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.


Richard said...

There is no question that Plath was a genius but she was mad. The other thing was, in the movie of Ted and Sylvia she is subtly shown as the victim and not given the credit Hughes got for his poetry, but in fact she won a lot of awards. Also her act was based on great selfishness. She committed suicide and left her children. The other woman committed suicide and in the process made sure her children died also.

Hughes had to take all this. He was faced with a terrible situation. For me The Birthday Letters are an attempt to redress things. There are always two sides to these affairs and spats etc between men and women. The feminists have jumped on the bandwagon.

I liked the poems in that but I didn't see the 'companion poems'. For me, just two different ways of looking at things. I suspect some of the irritation Hughes felt living with someone rather obsessive comes through. But very few would not distort things to their own perspective. So he was still 'fighting' her after all that time, and I believe he also refers to Assia.

The second suicide Assia was pretty crazy and pretty much sexed up. Women were electrified by Hughes. He played with that I think. But Assia ignored her own husband (the not inconsiderable poet Wevill, in fact from what I've seen he might be better than both of them, or up there in any case).

All this misses the real question of the value and importance (perhaps just to poets) of the poetry itself of both poets. [By the way I agree with Bishop, and she was a great poet also]. I had Andy Armitage here wanting copies of books by Hughes. He, being a Yorkshireman, was or is big on Hughes. I forget if we discussed Plath.

In his poems I have felt he overdoes the violence, the getting in with nature, things ripping things apart, and "I am the big macho Yorkshireman". But some of those poems are a bit like some of Heaneys. They are dark and go for the jugular.
Also, some, like that long poem can lumber along a bit, it is for sure that Plath in that was 'better'. They were different poets.

But others have a kind of comic book surreality. I like Plath. She has a depth and her best things deal with words: language, and, as well as superb design and structure of her poetry, a kind of emotional and lyrical intensity. [I thought he Nazi thing was directed at or via her father who was German but not a Nazi, how she arrived at that, but is is some Freudian thing I suppose.]

But I haven't read any letters or as many book as listed here Jack. I did read part of (or all of?) Alvarez's 'The Savage God.' [He's still alive in my random or Dewey decimal project in 920 he has a book of his daily struggle to keep fit as an increasingly aging man, it is almost heroic stuff: things don't get better as one ages for sure! He was swimming every day he could. Good on him. I think he tried to help Plath.]

Well it is a pity Plath chose to commit suicide [if we can admit free will] as there could well have been more and possible even greater poems.

Richard said...

Manhire is a very good poet (but he started repeating himself, although I suppose we all do that in a way (but I agree with Patrick Evans, as my memory serves me you do [a conversation re Manhire I overheard] that he lost confidence or 'had a failure or nerve' (of course this might be rhetoric, Evans is somewhat provocative but writes well about writing in NZ. Why is Manhire always grinning? Is that worse than topping two women?]. But, sure, his view would be important. It is good you were so impassioned! Such shows you care about these things, as Leicester said of me once when I reported saying to an AA meeting that, while I didn't necessarily believe in God...I asked if that was wrong...Leicester was emphatic: "No, that is your World View."! Turner is fairly ho hum, so I wouldn't worry about those two!

I suppose the issue of those two and the other woman (who had talent also, that talent tragically wasted).

Shakespeare versus poets we know today? We know little of the Bard's life etc and mostly keep to his plays and poetry (I find the Sonnets almost impenetrable I have never got through more than about 5 of them, one or two are beautiful though). But nowadays, today, it is often deeply connected with the lives of the poets. In fact, the title of Dr. Johnson's book....Everything connects up, somehow...

By the way, surely this debate might attract or interest people. It is one of the big romantic dramas and controversies of modern literature. And I suppose it is hard if not almost impossible to untangle the lives from the writing.

You not, like myself Jack, also a bit resentful that two women haven't topped themselves for yourself? Leicester used to thus say: 'All American poets commit suicide.'!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

I do want to think about Hughes as a poet quite independently of his private life, but there's something about those sixties poets which has made their lives weigh more heavily than their work.

You say above that Sylvia was mad, but I'm not sure if it is mad to feel suicidal at times. The latest Hughes biography makes it pretty clear that Hughes' basic demand on a wife was that she not object to his continually taking up with other women. Plath did object, as did Assia Wevill, but his second wife Carol apparently took it in her stride (or so Jonathan Bate claims).

As I say, I respected Hughes' desire to remain au-dessus de la melee, but the moment he chose to publish his own blow-by-blow account, he lost that moral higher ground.

Certainly that was good news for readers: it gave us more texts to pick over - but definitely bad news for followers of Bishop's doctrines (which I find very difficult to refute - anyone who doesn't understand that there are things - many things - more important than "art" is a bit of moral imbecile, I feel).

Richard said...

