Letters of Ted Hughes
edited by Christopher Read
Faber and Faber, London, 2007, pp 755
A poet couple, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath made twentieth century English poetry known for its unique impact on the imagination of a generation and also much beyond the British shores and the Atlantic Ocean, as it were! Yes, Ted Hughes (TH) was British poet proper. Sylvia Plath came from the USA and met Ted at Oxford and they both became well-known poets of their generation.
While Ted went on to write more poetry, his later, last years saw him as the poet laureate and that official position gave him access to high society and the official society, his equally talented poet and wife(they now call their wives as partners),the much-lamented Sylvia Plath died tragically by suicide!
`On 11 February` 1963 in her London in her Fritzroy Road flat she took her life. That was the end of TH’s dreams, his life was to take a different course and the speculations of her death never stopped, to this The letter TH wrote after some time, dated 15 March,1963`is the most moving letter giving an insight into what went wrong for both.”She had money, fame, prospering plans and many friends “Yet things went out of control.”Sylvia was so made to mete out terrible punishment to the people she most loved”. Sylvia Plath is a much sought-after subject of study and research. So much so that by 1986 some 700 books, books, not articles, were written about Sylvia Plath!
The output of Ted Hughes is no less. The book just before me is itself a huge volume. Just one volume of letters takes some 700 odd pages. The editor says that the whole of the letters might come even up to 3 volumes of this size! His poetry collections alone come to some 20 volumes. Besides he wrote dramas, other prose works running into several volumes.
TH was born in 1930 and died in Oct 25,1998.So he lived just 58 years, a very short life span considering the long lifespan the average citizens now live, not just in the West, also in Asia as well.
Obviously he lived an intense life, married, divorced, co-habitation is now the preferred way of life in Britain and seeing the enormous correspondence by a leading poet, you will get an idea of how he had lived through some of the most productive years of a literary life.
Literary life in the West, more so in a city like London is a very different type of life and activity. You can live full-time on your writings alone, as for poetry it is also possible you can write just poetry and earn not a bad sum of money. In the case of TH we find that he just lived on writing alone and managed to buy a farm, buy a home in London and did involve himself in many other productive activities like writing for theatre, you can emigrate to the USA or Australia and TH did both and you get an idea that to be a poet in English and to live in London are all highly challenging and at the same time a highly fulfilling life.
A poet writes letters and what do you get by way of literary insights?
The editor says:”No page would be without some literary or documentary value. Many precious things penetrating illuminations, paras of ingenious and cogent reasoning, the flights of sheer verbal exuberance “All these are here and much more.
As for me, it is the new information I get about TH and Plath but also about other contemporary poets who went on to earn much more fame, one won a Nobel Prize for Poetry(Seamus Heaney),Philip Larkin, a major poet, his correspondence with great poets like T.S.Eliot, W.H.Auden and Stephen Spender(I know some of them) etc.
There are long letters to the leading newspaper editors. One to the Guardian (1989), another to the Independent (also in the same month, that is, April, 1989).These two letters in fact, meant for publication brings out much information and the controversies surrounding the death of Sylvia Plath.
He says in the letters to the editors that Sylvia Plath is one of the most closely studied and widely taught writers in the Western world. Eight writers, all who wrote and taught about Sylvia Plath in the universities once wrote a long letter to the editors of newspapers to allege that TH divorced her and that led to her tragic end and that was one reason that Plath’s grave was vandalised by our enthusiasts and other enemies of the poet. So, this letter goes into great many details, most of which wont interest Indian readers I believe and that what inter4ests us here is the fact that TH was really devastated by her death and the letters have so many references to how she came into his life and how the two fell for each other and in fact it was Sylvia who was more a gifted poet and it was she who encouraged TH to take his poetry writing talent seriously and in fact gave hi many leads to get his poems published in the US magazines where there is a great tradition of paying(or in fact, buying the poems in advance by paying handsome advances!).Thus, early in his poetry writing career TH learn to write and earn family handsome payments. That part is very fascinating and for Indian readers it must come as a surprise and even for some as rude shock that in the West it is possible for a poet to write and live and survive in a much more civilised way that what is possible in India.
