The British Library's recent publication, Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar (ISBN: 9780712358620, 320 pages, purchase) gives a more complete run of the letters from Hughes to Sagar than were published in the Letters of Ted Hughes (2007). And we should be thankful for that, as the letters provide a rare look a unique friendship. The letters, held in the British Library and previously only available to researchers traveling to and through London, cover nearly 30 years (1969-1998) and explore a fascinating range of topics. While only a handful of Sagar's letters to Hughes are included, when present they provide that even more unique aspect of letter writing: a conversation.
Because Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath both have supporters and detractors in equal measure; and because these two camps have historically sparred, I have decided to write two reviews of Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar. Consider it a kind of "choose your own adventure" on this Bloomsday. For those who primarily like, enjoy, and are fond of Ted Hughes: see just below. For those who primarily like, enjoy, and are fond of Sylvia Plath: scroll down a bit.
Poems belong to readers
Throughout Poet and Critic book, we see a poet struggling to form a corpus. From editing drafts of poems, stories and other prose, to the physical arrangement many of his poetry collections, Hughes presents himself as a writer not fully confident in his decision making abilities. One has to wonder how these decisions were made in his early years, say from 1957-1960, as he compiled his first two collections, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Lupercal (1960). This indecision of arrangement is a natural conundrum for a writer and not meant to be a criticism of Hughes himself; in fact, it is somewhat refreshing to know that, from year to year and from book to book, Hughes agonized over and questioned everything from the content and order of the books he was making to the component words of the poems themselves. Sentences like: aIn fact now I look at them I realize they were the beginning of an attempt to open myself in a different direction...and I'm aghast at the time and density of folly that has passed..." (61); "...and vital time has shot past in total neglect of the work I ought really have been doing" (77); and "when it suddenly seems as if only now do I know what I ought to be doing, & how! I ought to be doing it" (165) are typical of this aspect of Hughes' creative process. In these, we are left to wonder how different his output would have been had Hughes been able to do things differently. Or, perhaps these are the excuses one makes to justify their insecurities. The biggest boon to Hughes' writing though appears to have come to him circa 1997-1998 when he decided to publish and published Birthday Letters. As if all these thoughts and comments about his failure to be essentially true to his poetic self was finally possible after confronting certain scenes from his past. He was, "Not sure what to make of it" when the media storm hit (261). It has been said that in publishing these poems Hughes gained (or regained) a poetic intensity as can be seen in his later translations such as Tales from Ovid, Euripides' Alcestis, Aeschylus' The Orestia, and Racine's Phedre. And it is true that these works do represent absolute mastery of craft and inspiration.
Sagar routinely offered advice to the poet (some of it quite candid in nature), often lamenting Hughes' own editorial decisions to remove lines from poems, and poems from books. As a collector, too, Sagar was prescient and his interest in Hughes' manuscripts in all likelihood saved documents that might otherwise have been misplaced or otherwise been made unavailable. Sagar's detailed notes, too, are largely helpful in contextualizing and explaining otherwise cryptic or content referred to in correspondence not included. The font of the footnotes is tiny, and quite difficult to read; and the Appendices are useful and interesting and provide valuable supporting information to topics discussed in the text. Sagar was dedicated, lifelong, to Hughes. Sagar's admiration and loyalty to the poet shines through; likewise for Hughes, and I have learned a completely new side to him. This dedication to the art and craft of literature and poetry is evident throughout the book, and is certainly one of its many achievements.
This is a valuable book for readers of 20th century poetry and educators; for rare book and manuscript collectors; and for enthusiasts of the drama called life, among others.
The Babel of the Plath Industry
One of the leading subjects of interest to readers of Poet and Critic will be the instances where Hughes' first wife Sylvia Plath is mentioned. No doubt this was what news reporters focused on when the collection was first name available in 2001; and also when a few of the letters appeared in the Letters of Ted Hughes; and when news of the publication was made earlier this year. The pull quotes used in these news "stories" are already hackneyed, and do little to contribute to our understanding perhaps of how Hughes dealt with Plath's after-life as a topic of interest, and how Sagar approached it as well.
One of the more challenging sentences for me in this book is, "Finally, poems belong to readers" (43). This is of course loaded because it is not something Hughes or the Plath Estate have routinely allowed to happen. His quasi-threat against Jacqueline Rose's interpretation of "The Rabbit Catcher" comes to mind. To those for whom this might be new, Rose's reading in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath suggests that in "The Rabbit Catcher" Plath might have had homosexual fantasies. And, Hughes responded that the reading, in some countries, could be "grounds for homicide." And, so far as there are any blatantly autobiographical imagery or themes in Plath's work that one might interpret as being about Ted Hughes himself, of course, is a no-no. Which makes his comment that "poems belong to readers" a bit of a lie.
There are far too many references to Plath in this book to give in this review, but what is interesting to note is Hughes' tone. That he even discussed Plath at all with a critic I find impressively open; and that this critic - who clearly gained Hughes trust over the years - should be among the few to learn about Birthday Letters months in advance was revealing. In fact, as the book proceeds, and as the end draws near - an end that we all know is coming - I would be lying if I said I did not get excited about the books publication. An eagerness overtook my eyes to read faster.
The first instance where Hughes discusses Plath with Sagar comes in a long 16 May 1974 letter that was in fact written by Olwyn Hughes. It makes for interesting reading. Olwyn was not fond of Plath, so a comment like "FIRE EATER - bad poem etc. This was Sylvia's favourite poem in LUPERCAL" is not shocking (33).
The most objectionable comment, I think, comes in a letter to Sagar dated 23 May 1981: "By Dec. '62 she was quite a changed person -- greatly matured...and had almost completely repaired her relationship to me" (108). It is that last bit, that she "had almost completely repaired her relationship to me" that ruffles my feathers. Unless something occurred of which the general public is not privy too, it was or should have been the other way around, right? Why would Plath have had to have repaired her relationship to Hughes when - as far as we know - it was Hughes who turned his back on the commitment?
In the book though we see Hughes editing and publishing not just his own work, but also that of Plath's. In 1981 the Collected Poems was published, and at the same time he "resigning from the curatorship of Sylvia's mausoleum, after eighteen years of loyal service" and was at work "Trying to cut the text across the Atlantic" of Plath's abridged Journals, a book that he saw as providing "what has been lacking: a real image of her, the globe of all angles" (114, 116).
What is interesting is that we learn more about the genesis of Birthday Letters, such as the working title as of 1995 was The Sorrows of the Deer. Interesting, too, to see Hughes at work preparing his archive, something he called "a big shock" for Emory at that time and that he "Discovered a few S.P. mss" (251, 248). But again, it is the assembling of Birthday Letters that overtakes the last two years, 1997 and 1998. And the commentary on this is fascinating. In these late letters, hearing Hughes' authorial voice on some of these poems I feel will assist future readings of them. While the commentary is selective, it might also be possible that these will aid in reading the other poems too.
As a person who has interested himself in Plath scholarship, this book if a valuable contribution to a growing understanding of the way things developed and worked before my time. I myself am grateful for the access to this correspondence and know that in years to come I continue to have a better understanding of Ted Hughes - and Sylvia Plath - because of it.