|July 1999||Café Society's Poetry News Update|
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
|The first in an occasional series of polite discussions and heated debates about poetry. This issue the discussion was kindly transcribed by Steve Rouse (Catfish) in Manchester. Many thanks to Steve and the two participants Matthew Curry and Phil Hatfield. Steve also provided the intro below.
Matthew Curry and Phil Hatfield are both active members of the Monday Night Group of writers in Manchester, England. They have both been published frequently and Phil has published a pamphlet of his poetry under the title, "A Love Song for Brigitte" (Towpath, 1998).
Here they discuss Ted Hughes's collection, "Birthday Letters".
|Matthew Curry:||Phil, what impresses you most about the collection and what lessons do you think we can learn from it as writers at writing groups?|
|Phil Hatfield:||It's a considered collection. As members of writers' workshops I think we could do far worse than to study this collection in some detail. In an ideal world, if I had my choice, I would provide this collection, Birthday Letters, to every writers' workshop in the country, and I would love to see it on the "A" level syllabus in future years. It's a model for me, almost, of how to write a collection of poetry.|
|Matthew Curry:||There's an incredibly broad scope to the book, and it seems to be written in a style that can cope with just about everything that experience can throw at a person. He seems to be able to structure his experience and his memory at the same time as relating events, experiences and taking up from describing objects and giving an insight into what it was like to be inside that relationship. He's also, at the same time, commenting on how memory works, the way people look back at things and the way expectations of the future affect the present. The poems are written since Sylvia Plath's death in 1963, over a period of twenty-five odd years.|
|Phil Hatfield:||I think, Matt, and this has been well documented since the publication, that for Ted it was a coming to terms with what had happened, a settling of the account. There's a lot been documented since the death, and there was a lot of controversy surrounding the death - and I know that he was blamed for the death by certain parties - but I think that, for the first time in publication, as well as he has been able to, the account's been settled. We didn't know at the time, perhaps, but we know now that he had cancer, that he presumably knew that he didn't have long to live and that this needed to be documented. It does cover a great amount of time, it's really difficult to discern from the poems which poem fits where, but I think that the later we read into the collection there's a more ominous presence of impending doom. The poems in which he starts to talk about "Mummy and Daddy" - Sylvia Plath's parents - and the growing sense of desperation; you wonder from time to time whether Ted can survive the experience. We know that he does, or did, but you just wonder whether he's strong enough, through the strength of his poems, to see this matter through and the further you get into the collection, there's a real threat, a real fear that he's not going to survive it.|
|Matthew Curry:||I think that, from the start, this doom is implanted. We all, as readers, know what is going to happen, we know the main events of the story. So, there's the doom from the start, but it builds, and it builds, and it builds and, as you say, in the later poems this kind of child-like language that has this ominous tone, and then a few almost nursery rhyme poems that stand out from the rest, which are in a much more chatty style. There are these four line stanzas, and some rhyme even comes into it - a kind of nursery horror, a nursery feel to the whole thing - and the sense of impending doom builds, as you say.|
|Phil Hatfield:||I think that what happens is that you are drawn so far towards the abyss with him, and then he'll give you a lighter poem to off-set that and you get comfortable. Then you come back and start reading a poem, like "Fairy Tale", for example, which draws you as near to the chasm as you could possibly get without falling over with him. He talks about forty-nine being Sylvia Plath's magic number - forty-nine this, forty-nine that - forty-eight doors which could be opened and the forty- ninth door never being opened, and you really feel for what's happening. It's really the crux of the matter, it's the bare bones, and it's getting to the point where the crisis is being reached. And, as the reader, you've got to take some responsibility, and you've got to follow it through and keep up with what's happening. And, at that point, you stand on the edge of the abyss too. That, I think, is the strength in his work - that you are there with him and he's evoked this kind of maelstrom, this storm, this terrible moment. He's brought the crisis and you're feeling that crisis at that time, he's brought you there.|
|Matthew Curry:||I must say that I was surprised at how much he makes you swallow. Because you get to each poem through all those that have gone before, because you don't just go straight to one like "Fairy Tale", that you probably accept more as a reader than you would otherwise. I wouldn't have imagined reading something about "forty-eight or forty-nine doors opening" to be powerful and not to sound silly, but the way that he does it is completely compelling and takes you right, as you say, to the brink and you really are wondering what's this forty-ninth door, what's behind it, what this beast is. It's much more obvious, much more blatant mythical/fairy tale stuff than in his previous work, I'd venture to suggest.|
|Phil Hatfield:||In a sense, he's coerced you there, nursed you there by some of the lighter stuff in the collection. Maybe talking about the happier times, that it wasn't all impending doom and that there was the light side.|
