Wednesday, June 25, 2008


"Nobody sought me out."

I've been thumbing through Letters of Ted Hughes, a massive collection that FSG will publish in September. My only previous exposure to the poet's epistolary style was the blistering communique he sent to A. Alvarez when The Savage God was first serialized in the British papers--and that was only because Janet Malcolm quoted it in The Silent Woman. Glancing at it again, I'm still impressed by its tone of steel-belted outrage. "You saw little enough of us," writes Hughes. "Both of us regarded you as a friend, not a Daily Mirror T.V. key-hole rat-hole journalist snoop guaranteed to distort every observation and plaster us with his know-all pseudo-psychological theories, as if we were relics dug up from 10,000 BC. Of our marriage you know nothing--but you can't even give us the benefit of your ignorance." Elsewhere, eviscerating Alvarez for the effect his speculations might have on Sylvia Plath's (and his own) children, he writes: "You were searching out details to enthral your academic audience & didn't realise you were sticking electrodes in her children's brains." This masterpiece of pained invective resides, appropriately, in the British Museum.

But my eye was also caught by a later communication. In a letter written in the fall of 1986, Hughes corrected some mistakes he had found in the manuscript of Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Again, he noted the intense misery caused by the perennially prying eyes of Plath's biographers. What he has learned is that "no mistake can be corrected, no fantasy or lie can be extinguished, and that any attempt to correct the record only gives a weirder energy to the lies... Having the monkey world of all this play among one's nerves for twenty years induces a stupor of horror--it finally affects your judgment of mankind." Still, he offered quite a few pages of corrections, including this jaundiced account of his youthful notoriety:
Nobody sought me out. The only Journalist who ever came to see me, an Italian woman from some Italian glossy, was expecting to find the Fox In The Attic novelist and was disappointed. Though I was in the generation of the Angry Young Men, and felt I had better barbarian credentials than any of them except maybe Alan Sillitoe, I was never noticed even among their hindermost baggage train. I would have liked a bit of fame in those days, but it seemed far off. I was far more aware of being abused, by people I'd never met, for using the 'affected, proletarian familiar abbreviation' of my first name, and for 'using language above my station.' The Cultural Church, whose high priests were the Evelyn Waughs, didn't fall on its face to the North until the Beatles came along.
So: what Crow couldn't do, "Piggies" did quite nicely. Meanwhile, I'm fascinated by the idea that calling yourself Ted was once enough to earn you twenty lashes from some hi-cult Captain Bligh.

I've written quite a long review of Hughes' letters for the next issue of The Dark Horse magazine in Scotland. It was a daunting assignment but a fascinating, sort of mesmerising experience. But it isn't just those ones, he wrote lots of other letters that are funny, or touching, or just really engaged. Marvellous. Are you going to be reviewing it?
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