Interviews

Ted Hughes, The Art of Poetry No. 71

Interviewed by Drue Heinz

Ted Hughes lives with his wife, Carol, on a farm in Devonshire. It is a working farm—sheep and cows—and the Hugheses are known to leave a party early to tend to them. “Carol’s got to get the sheep in,” Hughes will explain.

He came to London for the interview, which took place in the interviewer’s dining room. The poet was wearing a tweed jacket, dark trousers, and a tie whose predominantly blue color matched his eyes. His voice is commanding. He is often invited to read his work, the flow of his language enlivening the text. In appearance he is impressive, and yet there is very little aggression or intimidation in his look. Indeed, one admirer has said that her first thought sitting opposite him was that this was what God should look like “when you get there.”

Born Edward James Hughes on August 17, 1930 in the small mill town of Mytholmroyd, he is the youngest of the three children of Edith Farrar Hughes and William Henry Hughes. The first seven years of his life were spent in West Yorkshire, on that area’s barren, windswept moors. Hughes once said that he could “never escape the impression that the whole region [was] in mourning for the First World War.”

He began to write poetry at age seven, after his family moved to Mexborough. It was under the tutelage of his teacher at the town’s only grammar school that Hughes began to mature—his work evolving into the rhythmic passionate poetry for which he has become known throughout the world.

Following two years of service in the Royal Air Force, Hughes enrolled at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. He had initially intended to study English literature but found that department’s curriculum too limited; archeology and anthropology proved to be areas of the academic arena more suited to his taste.

Two years after graduating, Hughes and a group of classmates founded the infamous literary magazine St. Botolph’s Review—known more for its inaugural party than its longevity (it lasted only one issue). It was at that party that Hughes met Sylvia Plath, an American student studying in England. Plath would recall the event in a journal entry: “I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large, bulky, healthy Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of god—a singer, story-teller, lion, and world wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.” They were wed on June 16, 1956 and remained married for six and a half years, having two children, Frieda and Nicholas. In the fall of 1962 they became estranged over Hughes’s alleged infidelities. On February 11, 1963, while residing in a separate apartment, Plath placed towels under the door of the room where her children were napping, laid out a snack for them, turned on the gas jet of her kitchen stove and placed her head in the oven—asphyxiating herself.

A few months after their marriage Plath had entered a number of her husband’s poems in a competition judged by W. H. Auden, among others. Hughes was awarded first prize for his collection Hawk in the Rain. It was published in 1957 by Faber & Faber in England and Harper & Row in America. With his next publication, Lupercal, in 1960, Hughes became recognized as one of the most significant English poets to emerge since World War II, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1960 and the Hawthornden Prize in 1961.

His next notable work was Wadwo, a compilation of five short stories, a radio play, and some forty poems. Although it contained many of the violent animal images of Hughes’s earlier work, it reflected the poet’s growing enchantment with mythology. Wadwo led Hughes into an odd fascination with one of the most solitary and ominous images in folklore, the crow. While his aspiration to create an epic tale centering on this bird has not been fulfilled, he did publish Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow in 1970, sixty-six poems or “songs,” as Hughes referred to them. The American version, published by Harper the following year, was well received. The New York Review of Books said that Crow was “perhaps a more plausible explanation for the present condition of the world than the Christian sequence.”

Still deeply interested in mythology and folklore, Hughes created Orghast, a play based largely on the Prometheus legend, in 1971, while he was in Iran with members of the International Center for Theater Research. He wrote most of the play’s dialogue in an invented language to illustrate the theory that sound alone could express very complex human emotions. Hughes continued on this theme with his next work of poetry entitled Prometheus on His Crag, published in 1973 by Rainbow Press.

His next two works of note, Cave Birds and Gaudete, were predominantly based on the Gravesian concept that mankind has sinned by denying the “White Goddess,” the natural, primordial aspect of modern man, while choosing to nurture a conscious, almost sterile intellectual humanism.

