I see Ted Hughes’ notebooks have gone to the British Library for half a million quid – (see http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4947626.ece ) – which looks like a bargain, given the general cost of such things. Hughes lived about three villages from here, and there was a strange kerfuffle on the night he died, or rather, the night after. The national news announced that he’d died in his home in Devon (cue shots of thatched cottages etc. etc.), and, immediately following this, the local news said he’d died in London. (The local news was correct.)
Not long after I moved to central Devon (the area that is supposed to have helped drive Plath into deep depression), I went to what was certainly the least promising jumble sale ever, in the local church hall. A few manky items were strewn across a few dicey tables. The chance of a bargain never seemed lower. However, on one table, an elderly woman had spread out a selection of Hughes’ collections of poems, including ‘Moortown’. I glanced inside it, and, to my surprise, it was a signed copy – indeed, not only a signed copy, but one which had corrections to the typos in Hughes’ hand, and a signed drawing, and, even more amazing, a short poem to the owner (4 lines).
‘Did you know Mr. Hughes?’ asked the seller, who had added a list of dates and times of Hughes radio broadcasts to the inside page. No, not personally. In fact, I only ever saw him read on one occasion, in about 1975, when he was invited to the college where I worked, and read some of his poems. He was asked if he would say something about the composition of ‘The Thought-Fox’, to which he replied, after a brief pause, ‘No’. That rather stopped the questions.
‘You can have it for 50p,’ she said – actually in the kind of tone that implies ‘See if you can get me down to 20p.’ I didn’t haggle. So I have a signed copy of ‘Moortown’ and an original poem in my possession. Frieda Hughes (sound of name being dropped) once told me – there was a reason for us to exchange emails – that the seller had been exceptionally daft. Perhaps the British Library would like to get in touch?
In fact, I’ve never been a huge Hughes fan, certainly not from ‘Crow’ onwards. I get what he’s doing, but it’s not for me. And maybe I suffer from that teacher’s curse – teach poems too many times, and they almost always start to pall. I like his early work a lot, but, as with many teachers, you can get too much of ‘Hawk Roosting’. But I do think he gets an unnecessarily bad press over Plath (who is certainly one of my favorites) – forever being demonised for separating from her, as if it might not have happened in reverse. The lost Plath notebooks, which Hughes destroyed in one case, and seems to have mislaid in the other, are to be mourned: but his reason, which was that he didn’t want his children to read them, seems to me sadly sane. Plath continued to haunt him, as the Hughes collection ‘Birthday Letters’ showed. I enjoyed ‘Birthday Letters’ as (auto)biography – but not as poetry. It won posthumous prizes out of respect – and maybe that’s no bad thing. Prizes are in any case awarded for a bizarre mixture of reasons.
As for Plath, she is hard to shake off as a poet, once you immerse yourself. Writing after reading Plath means suddenly indulging in internal rhymes, and peculiar patterns of echo. I think her influence remains profound on almost every contemporary poet, but can lead one to mimic her style, without even being aware of it.
Still, if anyone in the twentieth century equalled her sustained creativity in October 1962, I’d like to know their name. Arthur Miller’s first draft of ‘Death Of A Salesman’ (then ‘The Inside Of His Head’) was allegedly written in under 24 hours, and that’s in contention. But I can’t think of anyone else. Any ideas?