It all becomes immensely complex. When I read 'The Bell Jar' I disliked it not because of it, it was not great in many ways, but because I was depressed myself. It is the case that we start to conflate these things. Hughes taken separately, not knowing "who was to blame", is different (than the Hughes we think we know via biographers--who can really know the soul of a Being?). (And some of his poems are great also, although he has never been like Baxter for me has never been, a big poetical interest as such. For me John Berryman is more interesting and in fact John Ashbery (and almost nothing of his life interests me that much, although I am glad he seemed to have had a mostly happy life, and I am interested in his connections to the NY scene with Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, his interest in Raymond Rousseau; and also the Language Poets, say Silliman and particularly for me Hannah Weiner (whose lives interest me somewhat but their work more I think). Of course the life of the author becomes a part of our view of his or her work. It always will. Perhaps it helps in some way that Pynchon is so anonymous. (Or is that a complex ego dance also?) Great writers no one knows ANYTHING about? Are there any Jack? I don't know myself. There may be.

I don't think we can criticize either or any of the actors in the drama of Hughes and Plath. Nothing he could do would probably have altered anything. Plath and he would (or may) have destroyed each other eventually. Plath had depression for whatever reason and the 'reason' [or one of a complex of causes or indicating functions] for her suicide was [among many things as I say] biochemical-neurological. She was in the early stages of taking anti-depressants, this is the most dangerous stage. I went through intense depression at on stage and anti-depressants worked but there were I think months of endless emptiness (terrible anxiety) before the medication started working. These actually changed me and made me more outgoing. I stopped the anti-depressants but have become addicted to sedatives for 50 years. Unlike Plath I avoided the worst of the horror. Whether "mad" is the same thing: she had some kind of difficulty from a young age before she met Hughes. You cant blame another person on your own actions.

This happened also to Robin Hyde. She committed suicide while in the early stages of taking anti-depressants.

Hughes tried to redress things via his Birthday Poems I think. Of course he will have a different view. Everyone does. Our views change sometimes in seconds. I used (as a teenager) veer in my mind from wanting to be even more powerful and "evil" than Hitler to feelings of great grief at the plight of Anne Frank. I still do things like that. Have completely different opinions about the same thing running in my mind. Sometimes I feel as though there are not only one but an almost infinite number of myself or myselves. Perhaps I am Pessoa!

I don't know if any of this "explains" Hughes, Assia, and Plath. Perhaps Hughes was simply a man who liked sex a lot and got bored with the same woman. This may not mean he wanted to do them harm. Or even that he stopped loving them. Clearly, in any case, it will interest scholars and PhD students and so on for many years. Alvarez also played a role, perhaps not a good one with his Savage God.

Didn't all these events also influence Sexton? Possibly Lowell also. I like Lowell's confessional poems.

Did Hughes ever claim, or really believe he had the higher moral ground? I suppose it was complicated by being the poet laureate.

Richard said...

By the way, re Laureates, I like Carol Ann Duffy's poetry. There is one where a whole school of girls end up laughing. It starts in one class and spreads. A happy writer, a writer who writes about pleasant things! It is rare. How many writers leave us feeling better? I read some essays by Lorna Sage. Very good. One was about Ethan Frome by Wharton. Not having read her, and hearing she was influenced by Hawthorne I read it as it was short. It is a great book. But how terrible! In the morning it nearly tipped me into a depression myself. It is a real horror story.

But perhaps I needed to read it again on a good day...

Richard said...

Yes, life, human life and the loved ones around one, are more important than writing or creative work. In fact such things are not important really. It is people, it is love and respect etc that matter. And enjoyment.

So publishing letters that are intimate is not good. However, humans are complex machines. Bishop was also a great poet of course. As was Lowell at his best.

Dr Jack Ross said...

And of course both Bishop and Lowell have left behind substantial troves of letters which we are now entitled to read -- so the conundrum continues. Smithyman burned a lot of his letters when he knew he was dying, as he didn't want anyone reading or publishing them. The thing about letters, though, is that the people they're sent to tend to keep them whether you want them to or not (even though their author retains the copyright on them).

Berryman's Love & Fame is an interesting attempt of one writer's attempt to plumb that material even in his own lifetime. It's my favourite book of his, but others -- David Howard, for instance -- don't really rate it for that reason.

I suppose the only writers we don't really know anything about (for certain) are the ancients: Homer, Sappho, the author of Gilgamesh ... Shakespeare comes pretty close, though: it's pretty much all conjecture there beyond a few signed wills and suchlike.

Richard said...

I've never heard of Love and Fame. But I am big on Berryman's Dream Songs, and His Toy etc I think those works are stronger for me in many ways than either Hughes or Plath, although they are different poets, albeit confessional.

Smithyman perhaps had some dark secrets! We do this don't we. The old idea of a poet or writer (or even a scientist or a plumber or whoever) just being 'who they are'. That is his or her work being completely objective, not connected to the complexity of their lives. Reading one side of a letter is a bit frustrating though! But I suppose some idea of the discussion can be gleaned. I myself never got to write many letters. Except once I wrote some letters to my parents while holidaying around NZ. But not many. Some written too me I cant find.

I was reading some Sappho the other day, Barnard. I hadn't liked her translations, then suddenly something connected, and caught me. Her fragments. Gilgamesh I have known of but never got to read. It has a story of a flood. From Ancient Iraq.

