Interview with Ted Hughes

The following excerpt is taken from an interview with Ted Hughes published in the Paris Review, Spring 1995.

INTERVIEWER: You have been associated with Mark Strand and W.S. Merwin. How do you see their work as compared to yours?

HUGHES: I know Merwin's work pretty well. Mark Strand's less well, though I look at it very closely wherever I find it. I've been close to Bill Merwin in the past. I got to know him in the late fifties through Jack Sweeney who was then running the Lamont Poetry Library at Harvard. They had a house in London, and when Sylvia and I got back there in late 1959 they helped us a lot, in practical and other ways. Dido Merwin found us our flat, then half furnished it, then cooked things for Sylvia in the run up to our daughter being born. That was the high point of my friendship with Bill. He was an important writer for me at that time. It was a crucial moment in his poetry - very big transformations were going on in there; it was coming out of its chrysalis. And I suppose because we were so close, living only a couple of hundred yards apart, his inner changes were part of the osmotic flow of feelings between us. Very important for me. That's when I began to get out of my second collection! of poems and into my third - which became the book entitled Wodwo. He helped me out of my chrysalis, too. Part way out. And he was pretty important for Sylvia a little later, when the Ariel poems began to arrive in early 1962. One of the hidden supply lines behind Ariel was the set of Neruda translations that Bill did for the BBC at that time. I still have her copy. It wasn't just Neruda that helped her. It was the way she saw how Bill used Neruda. That wasn't her only supply line, but it was one. I think Bill's traveled further on his road than any contemporary U.S. or British writer I can think of. Amazing resources and skills.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think of the label "confessional poetry" and the tendency for more and more poets to work in that mode?

HUGHES: Goethe called his work one big confession, didn't he? Looking at his work in the broadest sense, you could say the same of Shakespeare: a total self-examination and self-accusation, a total confession - very naked, I think, when you look into it. Maybe it's the same with any writing that has real poetic life. Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it's the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic - makes it poetry. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies. We think we're writing something to amuse, but we're actually saying something we desperately need to share. The real mystery is this strange need. Why can't we just hide it and shut up? Why do we have to blab? Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe, if you don't have that secret confession, you don't have a poem - don't even have a story. Don't have a writer. If most poetry doesn't seem to be in any sense confessional, it's because the strategy of concealment, of obliquity, can be so compulsive that it's almost entirely successful. The smuggling analogy is loaded with interesting cargo that seems to be there for its own sake - subject matter of general interest - but at the bottom of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, for instance, Milton tells us what nearly got him executed. The novelty of some of Robert Lowell's most affecting pieces in Life Studies, some of Anne Sexton's poems and some of Sylvia's, was the way they tried to throw off that luggage, the deliberate way they stripped off the veiling analogies. Sylvia went furthest in the sense that her secret was most dangerous to her. She desperately needed to reveal it. You can't overestimate her compulsion to write like that. She had to write those things - even against her most vital interests. She died befor e she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life, but she had to get them out. She had to tell everybody * like those Native American groups who periodically told everything that was wrong and painful in their lives in the presence of the whole tribe. It was no good doing it in secret; it had to be done in front of everybody else. Maybe that's why poets go to such lengths to get their poems published. It's no good whispering them to a priest or a confessional. And it's not for fame, because they go on doing it after they've learned what fame amounts to. No, until the revelation's actually published, the poet feels no release. In all that, Sylvia was an extreme case, I think.

INTERVIEWER: Could you talk a bit more about Sylvia?

HUGHES: Sylvia and I met because she was curious about my group of friends at university and I was curious about her. I was working in London but I used to go back up to Cambridge at weekends. Half a dozen or so of us made a poetic gang. Our main cooperative activity was drinking in the Anchor and our main common interest, apart from fellow feeling and mutual attraction, was Irish, Scottish and Welsh traditional songs - folk songs and broadsheet ballads. We sang a lot. Recorded folk song was rare in those days. Our poetic interests were more mutually understood than talked about. But we did print a broadsheet of literary comment. In one issue, one of our group, our Welshman, Dan Huws, demolished a poem that Sylvia had published, "Caryatids." He later became a close friend of hers, wrote a beautiful elegy when she died. That attack attracted her attention. Also, she had met one of our group, Lucas Myers, an American, who was an especially close friend of mine. Luke was very dark and skinny. He could be incredibly wild. Just what you hoped for from Tennessee. His poems were startling to us - Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens vocabulary, zany. He interested Sylvia. In her journals she records the occasional dream in which Luke appears unmistakably. When we published a magazine full of our own poems, the only issue of St. Botolph's, and launched it at a big dance party, Sylvia came to see what the rest of us looked like. Up to that point I'd never set eyes on her. I'd heard plenty about her from an English girlfriend who shared supervisions with her. There she suddenly was, raving Luke's verses at Luke and my verses at me.