Following the publication of his 1983 work River, Ted Hughes was named poet laureate of Great Britain. His recent publications, Flowers and Insects (1987) and Wolfwatching (1991), show a return to his earlier nature-oriented work—possessing a raw force that evokes the physical immediacy of human experience.

Hughes has shown a great range in his work, and aside from his adult verse, he has written children’s stories (Tales of the Early World), poetry (Under the North Star) and plays (The Coming of the Kings). Hughes has also edited selections of other writers’ work, most notably the late Plath’s. The controversy surrounding Hughes’s notorious editing and reordering of Plath’s poetry and journals, the destruction of at least one volume of the latter, as well as the mysterious disappearance of her putative final novel have mythologized both poets and made it difficult for Hughes to live the anonymous life he has sought in rural Devonshire.

 

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to talk about your childhood? What shaped your work and contributed to your development as a poet?

TED HUGHES

Well, as far as my writing is concerned, maybe the crucial thing was that I spent my first years in a valley in West Yorkshire in the north of England, which was really a long street of industrial towns—textile mills, textile factories. The little village where I was born had quite a few; the next town fifty. And so on. These towns were surrounded by a very wide landscape of high moorland, in contrast to that industry into which everybody disappeared everyday. They just vanished. If you weren’t at school you were alone in an empty wilderness.

When I came to consciousness my whole interest was in wild animals. My earliest memories are of the lead animal toys you could buy in those days, wonderfully accurate models. Throughout my childhood I collected these. I had a brother, ten years older, whose passion was shooting. He wanted to be a big game hunter or a game warden in Africa—that was his dream. His compromise in West Yorkshire was to shoot over the hillsides and on the moor edge with a rifle. He would take me along. So my early memories of being three and four are of going off with him, being his retriever. I became completely preoccupied by his world of hunting. He was also a very imaginative fellow; he mythologized his hunting world as North American Indian, paleolithic. And I lived in his dream. Up to the age of seventeen or eighteen, shooting and fishing and my preoccupation with animals were pretty well my life, apart from books. That makes me sound like more of a loner than I was. Up to twelve or thirteen I also played with my town friends every evening, a little gang, the innocent stuff of those days, kicking about the neighborhood. But weekends I was off on my own. I had a double life.

The writing, the reading came up gradually behind that. From the age of about eight or nine I read just about every comic book available in England. At that time my parents owned a newsagent’s shop. I took the comics from the shop, read them, and put them back. That went on until I was twelve or thirteen. Then my mother brought in a sort of children’s encyclopedia that included sections of folklore. Little folktales. I remember the shock of reading those stories. I could not believe that such wonderful things existed. The only stories we’d had as younger children were ones our mother had told us—that she made up, mostly. In those early days ours wasn’t a house full of books. My father knew quite long passages of “Hiawatha” that he used to recite, something he had from his school days. That had its effect. I remember I wrote a good deal of comic verse for classroom consumption in Hiawatha meter. But throughout your life you have certain literary shocks, and the folktales were my first. From then on I began to collect folklore, folk stories, and mythology. That became my craze.

INTERVIEWER

Can you remember when you first started writing?

HUGHES

I first started writing those comic verses when I was eleven, when I went to grammar school. I realized that certain things I wrote amused my teacher and my classmates. I began to regard myself as a writer, writing as my specialty. But nothing more than that until I was about fourteen, when I discovered Kipling’s poems. I was completely bowled over by the rhythm. Their rhythmical, mechanical drive got into me. So suddenly I began to write rhythmical poems, long sagas in Kiplingesque rhythms. I started showing them to my English teacher—at the time a young woman in her early twenties, very keen on poetry. I suppose I was fourteen, fifteen. I was sensitive, of course, to any bit of recognition of anything in my writing. I remember her—probably groping to say something encouraging—pointing to one phrase saying, This is really . . . interesting. Then she said, It’s real poetry. It wasn’t a phrase; it was a compound epithet concerning the hammer of a punt gun on an imaginary wildfowling hunt. I immediately pricked up my ears. That moment still seems the crucial one. Suddenly I became interested in producing more of that kind of thing. Her words somehow directed me to the main pleasure in my own life, the kind of experience I lived for. So I homed in. Then very quickly—you know how fast these things happen at that age—I began to think, Well, maybe this is what I want to do. And by the time I was sixteen that was all I wanted to do.

