16 June 2012

Two Reviews of Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar

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: click here. For those who primarily like, enjoy, and are fond of Sylvia Plath: click here.

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.


Anonymous said...

Fabulous reviews Peter! I agree it is a very interesting and at times revealing book. Not that we ever will, be I can only imagine what would unfold if we had all of Hughes' correspondence to all and sundry over the years. Playing devil's advocate I wonder if the 'repaired' comment was written as if from Plath's view, suggesting she felt ''their' broken relationship was close to being mended? However, like you said, it is very hard to read that lineany other way than Hughes' implying she had something to repair which galls a little. That said, as much as I am 'Team Plath', I am also 'Team Hughes' so again I thank you for the balance your two reviews brings.

Anonymous said...

These reviews were good timing - it was TH's and SP's 56th wedding anniversary yesterday - Bloomsday.

@ Anonymous: I would tend to agree with Peter: TH's comment about SP almost having repaired her relationship to him smacks of egocentricity to me & supports the view that TH thought his philandering was "justified" by Plath's - as he viewed it - difficult behaviour in their marriage.


Peter K Steinberg said...

~VC, as you can imagine the posting was timed for that reason.

@Anonymous, thank you! I try to be open-minded about Things Ted Hughes; and I find that he is quite a good letter writer. And to see a friendship develop between a poet who was quite private and a critic, a sworn-enemy, is pretty unique I think in the realm of Ted Hughes. You make a good point as a devil's advocate, I certainly hadn't considered or thought of it that way. But, on the whole I do take it at face value, read it literally, etc.


Melanie Smith said...

Sorry anonymous devil's advocate is me Melanie Smith not sure why my name did not appear as I put it in...

The Plath Diaries said...

Great review as always, Peter. I agree with you very much about Hughes's attitude to Plath in late 1962 as "objectionable." I've just been writing recently on the Introduction to the Frances McCullough edited Plath Journals.. Having a lot of problems reconciling Hughes's declaration of the emergence of Plath's "true self" in this period.. Suggesting that S.P. had "gotten it together" in both their personal relationship and in her poetry at this point not only intertwines poetry with the personal (something Hughes is vehemently against where S.P. is concerned - unless it's on his own terms!) and also, from a general medical standpoint: to say that someone had become their "real self" or had "repaired" a relationship less than three months before they complete suicide is very problematic for me.

That said, I have recently had a growing interest in Hughes and his work - which is new for me! Which would you recommend: these letters or the other recent Letters of Ted Hughes for a curious Plath-fan?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Maeve- Thanks for your comment. Each of the two letters collections are different. The Letters of Ted Hughes I think is the better of the two only because there is a greater variety of correspondents and of voices. However, Poet and Critic is valuable for its focused attention on their friendship, illustrating how the beginning reluctance blossomed into a very close, personal, and revealing friendship.


Anonymous said...

Peter, I'm glad you recommended THE LETTERS OF TED HUGHES because they do give a representative picture--from early to later Hughes, his generosity to students and scholars, the active environmentalism, and the very caring father. Those letters, particularly to his son, Nicholas, were quite affecting. One might get a more developed picture of Hughes if they read the LETTERS.

Peter K Steinberg said...


In addition, you may want to give Neil Roberts' Ted Hughes: A Literary Life a read as there are a couple of chapters on Plath.

You may want to read Carol Bere's review of The Letters of Ted Hughes too. (Palgrave, 2006) This book is now available in a paperback edition. Roberts is a major Hughes scholar (recently retired from Sheffield) who has recently published on Peter Redgrove. His book on Hughes is particularly good.

And back to the Letters of TH: You may want to give Carol Bere's review a read through as she has a particularly good eye for things Hughes and is a very astute critic and writer.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

In The Letters of Ted Hughes, we'd read Ted talking of his undying love for Assia shortly after Plath's death, so it's pretty hard to believe that he and Plath were so close to repairing the relationship. My feeling throughout this book (and Letters) is that this was wishful thinking in hindsight.

I think the best thing about these letters with Sagar is Hughes' explanations of his Shakespearean "Mythical Equation" (which, as you know, is a format I have been working to prove he used himself and taught Plath), of all the hermeticism, alchemy, astrology and occult references. He wasn't shy about these in the other book either, but he seems to explain them a bit more clearly and directly here. It seems clear to me that he shared some of these occult things with Sagar (there is a "Please keep these things in confidence" line somewhere), but not all of the details.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Julia - I largely had to skip over those Shakespeare letters in both volumes. -pks

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I know that the Shakespeare stuff is dense, and that you are reading a LOT of stuff to review. But if you can handle it in bites, his theories are fascinating and fully support the work of Hughes biographers such as Ann Skea (who is noted and admired by Hughes in the letters). The gist of the letters is easier to get than diving into Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, which often loses me (and Qabalah is part of my work).

What I'm saying, though, is that there is much valuable information there on the structural and thematic underpinnings of Hughes' and Plath's idol (the Bard), and on how Hughes and Plath set their own work up structurally. He spells it out for his own work, and lets one (me--ha) do the legwork for seeing it in Plath.

Rehan Qayoom said...

This was one of those rare books I read very fast, I was also eager to reach the '90s when Hughes was immersed in the writing of Shakespeare & the goddess of Complete Being and then Coleridge and, of course, Birthday Letters which remains my favourite book of Hughes' poetry:

Basically, my model was 'a letter'. Poetical effects incidental. Very self-exposing, I suppose, unguarded - my attempt to write about those things without aesthetic exploitation or concern for my artistic reputation. I no longer give much thought to that. Except to write clearly and expressively. Simply. No style. Plain.

One notion was - to set something down for F[rieda] & N[icholas].

(Ted Hughes. 15 August 1997. Poet & Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes & Keith Sagar. The British Library, 258).

I'm always amazed with people who are passionate about Plath are totally ignorant of Hughes and his work. I don't believe in a Team Plath or a Team Hughes thing. I think both were distinct poets in their own right but for myself, to know one is also to know the other more intimately. One can read Birthday Letters for example as a book of poems to his wife but their understanding would be much less richer and much less beautiful/poetic without the background knowledge of Plath's poetry that is alluded to in those poems or the events that inspired them. Moreover, a passion for the work of a particular poet entails a thorough enthusiasm for those related to them. Those who love Keats are also interested in learning about his Muse Fanny Brawne and so on.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.