Sunday, 13 March 2016

Bye Bye Ted

Having “put to bed” the paperback of my Ted Hughes biography, returned all the books to the shelves, and shredded hundreds of pages of manuscript photocopies, I reflect for a moment on the long journey of writing the book and dealing with its reception. A friend recently asked whether I have any regrets about all the emotional energy involved. Emphatically not, I replied. Not even over the accusations of prurience? About 40 pages of the book make reference to aspects of Hughes’s sexual life; about 600 to his writing life. But you wouldn’t guess that from the reactions of one or two critics of the older generation. So, any regrets about having incurred their wrath by including some explicit material on a handful of occasions? Well, imagine what people would have said if the sexual dimension had been airbrushed from the biography of the author of Gaudete (the long poem that could be summarised as Yorkshire vicar's spirit double in WI orgy) and of such poems as the Ploughshares version of “Do not pick up the telephone” (“Panties are hotting up their circle for somebody to burn in / Nipples are evangelising bringing a sword or at least a razor / Cunt is proclaiming heaven on earth”—not, it has to be said, TH’s most immortal lines). I just have a feeling that if the biography had been a bedroom-free zone, the word “whitewash” would have appeared somewhere.
No, my one regret is that not a single reviewer – though I’ve only seen a selection, so I may be traducing someone here – has drawn attention to the book’s excavation of the hitherto unknown long autobiographical poems/sequences “A” and “Trial” (the latter provides an extraordinary new window onto the last days of Sylvia Plath) or to the reading of the manuscript revisions in the great Gaudete epilogue poem “Waving goodbye from your banked hospital bed,” which was intended as the epicentre of the book’s argument. Mark Ford in the London Review of Books comes close to the latter, and he is to be thanked for that.

1 comment:

  1. How fascinating to read that a consequence of finishing a book is the shredding of "hundreds of pages of manuscript photocopies". Is there a feeling of loss, of exhaustion, of having to face an emptiness after living with all that for so long?
    And then to be accused, in the words of the reviewer in LRB of writing one of those "biographies that pander to a hunger for the sensational" - how does that feel? Does the author find the will to carry on seeking and writing?
    Shakespeare must seem like a haven in comparison.
    I am nervous of reading this book, because I have never really liked either TH or SP, finding the latter a mad mind out of my reach, and the former too earthy and rough. Reading the reviewer's very lengthy exposition of "Gaudete", however, I see similarities and alignments to those which are re-appearing to our shock and horror in the Syrian war and the emergence of ISIS (notably sexual torture and enslavement). That is genius, I suppose, to recognize the really awful depths of human nature, and depict them.
    How did the biographer maintain his sanity?