I equipped myself in the most obvious way: whatever I liked I tried to learn by heart. I imitated things. And I read a great deal aloud to myself. Reading verse aloud put me on a kind of high. Gradually all this replaced shooting and fishing. When my shooting pal went off to do his national service, I used to sit around in the woods, muttering through my books. I read the whole of The Faerie Queene like that. All of Milton. Lots more. It became sort of a hobby-habit. I read a good deal else as well and was constantly trying to write something, of course. That same teacher lent me her Eliot and introduced me to three or four of Hopkins’s poems. Then I met Yeats. I was still preoccupied by Kipling when I met Yeats via the third part of his poem “The Wandering of Oisin,” which was in the kind of meter I was looking for. Yeats sucked me in through the Irish folklore and myth and the occult business. My dominant passion in poetry up to and through university was Yeats, Yeats under the canopy of Shakespeare and Blake. By the time I got to university, at twenty-one, my sacred canon was fixed: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot. I knew no American poetry at all except Eliot. I had a complete Whitman but still didn’t know how to read it. The only modern foreign poet I knew was Rilke in Spender’s and Leishmann’s translation. I was fascinated by Rilke. I had one or two collections with me through my national service. I could see the huge worlds of other possibilities opening in there. But I couldn’t see how to get into them. I also had my mother’s Bible, a small book with the psalms, Jeremiah, the Song of Songs, Proverbs, Job, and other bits here and there all set out as free verse. I read whatever contemporary verse I happened to come across, but apart from Dylan Thomas and Auden, I rejected it. It didn’t give me any leads somehow, or maybe I simply wasn’t ready for it.

INTERVIEWER

Was it difficult to make a living when you started out? How did you do it?

HUGHES

I was ready to do anything, really. Any small job. I went to the U.S. and taught a little bit, though I didn’t want to. I taught first in England in a secondary school, fourteen-year-old boys. I experienced the terrific exhaustion of that profession. I wanted to keep my energy for myself, as if I had the right. I found teaching fascinating but wanted too much to do something else. Then I saw how much money could be made quite quickly by writing children’s books. A story—perhaps not true—is that Maxine Kumin wrote fifteen children’s stories and made a thousand dollars for each. That seemed to me preferable to attempting a big novel or a problematic play, which would devour great stretches of time with doubtful results in cash. Also, it seemed to me I had a knack of a kind for inventing children’s stories. So I did write quite a few. But I didn’t have Maxine Kumin’s magic. I couldn’t sell any of them. I sold them only years later, after my verse had made a reputation for me of a kind. So up to the age of thirty-three, I was living on what one lives on: reviews, BBC work, little radio plays, that sort of thing. Anything for immediate cash. Then, when I was thirty-three, I suddenly received in the post the news that the Abraham Woursell Foundation had given me a lecturer’s salary at the University of Vienna for five years. I had no idea how I came to be awarded this. That salary took me from thirty-four years old to thirty-eight, and by that time I was earning my living by my writing. A critical five years. That was when I had the children, and the money saved me from looking for a job outside the house.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite place to write or can you write anywhere?

