazing hot, he was all fire, he was all coldness; they sat in the middle of an empty desert with three chairs and him standing, swaying, and him waiting for Mrs. Phelps to stop straightening her dress hem and Mrs. Bowles to take her fingers away from her hair. Then he began to read in a low, stumbling voice that grew firmer as he progressed from line to line, and his voice went out across the desert, into the whiteness, and around the three sitting women there in the great hot emptiness.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
The chairs creaked under the three women, Montag finished it out:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
That poem completely transfixed me at the time. I didn't know it was by Matthew Arnold, or even who Matthew Arnold was. I took good care to find out after that, though.

Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach (1851)

The last of the three sets of poster texts which have stayed with me from that classroom is the only one that was clearly attributed to an author: R. S. Thomas. Just a few phrases stayed with me from that rather fierce poem until I looked it up again just now. To give you an idea of the tricks memory plays, here are the few bits I remembered:
And he said I will make the poem and I will make it now ... so he took paper and pen, the mind's cartridge ... while the spent hearts smoked in its wake ...
And here's the poem itself, from the volume Tares (1961). I don't know if the title was included on the poster. I suspect not:
The Maker

So he said then: I will make the poem,
I will make it now. He took pencil,
The mind's cartridge, and blank paper,
And drilled his thoughts to the slow beat

Of the blood's drum, and there it formed,
On the white surface and went marching
Onward through time while the spent cities
And dry hearts smoked in its wake.

R. S Thomas: Collected Poems 1945-1990 (1993): 122.

I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see that poem again after all these years, and to correct all the mistakes my memory made in recalling it.

I didn't particularly care for the poem at the time, mind you. It didn't rhyme, which was a big deal to me then. The arrogance of it repelled me, as well as what seemed the impossible self-confidence of those opening lines: claiming to know what your poem will be before you've even written it down.

None of that really mattered, though. That was just mind-chatter. What mattered was the fact that I'd finally seen that a poem could repel you and transfix you at the same time: that it could work on you whether you wanted it to or not. I assumed its author, this 'R. S. Thomas' I knew nothing else about, must be a most fearsome person, and it wasn't till years afterwards that I ventured to read any more of his work.

What I read bore no resemblance to the poem I remembered from the classroom, though. To be honest, in its violence and single-mindedness, it sounded more like Ted Hughes than the mild-mannered Welsh clergyman R. S. Thomas turned out to be. Until I read his autobiography, that is.

R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies (1997)

Perhaps I should say "Autobiographies": there are four such works collected in the volume above, all of them written in the Welsh he so painstakingly learned as an adult, but was - much to his chagrin - never able to compose poems in:
For me, being a poet is a full-time job, and although the muse may languish as one grows older, there is a kind of duty upon you to persevere in perfecting your craft, and to secure an answer, though poetry, to some of the great questions of life. Some are still surprised that I write my poems in English, as if it were a matter of choice. I have said many times that I was thirty before I started learning Welsh in earnest. English (my mother tongue, remember) was long since rooted in me, and it is from the depth of his being that poet draws his poetry. If I believed that I could satisfy myself by composing poetry in Welsh, I would so so. But I learned many years ago, with sorrow, that it was not possible. ... But be that as it may, Llŷn is not an escape, but a peninsula where I can be inward with all the tension of our age.
[Blwyddyn yn Llŷn / A Year in Llyn (1990): 151]
I hadn't really thought about that experience of staring at those texts and wishing that I was in that class, where you might be encouraged to create your own poster for your own quotation for quite a few years. A couple of months ago I was talking to Graham Lindsay, though, and he told me about an experience he had as a schoolboy when a relieving teacher gave their class Dylan Thomas's "Poem in October" (plus, I think, "Fern Hill" - which was also extensively excerpted from in the wall texts in my own classroom).

Reading Thomas for the first time was an extraordinary experience for him, and yet he was far too tongue-tied to tell the teacher about it when back at school. No doubt that teacher presumed that his little poetry experiment had been a complete failure. You never know, though. I'm sure that the teacher who got his or her class to create all those posters had no idea that anyone besides them actually read them, let alone was moved, intrigued, provoked by them to such a degree.

It must have been shortly after that that I started to write my own first painfully derivative, clumsily rhymed poems, full of archaic diction and mythological references, just like the nineteenth-century poets who were my models.

There are a lot of striking passages in R. S. Thomas's autobiography:
Today, when I was out in Pen-y-cil and Parwyd, as I was looking down the precipice, there came the old urge to leap down. Almost everyone has experienced it. There is a psychological explanation most probably, but not everyone has a steady enough head to be able to look down, let alone climb down.
[Blwyddyn yn Llŷn / A Year in Llyn (1990): 123]
That one certainly struck a chord. Someone once asked me why I wrote poetry, and I replied: 'To come up with reasons for wanting to stay alive." That must have sounded like a piece of pretentious posing to her, but I'm afraid it was nothing but the strictest truth. It runs in the family, I'm sorry to say.

Then there's this bit:
In 1938 came the awakening .. to a boy with ideals to uphold, the situation was clear enough: Christ was a pacifist, but not so the Church established in his name ... Meanwhile ... under the influence of the beautiful and exciting country to the west he continued to write poetry - tender, innocent lyrics in the manner of the Georgian poets, because that was the background to his reading among the poets. Edward Thomas was one of his favourites and because the latter had written about the countryside, the budding poet tried to imitate him. The more 'modern ' English poets had not yet broken though to his inner world to shatter the unreal dreams that dwelled there. And, alas, the Welsh poets did not exist for him. Who was to blame? The desire to write was within him, but because of the nature of his education and his background, he could only think in terms of the English language.
[Neb /No-one (1985): 44-45].
Those early religious struggles were more quickly resolved in my case, but those problems with 'modernity' took a long time to filter through into my writing, too. For his 1938, put my 1975. I can now see that that poem of his was one of the vehicles of transformation, but I wasn't really aware of it until just now.

Here's a list of the books of his I own:

R. S. Thomas: Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000 (2003)

    Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)


  • Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems, 1946-1968. 1973. Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd. London: Granada Publishing Limited, 1974.
  • Thomas, R. S. Between Here and Now: Poems. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1981.
  • Thomas, R. S. Collected Poems 1945-1990. 1993. London: Phoenix Giant, 1996.
  • Thomas, R. S. Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. 2003. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books, 2004.
  • Thomas, R. S. Uncollected Poems. Ed. Tony Brown & Jason Walford Davies. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2013.

  • Prose:

  • Thomas, R. S. Autobiographies: Former Paths / The Creative Writer's Suicide / No-one / A Year in Llŷn. 1972, 1977, 1985, 1990. Trans. Jason Walford Davies. 1997. A Phoenix Paperback. London: Orion Books Ltd., 1998.

  • R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (2013)

    Few possessions: a chair,
    a table, a bed
    to say my prayers by,
    and, gathered from the shore,
    the bone-like, crossed sticks
    proving that nature
    acknowledges the Crucifixion.
    All night I am at
    a window not too small
    to be frame to the stars
    that are no further off
    than the city lights
    I have rejected. ...

    "At the End"