I'm reading Elaine Feinstein's 2001 biography of Ted Hughes.Another turnaround for me after my earlier re-education about Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. But I dismissed all three virulently, as a younger poet and rampant uninformed ego, without reading a word any of them had written. I just hated them on the basis of a few statements they had made, and on my sense of what they "represented".
So Larkin didn't like Pound, Picasso and Parker (that's Ezra, Pablo and Charlie "Bird"). I disagree with him on all of them--though I like Picasso without much enthusiasm--but Larkin's own two novels are good books. His poetry still lacks punch, to me, but he didn't set out to write anything categorical, anything that revealed Truth (with a very necessary capital "T")--to Larkin that would have been unforgiveably vulgar. And technically his stuff is marvellous within the scope of his limited ambition.
Amis I used to see as another Establishment figure (I cast them all in that condemning light, to some extent). But why, with Kingsley in particular? Because he wore a tie? His poetry column in the Daily Mirror used to vex me because his attitude to the craft was so conservative. But it was in the Daily Mirror, dumbass, the unofficial tabloid of the Labour Party, when Margaret Thatcher was in power and maligning everything the Labour Party stood for. My understanding of what the Establishment was, back then, was very limited, very lacking in nuance. And Amis' novels are wonderful. They're scurrilous, irreverent, howlingly funny, beautifully written, and they expose the pomposity and silliness of people on all sides of the political debate--maybe like a less uptight version of Alexander Pope. He did stiffen into a kind of Toryism, in a way, in later life (these things are complicated); but doesn't everybody? The shibboleths of liberalism and even outsiderism are shot through with their own brand of conservatism anyway.
Ted Hughes, God help him, was the feminist antichrist throughout the 1980s because of What He Did to Sylvia Plath. But blaming her suicide on her husband is a curiously anti-feminist position to take, don't you think? Can't Sylvie take responsibility for her own mental health problems? (and let's not forget, she had tried to do herself in before she met Ted Hughes as well.) There is the unfortunate detail of Assia Wevill's suicide as well--which the feminists never seemed too bothered by, poor Assia--so Hughes was obviously not a fantastic husband even if one should take Plath's victim status with a whole shaker full of salt, but can any of us afford to judge him as a man? I mean, since it doesn't appear he committed any heinous crime? I know I can't judge him. In fact, when I think about my own life and the mistakes I've been unable to avoid making--and continue making--I feel rather sorry for him. (Plath and Wevill felt sorry enough for themselves; they don't need any help from me. And Wevill did kill Hughes' daughter. Can anybody imagine what it must be like to survive that?)
And here's a question I--along with the entire world of political feminism--should have asked a long time ago: how the fuck did Ted Hughes' private life have any bearing on his art, other than in the sense that it provided him with the material or the mood?
The other big sticking point for me, with Hughes--I mean in the old days when I was more certain than I am now--was his acceptance of the Laureateship, but again, now, at 43 year old with greying hair and bad eyesight and all my teeth slowly falling out, I have to say I really couldn't care less, since it didn't diminish his poetry. I don't like the Royal Family, but I don't insist that anybody, much less everybody, should agree with me on the subject. And much as it worries me to entertain the thought, I'm not even sure anymore that I'm right about the Royals. Like everything else, it's a complicated question. Life needs its myths, its giants, its traditions, its magic; those things stand as a bulwark against capitalism and the final reduction of the human being to the state of nothing more than an economic unit, which is where businessmen and their puppets in the House of Commons are leading us. Something has to be bigger than Money. Isn't it just possible that the Royal Family serve that function in English society? (though they're not doing a great job at it if that is one of their roles.) I don't know. I really don't. All I know is that I'm not sure. Welcome to your forties, Hodder.
Further thoughts on Hughes and Plath, thinking of two people I know much better:
There is usually, in any domestic tragedy, one person who tells all and another who says nothing. I have seen it up close and personal. And words are persuasive. Being taken into another person's confidence is persuasive too; your ego responds to it like an obedient puppy sits up to receive a biscuit.
You aren't necessarily being told the truth, not (as the courts would say) the whole truth, just because you are being told something. Is there even any such thing as a total, objective truth when it comes to a relationship (or anything else for that matter)? You could say that the only unarguable truth is What Happened, the plain facts, but even what you do is directed by what you feel; and what you feel is conditioned by, among other things, an arguable interpretation of a previous event.
When I saw, at first hand, something similar to Plath and Hughes unfolding, the fulsome explanations of the Plath figure didn't exonerate herself from blame for his marital infidelities so much as fail even to consider that she might have played a part in them; that something in her behaviour in the marriage might have helped push him out of the door. And I struggled to come to terms with that for a very long time. I saw the Ted Hughes figure in her life (and mine) as she had chosen to portray him: a cruel philanderer who had crushed her innocent love underfoot. Which is exactly how Hughes has been characterised--or certainly how he was characterised, in the 80s, when political feminism was at its strongest. The Hughes figure in my life never talked about what happened; and I don't think I would want him to now. I knew them both and loved them both, but beyond that, what business is it of mine? At this distance, his dignity in saying nothing, regardless of the misinformation she may have spread, seems enormous.
Hughes, of course, surprised everybody by speaking about Plath in "Birthday Letters" (a remarkable book). But he gave nothing away, really. He didn't attack her unduly or plead for himself in an unmanly fashion. He just talked, to her, as if she were still listening somewhere, a significant presence in his life--which I'm sure she was. I'm out of touch with the opinion of others, generally, but I'd be intrigued to know what "Birthday Letters" and the act of talking, finally, about the relationship that defined his life, has done for his reputation. If, in fact, he still has one among anyone other than "Poetry Please" listeners and readers of the Sunday Telegraph arts supplement.