On Ted Hughes


I finished the monolithic biography of Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate this morning and thought I’d reflect on some of that. At 672 pages it’s an effort, but mostly worth it, except for some of the more arcane analysis, particularly close examinations of notebooks and notebook poems and some tenuous links between life and art.

It’s a bit of a defence of Hughes against the ‘Libbers’ and, despite the fierce instance of the value of Hughes’s work in its own right, he remains a figure connected always with his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Plath, a connection that’s evident in both the writing and the life lived forever after.

Bate argues that the release of Birthday Letters, late in Hughes’s career, marks a freeing up moment but Hughes didn’t live long enough after that to benefit from that clarity.

As a writer I was very interested in Hughes’s own working mode, his self-scrutiny and reliance on detailed notebooks, and observations of people and nature, many of which seem like poems themselves. This is an unauthorised biography, and it seems the estate did not give Bate permission to use poems in the text, behind the notebooks quoted a lot.

Most importantly, it’s drawn me back to a poet I thought very highly of when those first books came to my attention in the 1980s, and I pulled these two down from the shelf and re-read them both.


Live Or Die

Looking every inch the (glamorous) poet Anne Sexton looks wryly at the world, cigarette in hand, on the back cover of Life or Die, a 1966 book of poems she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for, which I picked up in a second hand bookshop this week. It doesn’t contain my favourite Sexton poem, Pain for a Daughter, but it’s a really interesting and powerful collection, especially as I’ve been writing a little about Sylvia Plath for senior English students this year.

The blurb says: The poems are arranged chronologically and compose a fierce and intimate autobiograpy. The poet speaks with total frankness, her imagery and reference brilliant and hard as diamonds. It is impossible for her to be banal. Much of her experience is rendered as nightmare, but it is significant that the final poem is stunningly affirmative, its title the single command, “Live”.It was less than ten years later that she commited suicide.