The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 2 May 2013)

A British scholar finds Vita Sackville-West’s poem to her mistress, Violet Trefusis, when it falls out of a book, while a Canadian poet constructs a found poem from reviews of books by women in major publications (but switches the pronouns to male). Par exemple: “Much of his novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste”. In Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Professor Daisy Fried proclaims “The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man” and proceeds to declare Charles Bukowski “our greatest living poetess“.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428A British scholar finds Vita Sackville-West’s poem to her mistress, Violet Trefusis, when it falls out of a book, while a Canadian poet constructs a found poem from reviews of books by women in major publications (but switches the pronouns to male). Par exemple: “Much of his novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste”. In Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Professor Daisy Fried proclaims “The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man” and proceeds to declare Charles Bukowski “our greatest living poetess”. Appalachian Elegy, legendary-feminist bell hooks’ new book of poems, honours the first-people in her native state of Kentucky, while the first known Native American literary writer, Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), is remembered on the last day of National Poetry Month. On Poetica Spike Milligan’s poem “Manic Depression at St Luke’s Wing, Woodside Hospital Psychiatric Wing, 1953” opens: “The pain is too much, a thousand grim winters grow in my head, in my ears the sound of the coming dead”, while the working papers to “Sheep in Fog” reveal how Sylvia Plath arrived at the poem’s grim end: “They threaten 
/ To let me through to a heaven /
 Starless and fatherless, a dark water”. A Washington Post critic fears Charles Simic’s whip-smart metaphors are wielding less of a bite, but a professor of economics explains conceptual poets peak early, and experimental poets peak late. Meanwhile a book of cat-themed poetry – I Could Pee On This – swishes its tail on the NPR best-seller lists, amid self-help books and memoirs, while a bemused editor curates a gallery of insouciant feline poems.

Past Wraps:

w/e 25 Apr 2013

Ted hughes: she sent him a blade of grass

Review of Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein

Nothing would ever be the same. Ted Hughes, still married to poet Sylvia Plath, fell in love with Assia Wevill’s marvellous, unnaturally huge, grey eyes resembling, as he put it, those of a “Black Forest wolf”. He wrote her a letter, and, as he recounts in one of his most beautiful poems, by way of reply: “She sent him a blade of grass, but no word / Inside it”. The affair, which began in June 1962, six years into the Hughes-Plath marriage, is often held responsible for Plath’s suicide by gas poisoning in February 1963. Six years later, fearing rightly that her beauty – “slightly filthy with erotic mystery” – had lost its hold on Hughes, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura.

TedHughesNothing would ever be the same. Ted Hughes, still married to poet Sylvia Plath, fell in love with Assia Wevill’s marvellous, unnaturally huge, grey eyes resembling, as he put it, those of a “Black Forest wolf”. He wrote her a letter, and, as he recounts in one of his most beautiful poems, by way of reply:

“She sent him a blade of grass, but no word / Inside it”.

The affair, which began in June 1962, six years into the Hughes-Plath marriage, is often held responsible for Plath’s suicide by gas poisoning in February 1963. Six years later, fearing rightly that her beauty – “slightly filthy with erotic mystery” – had lost its hold on Hughes, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura. Although Elaine Feinstein points out – a wry understatement – that Hughes “was not the only man in England to commit adultery”, he has undoubtedly paid the highest price.

Hughes lived most of his adult life as the target of vicious gossip and feminist rage. As Plath’s cult status turned legendary after her death, accusations against Hughes of domestic abuse and Nazi proclivities abounded, as did violent threats of revenge. Wevill’s death only confirmed his detractors’ misgivings.

His instinct in the face of the wildest accusations was to remain silent, just as his instinct in the face of physical threat was to refuse confrontation. Rightly, he did his best to avoid Plath’s native America. But his 1976 visit to the Adelaide Writers Festival was just as rancorous as any American encounter might have been. Women in the audience held up placards accusing him of Plath’s murder and hurled abuse at him.

Hughes’s reading was notably more stilted than usual, but none of these humiliations stopped him from initiating an affair with the festival’s then press co-ordinator, Australian novelist Jill Barber. His literary reputation in England, however, remained high, and Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984, an honoured position he held until his death, and Andrew Motion succeeded the post.