HUGHES

Hotel rooms are good. Railway compartments are good. I’ve had several huts of one sort or another. Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it. I’ve known several who liked to treat it as a job—writing in some office well away from home, going there regular hours. Sylvia had a friend, a novelist, who used to leave her grand house and go into downtown Boston to a tiny room with a table and chair where she wrote facing a blank wall. Didn’t Somerset Maugham also write facing a blank wall? Subtle distraction is the enemy—a big beautiful view, the tide going in and out. Of course, you think it oughtn’t to matter, and sometimes it doesn’t. Several of my favorite pieces in my book Crow I wrote traveling up and down Germany with a woman and small child—I just went on writing wherever we were. Enoch Powell claims that noise and bustle help him to concentrate. Then again, Goethe couldn’t write a line if there was another person anywhere in the same house, or so he said at some point. I’ve tried to test it on myself, and my feeling is that your sense of being concentrated can deceive you. Writing in what seems to be a happy concentrated way, in a room in your own house with books and everything necessary to your life around you, produces something noticeably different, I think, from writing in some empty silent place far away from all that. Because however we concentrate, we remain aware at some level of everything around us. Fast asleep, we keep track of the time to the second. The person conversing at one end of a long table quite unconsciously uses the same unusual words, within a second or two, as the person conversing with somebody else at the other end—though they’re amazed to learn they’ve done it. Also, different kinds of writing need different kinds of concentration. Goethe, picking up a transmission from the other side of his mind, from beyond his usual mind, needs different tuning than Enoch Powell when he writes a speech. Brain rhythms would show us what’s going on, I expect. But for me successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration. When I was living in Boston, in my late twenties, I was so conscious of this that at one point I covered the windows with brown paper to blank out any view and wore earplugs—simply to isolate myself from distraction. That’s how I worked for a year. When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place. At the time it just seemed like a convenient place.

INTERVIEWER

What tools do you require?

HUGHES

Just a pen.

INTERVIEWER

Just a pen? You write longhand?

HUGHES

I made an interesting discovery about myself when I first worked for a film company. I had to write brief summaries of novels and plays to give the directors some idea of their film potential—a page or so of prose about each book or play and then my comment. That was where I began to write for the first time directly onto a typewriter. I was then about twenty-five. I realized instantly that when I composed directly onto the typewriter my sentences became three times as long, much longer. My subordinate clauses flowered and multiplied and ramified away down the length of the page, all much more eloquently than anything I would have written by hand. Recently I made another similar discovery. For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition. Annually there are about sixty thousand entries. These are cut down to about eight hundred. Among these our panel finds seventy prizewinners. Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through. After two or three years, as these became more numerous, we realized that this was a new thing. So we inquired. It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin. Whereas when writing by hand you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it when you couldn’t write at all . . . when you were making attempts, pretending to form letters. These ancient feelings are there, wanting to be expressed. When you sit with your pen, every year of your life is right there, wired into the communication between your brain and your writing hand. There is a natural characteristic resistance that produces a certain kind of result analogous to your actual handwriting. As you force your expression against that built-in resistance, things become automatically more compressed, more summary and, perhaps, psychologically denser. I suppose if you use a word processor and deliberately prune everything back, alert to the tendencies, it should be possible to get the best of both worlds.

Maybe what I’m saying applies only to those who have gone through the long conditioning of writing only with a pen or pencil up through their mid-twenties. For those who start early on a typewriter or, these days, on a computer screen, things must be different. The wiring must be different. In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas. Perhaps that’s what I am talking about.

INTERVIEWER

So word processing is a new discipline.

HUGHES

It’s a new discipline that these particular children haven’t learned. And which I think some novelists haven’t learned. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” It makes the imagination jump. I think I recognize among some modern novels the supersonic hand of the word processor uncurbed. When Henry James started dictating, his sentences became interminable, didn’t they? And the physical world, as his brother William complained, suddenly disappeared from them. Henry hadn’t realized. He was astonished.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take to write a poem? Of course it depends on length and hibernation time, but still . . .

HUGHES

Well, in looking back over the whole lot, the best ones took just as long as it took to write them down; the not-so-satisfactory ones I’d tinker with sometimes for two or three years, but certainly for a few days, and I’d continue making changes over months. Some of them I’d still like to change.

