July 1999 Café Society's Poetry News Update
Do you have any poetry news? Would you like to have a debate by email with someone on a newsgroup and have it printed here? Do you have any comments for Readers' Letters? If so, mail me on the email link at the bottom of this page. This is a non-commercial site - competitions and calls for submissions can be announced here free.

Matthew Curry

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

Phil Hatfield
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".

You can read some of Matt and Phil's work on the Monday Night Group web site, http://www.mondaynightgroup.mcmail.com and contact Matt, Phil and the group via [email protected].

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.


Dear Poets,

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.

Best Regards,


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.

                                           © 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

© 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,

They liberate the Cote de Rhone
and send it to a better home.

Their policies are. . .
sort of nutty,
and with a hint of apricot.

    © 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,
    aaah ah-a-aaah!
    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

Edits the Corfe Valley News, which regularly features poetry, and written many humorous poems, some of which have been published on the internet. He uses pen names and prefers to remain anonymous, so we shall call him Mr X, or The Poet Formerly Known As G. Marshall when he's not looking. His poetry is also featured in PINKY'S MONSTER CAFE CORNER, link 5 on the main index of this website. He enjoys attending forums and local bars, also working as a volunteer coastguard.

Bet Johnjuman
(from Skeins In The Woolshop of Life.)

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace he was knitting
And the windows, all covered with flies.

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
He sighed as he removed his needles
And shifted to number fives instead.

'I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand -
I'm knitting some mittens that suit you,
All grey, short and hairy, and bland.'

'So you've brought the new 'Knitting for Felons'
And Betty has got it in now:
It's got a lovely pattern for rompers
If she hasn't removed it - the cow!'

'More hock, Robbie - where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull at the bell!
Oh, now I've dropped one of my stitches
An someones emitted a smell!'

'One astrakhan coat is at Willis's -
Another one's at the Savoy:
My trousers are under the sofa
And YOU are a most wicked boy!

A thump, and a murmur of voices -
('Oh why must they make such a din?')
'Time to cast off, me hearties
And let all those rozzers in!'

'Mr. Woilde, we 'ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
Bring yor knittin' an leave with us quietly,
-Who made that Angora-type smell?'

He rose, putting down the 'Knitting for Felons'
He staggered - and with terrible eyes,
He collected the bottle of seltzer
And smuggled it into his flies.


Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
But my foot's stuck in an elm-tree bole
Here in Delaware.
But whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
The lonely girl who waits for me
cursing the bole of the old elm-tree
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England - now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds and all the swallows!
Me leg it will in traction be
For when I felled the old elm-tree,
One hefty bough did'st fell on me!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover,
Methinks the snows will envelope the sedge
Ere I prepare to disembark at Dover.

That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And whenever I recall the bole of the old elm-tree
I fear that the same careless rapture may well escape me!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew,
But alas my heart is filled with a hoary blue
For my April love is down with ASIAN 'flu!

Jan Sand's illustration "Conjectures" for an essay on poetic inspiration

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.

© Jan Sand

The predatory sneeze
With explosive breeze
Leaps out from the nose
In a devastating wheeze.
From its cave between the eyes
It counts on fast surprise
That shakes you to your toes
In a blast to terrorize.
When you feel its tickle rising
It accepts no compromising
As its power grows
With its rapid mobilizing
Of the forces of expulsion
In demands of strong compulsion
You are soon in the throes
To squirt a thick emulsion.
The sneeze is very cunning
As it triggers this wet running
When you would least suppose
With effects completely stunning.
When engaged in fervid kissing
Or merely placid pissing
Or you stop to pluck a rose,
That's when there's no dismissing
This ferocious nasal beast
That leaps like lightning greased
And the messy fluid flows
And you wish you were deceased.

© Jan Sand
(From his book Per Verse)

I happened on an arthropod,
A jointed legged fellow,
Who sang a tragic little song
Which ranged from shriek to bellow.
It glared at me with facet eyes.
It gnashed its sideways jaws.
More threatening, I'd say,
Than many mother-in-laws.
"I had a lovely love," it sang,
"Six legs of sculptured form
Would make Brancusi grit his teeth
Or drown in chloroform.
Her thorax glittered like a gem,
Dark green with streaks of yellow.
Emotions went all loop-de-loop
In me, a simple fellow.
Behind, her convex abdomen
Promised me for eggs.
Ten thousand babies, could she make
With sixty thousand legs.
Four transparent wings she had
For flights profound, profane.
They glowed with spectral iridescence -
Enchanted cellophane!
But then an evil bee flew by
and saw her as a morsel.
It flexed its pincers as it swooped
And grappled her by her dorsal.
Off it flew! I stood transfixed.
My love it stole away.
I swore revenge on all its tribe.
They will regret that day.
So now," he sang, "I stalk the land
Through grasses and through trees.
I am the great bee bopper
Because I bop the bees."

[email protected]

QUENTIN B. HUFFis a professional tennis player, writer, and artist. He is the author of "The Psychodynamics of the Black Experience" and the Publisher of "Heart, Soul, & Spirit: Poems by Lillian Pierce Benbow." While in the process of ghostwriting a novel and finishing a How-to manual about efficient study habits, Quentin is also illustrating three forthcoming children's books for Dr. Laila O. Afrika, author of "African Holistic Health." Quentin currently resides in North Carolina, where his family has owned and operated Huff Art Studio for twenty six years.

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

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...

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


[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
I did not know at first
so when his eyes looked half wild
I did not fear the worst
or notice his reflection
begin to disappear
or lack of affection
in his drooling leer.

He started barking backwards
in chilling monotone
wearing capes with black hoods
when walking alone
eating rats and reptiles
- anything obscene
and vomiting projectiles
in bubonic green.

I walked him to a chapel
almost to the door
he began to grapple
screaming "BITCH!" and "WHORE!"
drawing worried stares
with his eyes aglow
like two eerie red flares
with sharp teeth below.

My dog was Satan's love child.
We dragged him to the vet
but it made the mutt riled
- he was not ready yet
to lose his wedding tackle
so he ran away
with a chilling cackle
and he's missing to this day.

[email protected]


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!


Back Issues of POETRY LIFE & TIMES:

September 1998

October 1998

November 1998

December 1998

January 1999

February 1999

March 1999

April 1999

May 1999

June 1999

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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