|Matthew Curry:||There's a great example of that in the poem called "Chaucer", when he describes Sylvia declaiming Chaucer to a field of cows, and although it gives a sense of a manic, slightly mad edge to things, it also shows up the side of their life that isn't really well documented. You tend to imagine them all sitting around miserable, writing poems and being depressed. Well, I do! I thought that was a marvellous poem. And this uncertainty about memory, how he quite often is daring enough to say that he can't quite remember what happened, or that he is aware that he's pieced it together and that's how he remembers it. He's working on this business of the way that we re-fashion things that have happened in the past.|
|Phil Hatfield:||Or, on other occasions, as in the Marianne Moore poem, he chooses to leave things out deliberately, chooses not to remember them as a kind of put-down to the situation.|
|Matthew Curry:||Yes, and it's a sort of writing which I don't think he's done before. There has been some autobiographical stuff before, but this constant filling in of the ordinary business of civilised living, that he's avoiding in a lot of his writing that's been seemingly about animals and the deep psyche, and he's suddenly showing that he's able to do all this seemingly surface stuff and yet inject it with the deep meanings at the same time. I'm wondering whether he honed his narrative skills writing the Tales from Ovid, which was his previous book and which also won the Whitbread prize.|
|Phil Hatfield:||I think that the way he used myth in Tales of Ovid was a trial run for bringing Birthday Letters to fruition. There are parts of Tales from Ovid where he just brings it into the everyday, and it does become common and everyday. It's almost as if he's preparing for this one last great creative surge.|
|Matthew Curry:||I definitely got that impression because it's puzzling to think why he did approach writing all those versions of Ovid myths. In his book on Shakespeare, which came out some years previously, he was quite disparaging about Ovid and his treatment of myths. He was talking about how, deep down in Shakespeare's writing mind was the early poem "Venus and Adonis", for which Ovid was the source material, and he was saying that Shakespeare re-invigorated it with real myth, whereas the Ovid story was superficial. It really puzzled me as to why he'd then end up writing a full book of these versions of Ovid if he felt that he didn't have the full mythic guts in his writing. But then, in his introduction to Tales from Ovid, he did say that the similarity he felt was writing at the end of an era when all the old deep meanings were losing all their relevance, and there was a kind of gap opening up.|
|Phil Hatfield:||I think that the thing about myth and folk tradition, for example, is that that is only the platform, that is the tradition. I do think it takes a writer of some substance, be it male or female, in order to push the limits further. The tradition always exists and any adept writer, I'd offer, is familiar with those traditions and, in my mind, must make it their responsibility to be familiar with those traditions. I think that the real crunch comes in how far they can take that tradition and use it and put it into personal experience - and universal experience, once again, to recreate it, to refashion it. I think that what Hughes largely successfully did with Tales from Ovid was to refashion it, to make it accessible to a new generation whom, let's face it, nine people out of ten probably have never read the Greek myths. And now, I believe - talking about Shakespeare, Stratford are doing a dramatised version of Tales from Ovid, which is on until October, I think.|
|Matthew Curry:||I think another function of Birthday Letters is as a way into Sylvia Plath's writing. There are a lot of references to her writing in Birthday Letters, particularly as you get towards the later stages of the book. He supplies quite a lot of the biographical/autobiographical material behind some of her poems - so long as you are aware that it is from his point of view. It's interesting that there are quite a few quotes from, and references to, Sylvia's writing. It picks up on the fact that the predominant colour in the Ariel poems is red and that she seemingly progressed to what you might call a "red period" in the final stages, and he identifies this as having been an unhealthy part of her make up.|
|Phil Hatfield:||The red poem is, co-incidentally, the last poem in the collection and it's nicely summed up. If I can just quote the final line, it says, "But the jewel you lost was blue", and he makes one or two references earlier on to bluebirds - I think that's a commonly held myth, the "bluebird of happiness". He finally admits that they failed in a sense. There are various poems which refer to being tested. . .|
|Matthew Curry:||The Fox poem. . .|
|Phil Hatfield:||. . . the Fox poem. How the marriage was tested. If the fox had come into the house, how it would have finally tested the marriage and the marriage would had failed, because of the conditions which were set up. So really, there we have it, Red being the last poem in the collection, there it's finished, it's been said, it's been done. And it's been published and it's been sold; one of the most successful collections of poetry. It's sold whereas other collections have not sold. All of a sudden, poetry is sexy - it's the sexy language, it's the sexy thing to be with poetry and I think this book's done a lot towards that.|
|Matthew Curry:||I think also that it's important to note that it's maintained the dignity of their experience and that its not "selling" what happened.|
|Phil Hatfield:||No, no. I think it's something we could learn from ourselves - the methodical way in which he's gone about things, and the success. The incredibly difficult task which he's attempted and, to a large extent - I mean, some of the poems are flawed - he's succeeded in doing. I just think it's a great inspiration for anybody who's taking on writing as a profession. It's a guide, it's a model for us all.|
|Birthday Letters is published by Faber & Faber.|
This issue has a new debate feature, which will occasionally take the place of the regular interview. Future participants of The Great Debate can be two members of a poetry group (as with this month's issue), or two poets on a poetry newsgroup who have an ongoing disagreement about poetry, or wish to have a discussion on a famous poetry collection or poem they have both read. This can be done by email before sending the result to me.
