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.

Gilgamesh: carved in stone

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines

It’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down.

gilgameshIt’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down. The tale spread throughout the Middle East, and the version we have today has been reconstructed from Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian translations.

The discovery of the poem is a story in itself. Gilgamesh lay lost for thousands of years, until in 1839 a young Englishman, Austen Henry Laynard, unearthed the buried library of Nineveh. But it wasn’t until 1872, when George Smith announced that he had discovered among the tablets an account of the Old Testament flood, that the importance of the discovery was fully understood. Since then many more tablets have been found and reassembled, the pieces of which sometimes, due to various expeditions, ended up on different continents.

The cycle of poems centres on Gilgamesh, the (two-thirds god, one-third human) tyrannical ruler of the walled city of Uruk. At the poem’s opening, Gilgamesh has angered his subjects by insisting on his royal right to the first night with any Uruk bride. So to appease the people and distract the king, the gods create from clay a companion for Gilgamesh — a “strong man from the wastelands” who is named Enkidu. The two become friends, despite an initial squabble, and they set out on a series of adventures, encountering among other things heavenly seductions and cosmological battles.

But it is the death of Enkidu that arouses Gilgamesh’s latent humanity and leads to one of literature’s most despairing laments. Here’s a taste from Derrek Hines’s version: “This blorting thing I am; this broken hive swarmed with grief. Yet absurdly, dawn clatters up its ramshackle geometry to erect the city again; a butterfly limbers in its warmth”.

Which leads to the topic of translation. Today we are awash in an abundance of translated texts that would have been the envy of many earlier readers. The classics of every age and every culture — or at least those that have survived the hazards of time — are freely available in all kinds of versions. Successful translations of our time include Christopher Logues’s Iliad, Ted Hughes’s Ovid and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

For The Epic of Gilgamesh, translations range from productions of outstanding scholarship (such as Andrew George’s), to prose translations that privilege meaning over poetics (such as NK Sandar’s); all the way through to adaptations and reworkings of non-specialist enthusiasts, some of whom can also be very scholarly in their approach. Derrek Hines’s Gilgamesh falls into this last category.

Hines’s poetic adaptation uses all the conventions of contemporary free verse. At best his verse is studded with breathtaking pyrotechnics and resounds with genuine sentiment. Here’s an example from a section titled “The Humbaba Campaign” in which a soldier describes a battlefield:

… dying into grass; all those souls whistling
past our heads, homewards.

Beautiful. Or one of my favourite stanzas in which Enkidu is initiated by the “sacred harlot” Shamhat into the “civilised” ways of women:

After seven nights of love,
as a man might,
Enkidu lost his understanding of animal speech.
But it was a fair trade.

Working on the premise that every generation must translate the classics for itself, Hines has set out to “recapture for the modern reader some of the vigour and excitement the original audience must have felt”. Hines’s text is strewn with contemporary idioms and references to modern technology: he talks about “tram rails”, “X-rays”, and “submarines”. Manhattan becomes a metaphor for Uruk, and accordingly Hines talks about a “Niagra of fear” and describes a fight in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu “topple into each other like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings”.

In a 5000-year-old story, this sort of contemporising is no small matter. I can imagine an argument in which it makes perfect sense. No doubt it would rely on a postmodern view of time – something like Robert Bly’s idea that “after the industrial revolution all things happen at once” or similarly that the past is embedded in the present. But for more traditional readers like me, Hines’s anachronisms are distracting.

The Epic of Gilgamesh needs none of it. It speaks to the modern reader, not through high-tech metaphors but through its themes of friendship and love and the doomed search for immortality. From Uta-napishti (the Sumerian Noah), Gilgamesh learns the brutal lesson of time: that there is no permanence. It sounds simple but, as Hines’s narrator asks, “who can console us for dying?”

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines was first published in The Courier-Mail (9 Mar 2002): BAM 7.

Passionate for poetry

Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).

by Rosemary Sorensen

Bronwyn Lea is fast becoming one of Australia’s most celebrated poets. No sooner had she received the good news that she was this year’s recipient of the Wesley Michael Wright Poetry Prize, administered by the University of Melbourne, than she learnt her book, Flight Animals, is the winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers poetry award.

Poetry awards don’t get much notice in the wider community but in the vigorous, passionate and competitive world of poetry, such accolades carry clout.

These two latest come on top of the 2001 Somerset National Poetry Prize, and the 2000 Arts Queensland Poetry Prize.

She has every reason to be up-beat about her own success but Lea, 32, is equally optimistic about the state of poetry. She’s part of a small team at the University of Queensland who have seen their rather bold move into offering a course in poetics take hold in a pleasingly big way. The course has proved far more popular than they had hoped.

It’s not just would-be poets coming to the party. Like Lea herself, it’s people wanting to find out why they are attracted to the patterns of poetry, the nuts and bolts of prosody that have been downplayed in English classes.

“Poetry is more popular now than it ever was. There are more people who are literate, more poetry being published, and the web presence is huge,” Lea says.

She has the facts and figures to back up her claims. Apparently, the word poetry is the most popular term in web searches – what does that say about the digital revolution? “It fits on the screen,” suggests Lea, “and our attention span these days is so short. And then there’s the technology that gives us audio, too. I can get on the Web and listen to Adrienne Rich reading her work.”

American poet Rich is one of Lea’s favourites, and one of the examples she is using in the thesis she is writing for the University of Queensland on the role of poets in society.

Rich represents the activist role, Mayakovsky the role of the worker, the Indian poet Tagore that of the mystic. Out of Australia, what other role could we demand of a poet than as “cultural definer” – Les Murray, of course.

The roles aren’t distinct, Lea says, but her topic is giving her the opportunity to think carefully about the way different societies turn to their poets for help and inspiration. Across cultures and groups within society, however, there are some fundamental yearnings behind the evergreen desire for poetry.

“It’s because people know they can come together at a poetry reading and listen to something that speaks honestly. Poetry is a seeking and searching, trying to get into `big T’ truths.

“Even if the events portrayed aren’t done so accurately, it’s the authenticity of the words. Often in poetry you’re trying to get around the slipperiness of life.”

Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).