There’s no getting around Hughes’s womanising, but Feinstein doesn’t try to. Hughes made it plain that one woman was not enough for him and he maintained his multiple “entanglements” throughout his second marriage to Carol Hughes. Feinstein hints, but goes no further, at misogyny as a possible basis for Hughes’s philandering when she cites the lyrics to his favourite Irish ballad: “If it wasn’t for my mother I’d hate all women”.

To her credit, Feinstein debunks many of the myths surrounding the Hughes-Plath marriage. She stresses, for instance, that Hughes happily took care of his children for four hours every morning so that Plath could write, and she takes pains to remind us of how atypical this was of a 1950s husband. She also rejects the allegation that Hughes left Plath and their two children with no money in a freezing London flat the year of Plath’s suicide. It is true that 1963 was England’s worst winter for 150 years, but Plath was not poverty-stricken as her many biographers have imagined. Hughes had given her all the money in their joint saving account, and he had not frittered away their savings as some had charged: He had the cheque stubs and statements from the period, he assured Plath’s mother, to prove it.

Feinstein also defends Hughes against critics who accused him of making money out of his dead wife’s work. As Plath’s literary executor, Hughes changed the order of the poems in the carbon typescript of Ariel that she left behind (a not unusual editorial practice) and published the collection posthumously. In addition, he republished two more collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, as well as a Collected Poems, which won for Plath the Pulitzer prize in 1982.

His detractors were further incensed when Hughes allowed The Bell Jar – Plath’s “queer, slangy novel” as she described it – to be published in the US. Feinstein argues that Hughes had been reluctant to permit this as he was sensitive to the book’s hurtful portrait of Plath’s mother, Aurelia.

However, Feinstein explains that his hand was forced when he learned that US copyright law gave only seven years protection to a book published abroad by an American citizen. It was likely that a pirated US edition would soon appear, so Hughes decided that it was only common sense to secure future royalties for himself and his growing children. He could not have foreseen the royalties that The Bell Jar would bring him: a sum in excess of ₤50,000, an astronomical fortune in 1970.

But why did Hughes not defend himself and tell his side of the story sooner? Feinstein guesses at a couple of reasons. One is that Hughes went numb. The death of Plath, followed by the deaths of Wevill, Shura and then his mother only a few weeks later left him in a torpor he compared to a lobotomy.

But regardless of the reason, Hughes saw himself as a survivor. And although his own tragedies were domestic rather than political, he aligned himself with Eastern European poets who understood the damage that human beings inflict on one another in a cruelly indifferent world: Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai, and Miroslav Holub. These poets were not, in Hughes’s words, “the spoiled brats of civilisation, disappointed of impossible and unreal expectations. They [had] got back to the simple animal courage of accepting the odds”.

Feinstein’s biography is eminently readable, but how could it not be with a plot like this one? All told, its most disappointing aspect is that we are left with little more insight into Hughes’s psychology than we could gather from his poetry.

Although Feinstein knew Hughes for nearly 30 years, she writes with more conviction about the inner worlds of Plath and Wevill than that of Hughes. Perhaps it is because Hughes’s deep interest in astrology, spiritualism, and the occult – he regularly consulted the ouija board and astrology to schedule appointments and used numerology to structure his collections – is difficult to discuss without a working knowledge of the arcana.

Nevertheless, Feinstein does offer a balanced view of Hughes. While many biographers fall in love or hate with their subject – either of which can make for engaging reading – Feinstein sees the complexity of Ted Hughes. She rejects all “Heathcliffe” comparisons and characterises Hughes as a Yorkshire lad who loved the countryside: a generous, large-spirited, and brilliant poet struck down by naivete, sexual philandering and bad luck.

Feinstein’s critical analyses of the poems are lightweight, but they do tease enough to make you want to read more. Most of Hughes’s poetry is readily available, particularly his best-selling Birthday Letters, which chronicles his troubled but loving marriage to Plath. Unfortunately Capriccio, the poems in which Hughes recalls his love affair with Wevill, was printed in an edition of only 50 copies. At $US4000 ($7850) a copy, it will never reach more than a small audience.