INTERVIEWER

Are poems ever truly finished?

HUGHES

My experience with the things that arrive instantaneously is that I can’t change them. They are finished. There is one particular poem, an often anthologized piece that just came—“Hawk Roosting.” I simply wrote it out just as it appeared in front of me. There is a word in the middle that I’m not sure about. I always have this internal hiccup when I get to it because I had to make the choice between the singular and the plural form and neither of them is right.

INTERVIEWER

Has the answer occurred to you since?

HUGHES

No. I don’t know that it could be solved. It’s just one of those funny things. So that poem was abandoned insofar as I couldn’t solve that problem. But otherwise it’s a poem that I could no more think of changing than physically changing myself. Poems get to the point where they are stronger than you are. They come up from some other depth and they find a place on the page. You can never find that depth again, that same kind of authority and voice. I might feel I would like to change something about them, but they’re still stronger than I am and I cannot.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read or show your work to others while it is in progress?

HUGHES

I try not to. There’s a Jewish proverb that Leonard Baskin’s always quoting: Never show fools half-work. That “fools” is a bit hard, but I imagine most people who make things know what is meant.

INTERVIEWER

How has criticism of your work affected you or your poetry?

HUGHES

I think it’s the shock of every writer’s life when their first book is published. The shock of their lives. One has somehow to adjust from being anonymous, a figure in ambush, working from concealment, to being and working in full public view. It had an enormous effect on me. My impression was that I had suddenly walked into a wall of heavy hostile fire. That first year I wrote verses with three magical assonances to the line with the intention of abolishing certain critics! Now I read those reviews and they seem quite good. So it was writer’s paranoia. The shock to a person who’s never been named in public of being mentioned in newspapers can be absolutely traumatic. To everybody else it looks fairly harmless, even enviable. What I can see was that it enormously accelerated my determination to bring my whole operation into my own terms, to make my own form of writing and to abandon a lot of more casual paths that I might have followed. If I’d remained completely unknown, a writer not commented on, I think I might have gone off in all kinds of other directions. One can never be sure, of course.

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t there ever a desire to do something else?

HUGHES

Yes, always. Yes. I’ve sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to write under a few pseudonyms. Keep several quite different lines of writing going. Like Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who tried four different poetic personalities. They all worked simultaneously. He simply lived with the four. What does Eliot say? “Dance, dance, / Like a dancing bear, / Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape, / To find expression.” It’s certainly limiting to confine your writing to one public persona, because the moment you publish your own name you lose freedom. It’s like being in a close-knit family. The moment you do anything new, the whole family jumps on it, comments, teases, advises against, does everything to make you self-conscious. There’s a unanimous reaction to keep you as you were. You’d suppose any writer worth his salt could be bold and fearless and not give a damn. But in fact very few can. We’re at the mercy of the groups that shaped our early days. We’re so helplessly social—like cells in an organ. Maybe that’s why madness sometimes works—it knocks out the oversensitive connection. And maybe that’s why exile is good. I wonder if the subjective impression of most writers is that whenever they take a new step, some big, unconscious reaction among readers tries to stop them . . . often a big conscious reaction among colleagues. Hardy stopped writing novels by just that. In his late years, while he was up in an apple tree, pruning it, he had a vision of the most magnificent novel—all the characters, many episodes, even some dialogue—the one ultimate novel that he absolutely had to write. What happened? By the time he came down out of the tree the whole vision had fled. And it never reappeared. Even Goethe, back then, made some remark about the impossibility of producing a natural oeuvre of fully ripened works when everything was instantly before the public and its hectic, printed reactions. Of course Goethe himself was a terrible stopper of other young writers. One of the strongest arguments that Shakespeare’s plays were written by somebody unsuspected, maybe, was the uniquely complete development of that creative mind and its vision.

