In the United States, few poets have endured the kind of censure that Ted Hughes has experienced since the death of Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ role in the weird melodrama which led to Plath’s suicide has been processed so thoroughly by the criticism that it seemed inseparable from an aesthetic consideration of his work, but at fifty years’ distance, we are better situated to do so: Emory, an American university, keeps the archive of Hughes’ manuscripts and personal papers, and the feminist reading of both Plath and Hughes has matured enough to admit character flaws on both sides of that dark marriage.
This critical liberation comes at a timely moment. The monstrous Collected Poems of Ted Hughes isn’t quite ten years old, and has given a freshened generation of critics the chance to evaluate his poetry by some means other than the biographical. But the results were disappointing. Case in point: Paul Batchelor’s 2005 review of Collected Poems in Tower Poetry, which divides Hughes’ work into various roles or personas, “The Nature Poet,” “The Mythographer,” etc., leveraging the convenience of those categories to organize its tepid distaste for Hughes’ style. In the “Nature Poet” section, Batchelor makes the excellent point that Hughes’s reiterative descriptions of his subjects “outstrip most people’s experience,” noting that through the overlapping phrases of poems like “Sketch of a Goddess,” which describes two orchids, we are made to feel the inadequacy of language:
That one’s past it. But this one’s in her prime.
She utters herself
Utterly into appeal. A surrender
Of torn mucous membranes, veined and purpled,
A translucence of internal organs
In a frisson,
The core debauched,
All loosely dangling helplessness
And enfolding claspers –
His apparent failure to settle on the right phrase for the orchids, to Hughes’ fans, is the fresh expression of an old and delicious problem: Romantic Irony, the brilliance of a physical world that both compels us to describe it and defies description. There’s a good argument to be made that this dilemma is at the core of poetry’s efficacy; that English poetry has always been playing this game that it can’t win, and always pleasing us as it does so. But Batchelor attacks Hughes precisely for his expression of that problem, arguing that in the famous collection Crow, the backload “ …of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying,” and concluding that Hughes “…appears to have exhausted nature as a means of negotiating his experience.”
But Batchelor’s analysis flips Hughes’ real dilemma on its head: With his long descriptive lists and huge volume of published work, Hughes wasn’t belaboring a natural world he had exhausted, but celebrating a beauty he couldn’t exhaust. What Batchelor really takes umption with isn’t Hughes’ subject, or style, but his volume. “Hughes was prolific,” he writes, but this does not work out to a compliment: “There are many weak, and some positively bad poems in Collected Poems…” the implication is that Hughes should have either curbed the writing impulse, or curated his collections better.
It is revealing to contrast this critical reaction to those of Elizabeth Bishop’s reviewers. In terms of volume, Bishop is Hughes’s opposite (her life’s work included only 101 published poems). The Poetry Foundation, with audible gaspiness, describes Bishop as “…a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, preferring instead to spend long periods of time polishing her work.” “Perfect” is an adjective that circles Bishop’s work like a moth, and for all her lack of volume, she frequently rivals or outperforms Hughes in anthologies. Ernie Hilbert, reviewing her volume Bold Type, wrote that Bishop’s is distinguished by “craft-like accuracy” and “a miniaturist’s discretion and attention” He celebrated her poems as “…balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles…every element…poised flawlessly against the next.” It is difficult to find a review which doesn’t share Hilbert’s awe. But are brevity and balance really such reliable aesthetic standards?
Education is preceded by canonization. The anthology is its roadmap, and the excerpt, as much teachers hate to admit it, is its currency. Our generation, whose scholars have been brow-beaten by political discourse into an ideological obsession with inclusiveness, has done a fervent job rewriting the book on who should be included in those anthologies and excerpts. But the nastier question has to do with what should be included. The what question is not solvable, because it is predicated on the notion that we can comb through and extract an author’s “representative works,” which are actually mythological beasts, about as discoverable as griffins.
With poets like Bishop, this dilemma seems easier to untangle, given her concentrated output. But with voluble poets, such as Hughes or Walt Whitman, the difficulty is compounded. Someone once wrote of Whitman that “only a genius could have made his mistakes,” and that aphorism sums up the anthologist’s, and ultimately our culture’s, dilemma as we attempt to convey Whitman’s importance: Even his mistakes are genius, so how can decide what is most brilliant, moving, worth discoursing about? We can’t, but critics like Bachelor reveal that smart people are still allowing the anthologist’s impulse to steer their aesthetic judgement. Bachelor dislikes Hughes not because what he wrote wasn’t poetic, but because he wrote too much of it.
Yet volume can be just as profitable as refinement. The endurance of writers like Whitman and Hughes is undeniable, but we’ll be forced to deny it if we accept Paul Batchelor’s critical criteria. To an artistic mind that is already well-trained, expansion can be a form of revision: Left together on the page, multiple phrasings can assume an atmospheric weight equivalent to one of Basho’s Haikus, which get their gravity from brevity. Poems like Hughes’ “Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days,” which are flooded with descriptive language, might lose their power if the author had scratched all the repetitious phrasings. In this poem, economy would be a vice:
…And now he connects her throat, her breasts and the pit of her stomach
With a single wire
She gives him his teeth, tying the the roots to the centrepin of his body
He sets the little circlets on her fingertips
She stiches his body here and there with steely purple silk
He oils the delicate cogs of her mouth
She inlays with deep cut scrolls the nape of his neck
He sinks into place the inside of her thighs
So, gasping with joy, with cries of wonderment…
They bring each other to perfection.
There is certainly an infinite care in even Hughes’ most apparently off-hand poems, a fact which reveals one last truth about the dilemma between concentrated and voluble poetry: It dissolves under examination. Bishop’s perfection is as voluble in its depth as Whitman’s is in its breadth, just as Hughes’ descriptive panegyrics are every bit as crafted as Stephen Spender’s shoe-polished stanzas. Our preference for one over the other is not a question of quality, but of stylistic preference; a preference we should never make into a principle. The flaw that causes college reading packets to favor Bishop is systemic: A consequence of our need to anthologize. The virtue that will save Hughes from undeserved anonymity must be begun in the criticism. Experience, poetry’s subject, is not exhaustible, and we should not accuse the poets who attempt to emphasize this inexhaustibly of absurdity. In fact, the apparent looseness of voluble poetry accounts for that expansive quality taken on by the examined life. Fitting easily into the museum is an excellent criterion for the curator, but a poisonous one for the artist, and Hughes, who was a genius, should be allowed to make his genius mistakes. The delight of his sort of poetry is that it lies close to life, which cannot be summed properly up any more then he can be satisfyingly anthologized.