Hughes died of a heart attack on October 28, 1988, in London Bridge Hospital, a private clinic close to Guy’s Hospital where he had been receiving treatment for metatastic cancer of the colon. He was 68.

Review of Ted Hughes: The Life of A Poet by Elaine Feinstein first published under the title ‘Poor Sylvia, Poor Ted’ in the Courier–Mail 16 Feb 2002: BAM 5.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2003

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s.

Guest Editor: Martin DuwellForeword: Bronwyn Lea
Guest editor: Martin Duwell
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Poetry in Australia is thriving. According to my somewhat shaky mathematics, in 2002 there were exactly 100 volumes of poetry published (that’s one poetry book for every five novels) and 27 themed anthologies containing at least some poetry. Australian newspapers published almost 400 new poems (as well as reprinting some classics) and Australian literary journals published close to 1,800 poems. As the general editors for The Best Australian Poetry series, Martin Duwell and I hope that this anthology will direct readers to the poetry collections of the poets they enjoyed in this and future issues, as well as point to the literary journals that continue to publish high-quality poems.

We regret that we have not included poetry from Australian internet journals in this anthology. The decision to limit sources to the print media was based, for this year at least, on logistics, but it is possible that this might change in the future. In the meantime, I’d like to point to some websites worth looking at, including Cordite, Divan, Stylus, and John Tranter’s hugely popular Jacket, which brings into conversation poets and critics from around the world. Taking a different tack, Coral Hull’s Thylazine continues to make a case for poetry and activism, as well as provide an Australian poet directory — to which I am indebted in the course of tracking down some of the poets included in this anthology. And then there’s Jayne Fenton Keane’s Slamming the Sonnet website, which makes the most of web technology by using audio and video files to flesh out poetry and breath a little life into the critically-declared “dead” author. Last time I logged on, Queensland poet Sam Wagan Watson held his own in a cyberslam against Yeats, Plath, and Bukowski.

2002, like any year, was a time of things living and things dying. Most significantly it saw the passing of three major poets, Dorothy Hewett, Ron Simpson, and Gary Catalano. The former was always a flamboyant, larger than life figure in Australian poetry but one who showed that poetry could still embrace the large questions of public and private lives. Simpson and Catalano were quieter writers and it might be said they belong to the tradition that imported some of the values of the visual arts — especially a concentration on line — into our poetry. At the institutional level, Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press shut its doors after 17 years of publishing some of Australia’s finest poets. Shortly after, Ivor Indyk announced a new arm to his publishing house: the publication of literary works by individual authors under the Giramondo book imprint. Another birth worth noting is Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry. In Pretty’s editorial for the inaugural issue, he backs up contributing essayist Michael Sharkey’s assessment of the impoverished state of poetry criticism in Australia and puts out a call for “thoughtful pieces written about contemporary Australian poets and their work”. Which seems a good idea.

Given this discussion, then, it is no accident that we have decided to kick off the inaugural issue of The Best Australian Poetry with a guest editor who is not a poet, but a poetry critic. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s. Presented with the task of selecting only 40 poems from over 2,000 possible poems, Duwell has created (without much fuss) a terrific collection of high-quality poems that is sure to impress dedicated readers of Australian poetry and newcomers alike. Duwell possesses that rare ability Sharkey calls for in his essay “Reviewing Now”: “the ability of read widely, without prejudice”, which struck me immediately when I read his compilation and noted the diversity of form, voice, style, and subject matter. Duwell has a critic’s eye for quality, but also an anthologist’s sensitivity as to how individual poems converse — how they confront, contradict, affirm, and question one another.

Which brings me to another matter. I began writing this Foreword — then stopped for a long while — in October 2002. It was the time of the bombings in Bali. Which is to say, I wrote this within history, which is to date it. Many poems were born of this time, and like the thousands of 911 poems before them, Bali-bombing poems whizzed around the internet and clogged open-mic readings across the country. How many of these poems will survive remains to be seen — not many occasional poems do — but their existence illustrates Denise Levertov’s assertion (quoting Heidegger interpreting Hölderlin) that to be human is to “be a conversation”. Many it seems turn to the poem when their human need for dialogue, “in concretions that are audible to others”, overwhelms them.