Also, there’s a tendency to lay down laws for yourself about the kind of thing you want to do—an ideal of style, an exemplary probity of some kind, or maybe an ideal of thuggery, a release into disregard for all conventions and so on. Once they become your expected product, these are all traps. One way out of this might be to write a kind of provisional drama where you can explore all sorts of different provisional attitudes and voices. Remember the unresolved opposition of Trigorin and Treplev in Chekov’s The Seagull? Chekov had a huge nostalgia for Treplev’s weird vision. Somewhere he described the sort of work he longed to write—full of passionate, howling women, Greek tragedy dimension—and he bemoans the gentle doctor’s attentiveness that imbues his actual writing. Now, if he’d been anonymous from the start, might he have explored the other things too? In poetry, living as a public persona in your writing is maybe even more crippling. Once you’ve contracted to write only the truth about yourself—as in some respected kinds of modern verse, or as in Shakespeare’s sonnets—then you can too easily limit yourself to what you imagine are the truths of the ego that claims your conscious biography. Your own equivalent of what Shakespeare got into his plays is simply foregone. But being experimental isn’t enough. The plunge has to be for real. The new thing has to be not you or has to seem so till it turns out to be the new you or the other you.

INTERVIEWER

You say that every writer should have a pseudonym for writing things different than their usual work. Have you ever used one?

HUGHES

Never—except once or twice at university. But I wish I had. I wish I’d established one or two out there. The danger, I suppose, of using pseudonyms is that it interferes with that desirable process—the unification of the personality. Goethe said that even the writing of plays, dividing the imagination up among different fictional personalities, damaged what he valued—the mind’s wholeness. I wonder what he meant exactly, since he also described his mode of thinking as imagined conversations with various people. Maybe the pseudonyms, like other personalities conjured up in a dramatic work, can be a preliminary stage of identifying and exploring new parts of yourself. Then the next stage would be to incorporate them in the unifying process. Accept responsibility for them. Maybe that’s what Yeats meant by seeking his opposite. The great Sufi master Ibn el-Arabi described the essential method of spiritual advancement as an inner conversation with the personalities that seem to exist beyond what you regard as your own limits . . . getting those personalities to tell you what you did not know, or what you could not easily conceive of within your habitual limits. This is commonplace in some therapies, of course.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of working relationship have you had with editors of both poetry and prose?

HUGHES

On the whole I’ve been lucky with them. Extremely lucky. I was more than lucky to have T. S. Eliot as my first editor in England. Sylvia had typed up and sent off my manuscript to a Ninety-second Street Y first poetry book competition—judged by Marianne Moore, Stephen Spender, and Auden. First prize was publication by Harper Brothers. When it won, Sylvia sent Faber the typescript and a letter with that information in which, in American style, she referred to me as Ted. They replied that Faber did not publish first books by American authors. When she told them I was British they took it. That’s how I came to be Ted rather than something else.

Eliot’s editorial hand on me could not have been lighter. In my second book of verse he suggested one verbal change, but I didn’t follow it. I should have. He made some very useful suggestions in a book of verse for children that I wrote. I certainly followed those. My present children’s editor at Faber, Janice Thompson, is brilliant in that she definitely gets me to write more things than I otherwise might and makes very acute judgments and suggestions about what I do produce. Editors in the U.S.—well, I’ve liked and got on with them all. But at that long distance I’ve never got to know any so well as I’ve known the Faber succession. Except for Fran McCullough at Harper. Fran became a close friend while she was editing Sylvia’s books and mine. She edited Sylvia’s novel The Bell Jar and Letters Home. Later she edited Sylvia’s Journals. Some explosive drama in all that. Only the beginning of bigger explosions. I hope we’ve remained friends in the fallout.

INTERVIEWER

Has it ever become impossible to write?