The debate in this issue will also appear in The Monday Night club's August update.
I am very happy to announce that, after several years of entering the Capricorn International Poetry/Short Story Competition and being occasionally told I was "shortlisted but narrowly missed out on a runners-up prize this time", I have just been informed that I finally won a runners-up prize in their Love Poetry competition of 1998, with the poem "Appendage". They will publish the poem in an anthology later this year and send me a complimentary copy. I think it is a competition worth entering, because If your poem(s) did well, the organizer Deborah Tutton will often write back with specific comments about what the judges liked about your work. After a while, you can get a feel for the kind of poem that could potentially win.
The theme for this month's poetry section is "Humour". Thank you to all who sent in their work. I have enjoyed reading all the poems.
Any comments on this issue or back issues can be emailed to me on the link at the bottom of the page. Remember to state whether you would like your comments to go on the Letters Page. Comments will only appear there with permission of the sender.
I asked some poets to come up with poems on this theme and the results were diverse and entertaining....
catfish (Steve Rouse)
CATFISH (STEVE ROUSE) is a member of the Manchester (England) - based poetry group called The Monday Night Group in Manchester, England. He's quite active on the local poetry scene and has been published by Crocus and the AK Press, amongst others. He writes about anything which comes to mind and has been accused of being experimental, which he confirms or denies as the occasion demands.
fish/corporation © catfish (steve rouse) Fish God™ (US Patent No. 5567894) rests, seething, on the ocean floor a temporary injunction banning him from using his tail fins (US Patent No. 5567899) preventing him from swimming the urgent product recall of his eyes (US Patent No. 5567893) preventing him from seeing His gills (US Patent No. 5567896) pulse furiously as he strains to evolve without a licence fruit © catfish (steve rouse) In their best burgundy balaclavas, the elite squad of the Wine Liberation League creep through the darkened house and sidle into the cellar. They think it's cruel to collect wine. To buy it and drink it, fine, but to buy it and store it and never to pour it. . ? No. That's a denial of basic wine rights, and that's why they have the connoiseurs in their sights. They believe that wine exists to be drunk, but a perversion persists that wine is for collecting. Their aim is the correcting of this mistaken view. These few, these happy few, these drunken few, these pissed as newts live only to aid the vine's fruits in fulfilling their righteous, joyous, scrumptious, purpose. They liberate the Cote de Rhone and send it to a better home. Their policies are. . . mmmmm! sort of nutty, well-rounded and with a hint of apricot. gorilla © catfish (steve rouse) I am a poet, the King of the mumble. I beat my hairy vest and swing through the similies with pain at my side, rhyming Aaah-a-aaah aaah ah-a-aaah! with la la la la-la-la. no fun anymore © catfish (steve rouse) The aliens left Earth today, and a note, saying: “Thanks for the canapes.” The grapevine has it that their leader, Tharg of the Seventh Birthing Ring of Saturn, said that they were tired. . . of conflicting invitations to dinner parties, to which they simply must come; of crepes and sun-dried tomatoes, served on beds of warmed rocket; of searching comments, such as: “So, you’re an alien, then?”; of not having a cure for cancer, unemployment or the common cold. And, after the world had stood still, being blamed for the lack of peace and good will. “If it didn’t work for Diana, “ Tharg said, “Why us?” Only, it was more a sort of farting and knotting of tentacles.[email protected]
B Johnjuman, aka Brownbob, aka G Marshall
THE WILDE ARREST IN HIS CARDIGAN AT THE HOTEL|
(from Skeins In The Woolshop of Life.)