Did you see this book: 'A Closer Look At Ariel' by Nancy Hunter Steiner. Steiner was in college with Plath. It is insightful and true I think. A picture of Plath. I read the Bell Jar. I suppose it reflects her life.

When I started writing poetry or lit. again I came across 'Ariel' which I had never seen (I hadn't basically read any literature for about 20 years and had no idea who Plath was at the time). I felt certain though, as I read it, that she had committed suicide. I then went on a hunt for this. I had forgotten this but this hunt was the subject of one of the early poems I wrote about 1989 or 90. I read it at the Albion circa 1989. Plath was popular with a lot of women. Sonja Yellich was clearly, or quite, influenced.

It is and must have been I would have thought, eerie to be editing books of Plath's if one was Hughes.

Berryman was still 'with' his wife when he exited over a bridge, but with Hughes, this really complex mess. It is hard to say who was the more tormented. And Bishop had her strangenesses also, and her mother: I liked that prose-poem piece by her about the scream in a village. And her strange poem about a giant moth!

Out of all of it I think that confessionalism has added to poetry and to the human drama shall we say. Perhaps Hughes was trying in his own way to redress. But maybe the aloofness is the ticket. But Berryman couldn't stay aloof: it was almost inevitable he would become an alcoholic. But it is a pity he did as not only was he a great poet but his knowledge of Shakespear and much else meant he could have also been a great teacher, and I suppose he was in those lucid times.

All part of the fabric, of the process.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Far be it from me to use this blog for advertisements, but I should mention here that one of the essays in the new Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 is an extensive defense of confessionalism in poetry.

It was written by one of our Massey graduate students - because it was well written and interesting but also (I must confess) because I so thoroughly agree with your comment above on how much 'confessionalism has added to poetry and to the human drama.'

Sure, it has its risks and its excesses - but so does everything: and when you compare it to all that tortured 40s and 50s symbolism, you can see that something just had to give. If, that is, 'serious' poetry was ever again going to appeal to ordinary readers, curious about themselves, other people, and the world around them.

Dr Jack Ross said...

That middle paragraph above should read:

It was written by one of our Massey graduate students - I included it in the issue because it was well written and interesting but also (I must confess) because I so thoroughly agree with your comment above on how much 'confessionalism has added to poetry and to the human drama.'

Richard said...

I read an essay some time ago arguing that almost all poetry (or art I suppose) is, in a complex sense, in some degree of the self of the writer. It is a question of distance. Cynthia Ozick in an essay condemns Eliot's supposedly dry prescriptions and his 'objective correlative' (I think Eliot had a point and this like the bones in one of his poems, an idea derived from the Metaphysical poets of course with Donne's image of the girl's hair around a bone etc); her beef was that he neglected that he was very influenced by his wife* (people think directly but I think she meant her psychological influence, I mean Vivian, and indeed also on the manuscript of The Waste Land I think it is Pound in red and her in black commenting: she and Pound are very supportive, Pound cutting it a the famous start). I would have resisted the idea she also "wrote" it but I can see the idea.

The essayist on confessionalism and poetry in general I read argued that it was a question of focus or degree. (Charles Bernstein in A Poetics also talks about the degree of 'absorption').

I do have a collected of Berryman and I can read his more direct poems. I was somewhat shocked but I suppose that is that I am used to his Dream Songs and Sonnets and so on. I discover also in the intro the number of mistresses he had. Do all these muses and mistresses mind?!

Ashbery it was argued (of one of his poems) by a critic has some lines and the critic says (that disposes of confessionalism). But the 'voice' of Ashbery is there. I lean toward Mallarme etc and Roussel and indeed Henri Roussel who I liked. I realised today that Plath lied his work very much. There are two poems about two of his paintings. Schuyler, who I like very very much, in such as The Morning of the Poem and I think it is The Picnic Sonata I love: here he is far more himself than Ahsbery.

The Language poets perhaps move away from the self-centre but they were 'inspired' by Larry Eigner and acknowledged Stein and I suppose Whitman, Dickinson (is she 'confessional' at all, her strange disturbing poems: she is close...) and others. And there are Susan Howe, Heijinian, and Hannah Weiner as well as the more 'distanced' Andrews etc. Grenier is interesting concentrating on a moment or a small thing becomes an event, and he hand writes these. But there is the personal: the shape of his writing, literally his hand movement recorded.

I feel Lowell's poems of himself are his best. Those direct poems. Perhaps Creeley was influenced to write his dark-passionate Love poems, with his chopping open his loved one's head to place a candle inside. There is a mix: Williams is never just himself, he is the things he describes, but his Wheelbarrow was originally placed inside a lot of near-surreal writing about the imagination etc

I think Plath is not just a "confessional" poet. She is, in some ways, not herself, thus that intersection of self and ideas and the outside creates her intensity. Possibly all great writing does. But indeed it is difficult to define these things.

It will be interesting to read the essay!

*And when he wrote the Waste Land he had had a nervous breakdown before it. Or he had been in some personal distress.