Even now, the status of a writer who lives on entirely on his writing is really very miserable. As for poets, it is next to impossible unless, as in Tamil Nadu for instance where you become a poet in so many dubious ways. You write for commercial cinema such songs that they need to titillate and describe the actresses in so many vulgar ways and this brings instant sums and once the temptation gets you launch yourself as a poet, hanging around other poets in what is called the neighbourhood, the Kodambakkam where most of the struggling film stars and the side artistes live and dream about making it one day.
So, there is now a strong tradition of becoming a poet through the film song writings.
But this category of song writers in the West, in London, is known as song writes, not as poets! Poetry, that too serious poetry is a different art altogether. That is why we find that in the case of other poets, including the one who was also a poet laureate, namely, John Betjeman, he was never taken seriously, the highbrow set, poets like T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden and Stephen Spender stood out as towering figures in serious poetry. Against whom the other poets including the Betjamens were at best called in a condescending manner, “major minor” poets!
In England anything that concerns a poet or a writer is taken seriously by the press and the establishment set. In the case of Sylvia Plath, her death by suicide led to a furor. There arose a school of Plath Fantasia, as TH called it. They all defended their attack and criticism of what happened to Plath as their right to speak out, they defended themselves, the newspapers gave them enormous publicity, the writers of the letters were all eminent persons, one “was a greatly respected Nobel Prize Winning Poet” as TH himself put it. All this was done under the plea of defending Free Speech!
There was also a dispute as to how Sylvia was called in her death, as Sylvia Plath or Sylvia Hughes, as she should have been “which was her legal name, the name of her children’s mother”, as TH put it.TH says he wanted to honour her name, the name she brought off in that name and “I wished to honour it”. All through this particularly long letter TH’s love and devotion for his gifted wife and life partner shines through and he writes with great feeling, how he inserted a sentence from Sanskrit, how he got the granite for the grave stone from Dartmoor” because of her special feeling for the place”(page 555).
Sylvia Plath’s grave became a great cultural tourist circuit and there is a great of discussion over that in these letters. The Nobel Prize winning poet of great respect we find was none other than the Russian emigree poet, Joseph Brodsky. There are some interesting facts. Do we own the facts of our life?
Here, one write of Sylvia Plath’s biography took exception to TH’s objections to some facts. So, TH raises the question who owns the facts. And he says that “each of us owns the facts of his or her life”(page 56)).There were many court battles over Sylvia Plath’s many biographies.
It was all about what you can say or not so say. Who owns what facts? Who takes the responsibility for the impressions and opinions of others?
The battle over the memory of Sylvia Plath was far from over when TH died and still one wonders whether it had died or subsided. That is the power of poetry and poets and the power of the high culture in which poetry and poets are held. The letters gave me many anecdotes ,many little-known facts about some of the great names in English poetry, says, W.B.Yeats was seen as Irish poet, T.S.Eliot as US-born, Owen, as Welsh-born etc.
Also, I saw the curious dispute about Eliot’s famous big little poem, The Wasteland, as if it owed to the Buddhist philosophy (in fact, there are facts to suggest that the great Eliot as a student once attended Rabindranath Tagore’s lecture at Harvard and from that lecture he got the inspiration to use so much of the Indian words in that very English poem!
And more in the letters here, I noticed the names of Craig More, a contemporary English professor at Oxford and his wife, Ann Pasternak Slater (whom I knew her as a beautiful young girl at my Oxford days, when I used to visit her home in North Oxford where she along with her mother, the late Lydia Pasternak, the sister of the Nobel poet Boris Pasternak, lived in those days. In fact, it was Lydia Pasternak who gave me the introduction to her brother, then living in Moscow, not Boris but Alexander Pasternak to travel to Russia in 1961).
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