This is the blog that almost stopped me blogging. I started blogging in November with the idea of sharing my interest in poetry and responding to my poetic life as it happened. A big part of this would be short reviews, to be called appreciations. It would a sideline, notes written in margin, or typed into my iPad as I got on with the main business of reading and writing poetry. In practice it took too much time, the appreciations became full reviews, drafted and re-drafted driven by the concern of being accurate and fair. The thing that finally stopped me was an attempt to analysis the state of Ted Hughes’ reputation and to pin it on his charisma. That his high profile as a public poet and his well known anthology pieces gave him a status that hid the truth he was a something of a poetic dead end. In particular the blend of tweedy counterculture and mysticism that was at the heart of his thinking.
There was a television documentary broadcast during the last Christmas period, which put me off TH somewhat. I have always been a great admirer of TH in particular his early collections and Crow. Watching the programme I was struck by the oddity of his world view, in particular his use of horoscopes and belief in portents, like the fox that appears in his dreams or on a north London street. Also thinking about the formal character of his poems, I became aware that I could not seperate his poetic voice from his actual physical voice, in that now/ and again now and many other fragments I can hear his vowels. It occurred to me that this Heathcliff from central casting had in part used his charisma to sell his verse, and it was now difficult to seperare author and work.
Charisma has always played an important part in literature, but how do the attached literature and personality survive apart. From the start, the bardic origins of poetry, oral traditions meant that no exact version survived its author; the practicalities of publishing in small early modern cities would forced some writes to stay within walking, and talking, distance of their readers; the fame of Lord Byron; Dickens’s stagecoach and railway tours; the massive resources of modern media. It seems a writer’s personal reputation is undeniably tied to the reputation of their work.
In the case of pre-twentieth century writers most of this has now faded, we are left wondering how writers spoke, and guessing exactly how their work gained its reputation. To an extent writers’ work often has to fight against the received opinion of the writer, the suffering romantic poet, or an over theatrical Dickens. For more modern writers the link between a writer’s personality and their work is likely to remain.
The question that interests me is what is TH’s poetry like without his received poetic persona. And the answer is Crow. For me anyway, this energetic surreal sequence of poems that is removed from the immediate natural world, is hard to link with my image of TH. I suspect that TH would not have agreed with my description of Crow, probably seeing Crow as an extension of one of his other animal avatars – fox, hawk for instance. I find similar eccentricity in Tales from Ovid, thinking of King Midas’s asses ears in particular. So without much thought I have my answer. With the trickster Crow and with Ovid TH attached himself to something larger than himself, which speaks to his courage as a writer and of some humility. Not only do have my answer but I also have a key to his work. Many of the subjects of his work are bigger than him. That his other interests certainly affected his poetry, but are not his poetry.
At the risk of making something of a segway. The artist who’s inspiration struck me as ma in the greatest distance from his work was Piet Mondrian. It was many decades after I first saw his austere arrangement of lines, white space and primary colours, that I learnt that his paintings were expressions of his interes in Theosophy. I do not know if a fellow Theosphist would be able to read them. None of rhe substance of Theosophy made it into his work, while his aesthetic sense certainly did. While other interests may have helped him develop this sense, it is his aesthetic choices we are left with. And his late Broadway Boogie Woogie does make me wonder how pure and consistent his interest were.
From a blogging point of view I think this speculation is too vague and wide ranging to make a efficient easily realised blog. The nut of it is to be careful of paying too much attention to a poet’s biography or a particular version of a poet’s biography. Though there is some truth in my doubts. I do think poetry can be weakened when a poet’s other interests become too explicit. They may be brilliant in there own right but they might not be poetry.