HUGHES

The nearest I’ve ever felt to a block was a sort of unfitness in the athletic sense—the need for an all-out, sustained effort of writing simply to get myself into shape before starting on what I imagined would be the real thing. One whole book arrived like that, not a very long book, but one which I felt I needed to galvanize my inertia, break through the huge sloth I was up against. On the spur I invented a little plot: nine birds come to the fallen Adam urging him to get up and be birdlike. I wrote the whole as a bagatelle to sweat myself out of that inertia—and to conjure myself to be a bit more birdlike. Then, suddenly there it was, a sort of book. Adam and the Sacred Nine. I’d written a book just trying to get to the point where I might begin to write something that might go into a book. Still, did it break through to the real thing? That’s the question, isn’t it? A block is when we can’t get through to the real thing. Many writers write a great deal, but very few write more than a very little of the real thing. So most writing must be displaced activity. When cockerels confront each other and daren’t fight, they busily start pecking imaginary grains off to the side. That’s displaced activity. Much of what we do at any level is a bit like that, I fancy. But hard to know which is which. On the other hand, the machinery has to be kept running. The big problem for those who write verse is keeping the machine running without simply exercising evasion of the real confrontation. If Ulanova, the ballerina, missed one day of practice, she couldn’t get back to peak fitness without a week of hard work. Dickens said the same about his writing—if he missed a day he needed a week of hard slog to get back into the flow.

INTERVIEWER

Could I ask about your relationship with other poets? You knew Auden and Eliot.

HUGHES

I met Auden for more than a hello only twice. It was at a poetry festival in 1966. Our conversation was very brief. He said, “What do you make of David Jones’s Anathemata?” I replied, “A work of genius, a masterpiece.” “Correct,” he said. That was it. The other occasion was after one of the 1966 International Poetry Festival evenings on the South Bank in London when he was fuming against Neruda. I listened to his diatribe. We’d asked Neruda to read for twelve minutes, maybe fifteen. He’d read for over half an hour, longer—apparently from a piece of paper about four inches square. Auden always timed his readings to the minute. Neruda and Auden died almost on the same day; The New Statesman gave Neruda the front page and tucked Auden inside. I felt pained by that, though I have no doubt that Neruda is in a different class, a world class, as a poet. I sort of swallowed Auden whole some time in my early twenties—or tried to. He was so much part of the atmosphere. Some of his work I have always admired a lot. And I admire him—the Goethean side, the dazzle of natural brilliance in all his remarks. But I never felt any real poetic affinity with him. I suppose he is not a poet who taps the sort of things I am trying to tap in myself. Eliot was. I met Eliot only rarely and briefly. Once he and his wife Valerie invited Sylvia and myself to dinner. We were a bit overawed. Fortunately Stephen Spender, who was there, knew how to handle it. What do I recall? Many small humorous remarks. His very slow eating. The size of his hands—very large hands. Once I asked him if the Landscapes, those short beautiful little pieces each so different from the others, were selections from a great many similar unpublished things. I thought they might be the sort of poem he whittled away at between the bigger works. No, he said. That’s all there were. They just came. It’s a mystery. He wins the big races with such ease—but how did he keep in trim? How did he get into form? He seems to me one of the very great poets. One of the very few.

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of Ezra Pound? Did he give you pleasure?

HUGHES

He did, yes. Still does. But as a personality—he doesn’t have the power to fascinate as a personality that, for instance, Eliot does; or Yeats, perhaps because his internal evolution, or whatever it was, was so broken, so confused by a militance that took it over from the outside. Perhaps one recoils from what feels like a disintegration. But many pages of the verse seem to me wonderful in all kinds of ways.

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. Partway 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 before 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 songs were 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 that 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 that 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 sort 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.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a bit more about how your own poems originate and how you begin writing?

HUGHES

Well, I have a sort of notion. Just the tail end of an idea, usually just the thread of an idea. If I can feel behind that a sort of waiting momentum, a sense of some charge there to tap, then I just plunge in. What usually happens then—inevitably I would say—is that I go off in some wholly different direction. The thread end of an idea burns away and I’m pulled in—on the momentum of whatever was there waiting. Then that feeling opens up other energies, all the possibilities in my head, I suppose. That’s the pleasure—never quite knowing what’s there, being surprised. Once I get onto something I usually finish it. In a way it goes on finishing itself while I attend to its needs. It might be days, months. Later, often enough, I see exactly what it needs to be and I finish it in moments, usually by getting rid of things.