Once I got to know her and read her poems, I saw straight off that she was a genius of some kind. Quite suddenly we were completely committed to each other and to each other's writing. The year before, I had started writing again, after the years of the devastation of university. I'd just written what have become some of my more anthologized pieces - "The Thought Fox," the Jaguar poems, "Wind." I see now that when we met, my writing, like hers, left its old path and started to circle and search. To me, of course, she was not only herself: she was America and American literature in person. I don't know what I was to her. Apart from the more monumental classics - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and so on - my background reading was utterly different from hers. But our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive. I don't know whether our verse exchanged much, if we influenced one another that way - not in the early days. Maybe others see that differently. Our methods were not the same. Hers was to collect a heap of vivid objects and good words and make a pattern; the pattern would be projected from somewhere deep inside, from her very distinctly evolved myth. It appears distinctly evolved to a reader now - despite having been totally unconscious to her then. My method was to find a thread end and draw the rest out of a hidden tangle. Her method was more painterly, mine more narrative, perhaps. Throughout our time together we looked at each other's verses at every stage - up to the Ariel poems of October 1962, which was when we separated.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know how Sylvia used her journals? Were they diaries, or notebooks for her poetry and fiction?

HUGHES: Well, I think Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker made a fair point about the journals: a lot of what's in them is practice * shaping up for some possible novel, little chapters for novels. She was constantly sketching something that happened and working it into something she thought might fit into a novel. She thought of her journals as working notes for some ultimate novel, although, in fact, I don't think any of it ever went into The Bell Jar. She changed certain things to make them work, to make some kind of symbolic statement of a feeling. She wasn't writing an account of this or that event; she was trying to get to some other kind of ancient, i.e., childhood, material. Some of her short stories take the technique a stage further. Wanting to express that ancient feeling.

INTERVIEWER: What happened to Plath's last novel that was never published?

HUGHES: Well, what I was aware of was a fragment of a novel about seventy pages. Her mother said she saw a whole novel, but I never knew about it. What I was aware of was sixty, seventy pages which disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I always assumed her mother took them all, on one of her visits.

INTERVIEWER: Would you talk about burning Plath's journals?

HUGHES: What I actually destroyed was one journal which covered maybe two or three months, the last months. And it was just sad. I just didn't want her children to see it, no. Particularly her last days.

INTERVIEWER: What about Ariel? Did you reorder the poems there?

HUGHES: Well, nobody in the U.S. wanted to publish the collection as she left it. The one publisher over there who was interested wanted to cut it to twenty poems. The fear seemed to be that the whole lot might provoke some sore of backlash - some revulsion. And at the time, you know, few magazine editors would publish the Ariel poems, few liked them. The qualities weren't so obvious in those days. So right from the start there was a question over just how the book was to be presented. I wanted the book that would display the whole range and variety. I remember writing to the man who suggested cutting it to twenty - a longish intemperate letter, as I recall - and saying I felt that was simply impossible. I was torn between cutting some things out and putting some more things in. I was keen to get some of the last poems in. But the real problem was, as I've said, that the U.S. publishers I approached did not want Sylvia's collection as it stood. Faber in England were happy to publish the book in any form. Finally, it was a compromise - I cut some things out and I put others in. As a result I have been mightily accused of disordering her intentions and even suppressing part of her work. But those charges have evolved twenty, thirty years after the event. They are based on simple ignorance of how it all happened. Within six years of that first publication all her late poems were published in collections - all that she'd put in her own Ariel, and those she'd kept out. It was her growing frame, of course, that made it possible to publish them. And years ago, for anybody who was curious, I published the contents and order of her own typescript - so if anybody wants to see what her Ariel was it's quite easy. On the other hand, how final was her order? She was forever shuffling the poems in her typescripts - looking for different connections, better sequences. She knew there were always new possibilities, all fluid.

related links:

  • Ted Hughes a site maintained by Claas Kazzer from the University of Leipzig
  • Ted Hughes - some of his poems about Sylvia Plath