The Artist and the Work





Can the artist and the work ever be separated? I have been having this discussion with other poets and a painter friend lately. I love the poetry of Ezra Pound. But Pound was an anti-Semite. Does enjoying his work make me an anti-Semite too? I love the poetry of Ted Hughes. Does that mean I approve of men having multiple relationships simultaneously? And are the achievements of either poet, or any of the other great poets, writers, painters and musicians of history to be nullified by our disapproval of the lives of their creators?

I can't really disapprove of Ted Hughes. I once slept with a woman knowing she was married, and I didn't give a moment's thought to her husband; she excited me, and I wanted her. But I do believe someone gets hurt when a trusted partner starts thinking it's all right to sleep with other people. It might not always be the person you expect, but it will happen. Ted Hughes lost a wife and a partner to suicide. He was unquestionably attracted to emotionally complex women whose apparent fire was a mask for terrible fragility. He cheated on both of them. Whether he bore full responsibility for their deaths or not is highly debatable. I've read widely on the subject and I don't think he did. But he was vilified for decades because of Plath.

I have believed for a while now that we are becoming more moralistic, more puritanical, more aggressively judgemental, on the political left. They've always played at that on the right while allowing for themselves licence to do anything they wanted regardless of the consequences. But we mean it, and we police ourselves as rigourously as we throw brickbats at the enemy. Do I want to belong to a movement in which I have to run every sentence I write by a committee before it's published? Should I have to prove my worth by making sure I tick every ideological box?

It's obvious to me that an artist's work is a product of the artist's mind, his/her experiences, perceptions, misconceptions. Pound's greatness (I think he's great) even in the early poems, comes from a set of attitudes and values which were ripe for conversion into fascism given the necessary external stimuli -- which, in my opinion, were the carnage of WWI and his move to Italy. His anti-Semitism, as he later said himself, was a 'stupid, suburban prejudice', and hardly uncommon in America or England; it was the decay of his mind that made it quite so virulent.

Hughes, likewise. His isolated Yorkshire upbringing, hunting animals with his brother in the woods, alongside the development of his colossal but unusual intelligence, made him ripe, in such a conservative, patriarchal society, for a self-serving and uniquely pretentious take on relationships . He wrote the best mainstream English poetry of his generation from a mind that saw the world as one in which primordial forces were at work, and male desire meant something, although I'm puzzled what. Hughes wrote in the programme of a performance of Gaudete:


This changeling proceeds to interpret the job of ministering the Gospel of Love in his own log-like way. He organizes the women of the parish into a coven, a love society. And the purpose of this society, evidently, is to produce the Messiah.

I can't read that without a straight face. To me, it's an excuse for a man to get his knob out and exploit as many women as he can. But Hughes took it seriously, at least as a mythical representation of some deeper truth, whatever that truth might be.

I doubt I would have liked Pound or Hughes very much as men. I don't think they would have liked me either. I refuse to give up on their work, however, just because their ideas don't chime with my own. Their books are too precious to me, and there's a sort of intellectual fascism in junking writers who take inconvenient or offensive positions which has no place in civilized debate. No one died because of Pound. I've heard his broadcasts; he would have been an irritant to the Allied generals and politicians, but only Ezra would have believed in his influence. People did die around Hughes, but people have died around me who I could have helped much more than I did. The hurt I've caused others in my life is incalculable. Is anybody such a paragon of virtue that they can dismiss a mad poet, or an arrogant poet, out of hand and damn them to Hell forever?

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