Ann Skea: Lire Ted Hughes

Lire Ted Hughes: _New Selected Poems, 1957-1994
Collected Papers in French and English
Editor: Joanny Moulin
Publisher: Edition Du Temps, Paris, 1998. e-mail: editions_du_temps@compuserve.com
ISBN: 2 84274 074 2 Cost: F95

Contributing Authors: Carol Bere, Nicholas Bishop, Vincent Broqua, Alex Davis, Anthony Easthope, Roger Elkin, Nick Gammage, Terry Gifford, Adolphe Haberer, Marie-Jeanne Ortemann, Lissa Paul, Mich=E8le Rivoire, Penelope Sacks-Galey, Keith Sagar, Gayle Wurst.

            Reviewed by Ann Skea

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NB: This review deals only with the ten English-language papers in this collection. I apologise to those authors writing in French - my French is not sufficiently good to allow me deal with the subtleties of their arguments.
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A reviewer once remarked that commentators on Ted Hughes's work could be divided into 'attackers' and 'apostles'. On this basis, I should confess from the start that I would be sorted into the 'apostle' box. Not because I think that all Hughes's work is perfect (some of the Laureate poems, for example, make me squirm) but because I like his poetry, share many of his views and admire the wholehearted dedication and love with which he pursued his poetic ideals.

Such a black-and-white classification is, of course, unrealistic, as this book's collection of papers demonstrates. Joanny Moulin, the book's co-ordinating editor, has collected critical responses to Ted Hughes's: New Selected Poems, 1957-1994 which present the views of people who have seriously studied Hughes's work over a number of years and who, collectively, provide an informed overview of Hughes's ideas, influences, aims, weaknesses and strengths. These authors, from England, France, Ireland, Canada and America, represent a wide range of intellectual traditions and they approach Hughes's work from very different perspectives. On the whole, they are admirably objective.

Those who study Hughes's work, however, generally do so because they like it. They could, therefore, be classified as 'apostles'. Aware of this problem, Moulin invited Anthony Easthope, who at their first meeting had exclaimed, "Oh Ted Hughes! The WORST living English poet!", to open the discussion. Sadly, rather than prompting informed debate, his contribution looks very like a token dissenting voice.

Easthope takes Hughes to task for writing poetry which is "scenic", "outworn-pastoral" and in no way 'Modern' enough. His premise is that "unless poetry acts out the contemporary in its deepest structures it will only be read by its contemporaries". But Eastwood's definition of 'contemporary' seems to be too narrow to encompass those aspects of human nature which remain unchanged by changing social mores. Much of Shakespeare's poetry would, in Easthope's terms, be unintelligible to a modern reader. And perhaps he is right if, as he claims, words like 'din' are too "formal, even pedantic...in contemporary English", and writing about horses in an increasingly urban world is harking "back to pre-Modernist examples". Easthope castigates Hughes, too, for echoing the "clotted diction of Hopkins". Poets, it seems, are required to cast off all influences and at least make an effort to be Modernist. That this was never one of Hughes' ambitions, or that poetry can be written for purposes other than immediate audience gratification, Easthope either does not know or has chosen not to consider.

Keith Sagar, because of his long friendship with Hughes, has often been charged with lack of objectivity. He was, however, a trusted correspondent whose critical opinion Ted valued, and his critical analysis of Hughes's work is, consequently, informed by an acute appreciation of the poet's aims and purposes. Here, he shows how the poems in NSL reflect Hughes's continuing efforts to use his poetry to heal the gap between the outer world (with all its contemporary ills) and our inner worlds, to which we all have access but from which we are increasingly alienated by modern life. Rather than examine random poems in isolation, Sagar provides us with an overview within which not all poems "work", yet each may still be of value in the whole endeavour. Other critics may not share Sagar's estimation of particular poetic sequences, but he succinctly demonstrates Hughes's progress as poet/shaman.

Lissa Paul's discussion of Hughes's so-called 'children's poems' is valuable in pointing out how much these are an integral part of his work as a whole. Hughes never patronised his younger readers, and many of these poems are included in NSP without special identification. Paul also restates and considerably expands my own brief comment (in 'Regeneration In Remains of Elmet', 1994) about the care with which Hughes structured his books of poetry in order to create a balanced, healing sequence.

Poems which amply demonstrate Hughes's early struggles to describe delicate and personal relationships amidst the anguish of failed communication, are the topic of Nick Gammage's paper. The sensitive, open and honest nature of some of these poems about members of Hughes's family provides a welcome rebuttal of the old view of Hughes as a poet of violence. Common humanity and love are to be seen at the heart of these poems, as is the struggle for intimacy with people and with nature.

All of the papers discussed above are grouped under the title "Approches Globales". Other sections of the book are "Analyses de Textes"; "Études Expérimentales" and "Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath".

Roger Elkin offers a textual analysis of Recklings which places these poems squarely in the development of Hughes's work as a whole and shows just how important they were as ground-breaking poems.

Amongst the "Études Expérimentales", Terry Gifford's paper discusses questions which he put to Hughes regarding the ethics of an avowed ecologist (as Hughes was) fishing for sport and then writing poems based on this pursuit. The lengthy extract from Hughes's letter of response to these questions, shows just how long and carefully Hughes had thought about this dilemma. It also gives some indication of the integrity with which Hughes approached every aspect of his life and his work.

I am not quite sure why Ales Davis's paper on Crow is grouped under "Études Expérimentales", but it offers an interesting reading of Crow which places these poems in the context of world events contemporary with their composition. It also looks at the mythic resonances which pervade this sequence and the pseudo-carnivalism of its humour. Perhaps the most experimantal of Davis's arguments here, is the linking of Crow with the "miscarried" Cro-Magnon people Hughes wrote about in his review of William Golding's The Inheritors. Crow, he suggests, like those ancestors of ours, is incomplete, hence his repeated failures to achieve reconciliation with his mother-creator which the sequence relates. But in spite of the deep associations which Davis divines, Crow is still simply a crow - a curious, voracious, clever, amoral bird.

Nicholas Bishop's "Étude Expérimentale", entitled "Ted Hughes and the Great Work', deals cryptically with hermeticism and silence. It suggests that there are deeper, occult aspects to Hughes's work which defy any attempt to "hedge its boundaries and give a tourist guide of its landmarks". Language was what Hughes worked with - his "poetic abacus" - and it was the visible expression of the invisible forces with which Hughes sought to negotiate. Bishop looks at the role of language in Hughes's work, and the way that the poetry changed over the years as Hughes's poetic journey took him deeper into his own inner world.

As Moulin says in his introduction, it is no longer possible to read Hughes's work without also considering Sylvia Plath. So, in the final section of this book, Gayle Wurst and Carol Bere each consider the Hughes/Plath relationship from quite different angles.

Wurst offers an interesting re-assessment of the Hughes/Plath 'story' and its development and growth in America. She makes valuable points about the early reception of Plath's poetry in England, about Alvarez's role in this, and about the vested interest he had in fostering her legendary and quasi-mythical status in the USA.

Bere deals more directly with the Hughes/Plath relationship as presented in Birthday Letters and, in particular, in those poems which first appeared in NSP and later became part of the story-sequence. She makes important points about Sylvia's struggle for rebirth and about the two poets' joint endeavour.

Overall, this book provides a broad, informed and up-to-date evaluation of Ted Hughes's work. It offers a good basis on which to begin a study of Hughes's poetry, but it is also an interesting, stimulating and challenging book for those already familiar with the issues, poetry and ideas discussed.

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