He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
To the right and before him Pont Street
'I want some more hock in my seltzer,
'So you've brought the new 'Knitting for Felons'
'More hock, Robbie - where is the seltzer?
'One astrakhan coat is at Willis's -
A thump, and a murmur of voices -
'Mr. Woilde, we 'ave come for tew take yew
He rose, putting down the 'Knitting for Felons'
BROAD THOUGHTS FROM A HOME
Oh, to be in England
And after April, when May follows,
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
JAN SAND, poet and illustrator from New York, is a regular contributor to Poetry Life & Times. and the newsgroup alt.arts.poetry.comments. A great deal of his work is about animals, or science fiction.
To see more of Jan's poem and illustrations, visit the November '98 issue of Poetry Life & Times, and scroll down past the Editor's Letter.
|BEWARE THE BEAST|
© Jan Sand
The predatory sneeze
I happened on an arthropod,
Title: "Effy Vose" Quentin Huff i honked my horn to get your attention. you ignored me. i parked my car in the middle of traffic, rolled down my window, screamed your name. no response. i grabbed an apple, a rose, and an energizer battery. i hopped out of the car and climbed on top of it. i yelled your name but got more of a reaction from irritated drivers. i tucked the apple beneath my chin, stuck the rose in my mouth, and tap danced while screaming, "effy vose hazzizz sthorn." you didn't acknowledge me so i juggled the rose, the apple, and battery, standing on one foot, hopping, and taking bites of the apple in mid-air. you didn't even look up. i flung the rose to the street, tossed the apple cork at random, and buried the battery in my pocket. i gave up. and that's when you took notice. i think you saw yourself. Title: "Writers Anonymous: The 3 Step Program" © Quentin Huff [Step One: Resentment] Hi, My name is Quentin. I'm a write-a-holic. I cant control it, cant curb the urge to write. I need help. I want my life back. [Step Two: Commitment] I write poems on fast food napkins, with toothpicks, using ketchup for ink. I jot ideas for poems on my arms and legs. When I run out of space, I use my shoes. I make motions similar to Michael Jacksons moonwalk when I need to erase. I make up stories while making love to my wife. She left me. Who needs her? She was suffocating my creativity. I await submission replies like an addict, hands trembling, head shaking in disbelief. Not another bout with rejection! I'm manic depressive. I'm happy to be here. I hate life. I live for revision. Feedback is food. Sex is a new concept. [Step 3: Contentment] As a recovering write-a-holic, admitting my problem has provided a much needed catharsis. Joining this nurturing group has.... (Excuse me, but are you going to throw away that paper cup? Thats good paper! What are you, crazy?!) ....taught me to reconcile my past and move forward. Title: "GeNiUs" © kwynTUN huf mosT people doN'T UNdersTaNd whUT iT'z lyke 2 be a geNiUs. iT's more thaN a wyrd. i sleep wyTh my haT oN. 4 kryzmez i goT a sTr8jackeT -- i kaN'T move my armz, i'm koNsTrykTed iN Thys corNer of iNsaNyTy. i see yoU waTchiN' me frUm yoUrz... wUNderiN' who i am; who am i if NoT a reflexioN of yoU, a mirror/mirror of paraNoya. aN' yoU doN'T No whUT iT'z lyke To be a geNiUs. iT's more ThaN a wyrd. yoU sleep wyTh yoUr sokz on. i shoUld pUT yoU iN The same kaTegori az The bossez who fyred me, The wyfe who lef' me aN' The ex-coN wyTh The mU-sTash who servez veg'Table beef aT The soUp kyTcheN ...haTless. [email protected]
|Lastly, here's one from me.||MY DOG WAS SATAN'S LOVE CHILD
© Pinky Andrexa (Sara L. Russell 30/6/99)
My dog was Satan's love child
He started barking backwards
I walked him to a chapel
My dog was Satan's love child.
The June issue looks good. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute; my poems are presented as I like them, so from my viewpoint, it's a go.
You do good work!
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Mail me on: [email protected] with any poems, comments for the letters page, news about your poetry site, or forthcoming poetry events.
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