INTERVIEWER

What do birds mean for you? The figures of the hawk and the crow—so astonishing. Are you tired to death of explaining them?

HUGHES

I don’t know how to explain them. There are certain things that are just impressive, aren’t there? One stone can be impressive and the stones around it aren’t. It’s the same with animals. Some, for some reason, are strangely impressive. They just get into you in a strange way. Certain birds obviously have this extra quality that fascinates your attention. Obviously hawks have always done that for me, as a great many others have—not only impressive in themselves but also in that they’ve accumulated an enormous literature making them even more impressive. And crows too. Crows are the central bird in many mythologies. The crow is at every extreme, lives on every piece of land on earth, the most intelligent bird.

INTERVIEWER

Your poem “The Thought Fox” is thought to be your ars poetica. Do you agree with that?

HUGHES

There is a sense in which every poem that comes off is a description or a dramatization of its own creation. Within the poem, I sometimes think, is all the evidence you need for explaining how the poem came to be and why it is as it is. Then again, every poem that works is like a metaphor of the whole mind writing, the solution of all the oppositions and imbalances going on at that time. When the mind finds the balance of all those things and projects it, that’s a poem. It’s a kind of hologram of the mental condition at that moment, which then immediately changes and moves on to some other sort of balance and rearrangement. What counts is that it be a symbol of that momentary wholeness. That’s how I see it.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you choose to speak through animals so often?

HUGHES

I suppose because they were there at the beginning. Like parents. Since I spent my first seventeen or eighteen years constantly thinking about them more or less, they became a language—a symbolic language which is also the language of my whole life. It was not something I began to learn about at university or something that happened to me when I was thirty, but part of the machinery of my mind from the beginning. They are a way of connecting all my deepest feelings together. So when I look for or get hold of a feeling of that kind, it tends to bring up the image of an animal or animals simply because that’s the deepest, earliest language that my imagination learned. Or one of the deepest, earliest languages. People were there too.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is the function of poetry as opposed to the function of prose?

HUGHES

In the seventies I got to know one or two healers. The one I knew best believed that since everybody has access to the energies of the autoimmune system, some individuals develop a surplus. His own history was one of needing more than most—forty years of ankylosing spondylitis. In the end, when he was past sixty, a medium told him that no one could heal him, but that he could heal himself if he would start to heal others. So he started healing and within six months was virtually cured. Watching and listening to him, the idea occurred to me that art was perhaps this—the psychological component of the autoimmune system. It works on the artist as a healing. But it works on others too, as a medicine. Hence our great, insatiable thirst for it. However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognize that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us. That’s why that aspect of things is so important, and why what we want to preserve in civilizations and societies is their art—because it’s a living medicine that we can still use. It still works. We feel it working. Prose, narratives, etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music, maybe, most intensely of all.

INTERVIEWER

On another matter entirely, do you think the literary communities in England and America differ from each other?

HUGHES

Yes, profoundly. The world and the whole grounding of experience for American writers is so utterly different from that of English writers. The hinterlands of American writing are so much more varied and the scope of their hinterlands is so infinitely vast. Many more natural and social worlds are available to American writers. For every generation of Americans there’s more material that is utterly new and strange. I think the problem for American writers is to keep up with their material, whereas the problem for English writers is to find new material—material that isn’t already in some real sense secondhand, used-up, dog-eared, predigested. You see this in a very simple way in the contrast between the American and English writing about field sports—shooting and fishing. The range, richness, variety, quantity, quality of the American sports writing is stupefying. There are some fine writers on these subjects in the U.K., but one has the impression that they are simply updating, modernizing material that was used up generations ago, and a very limited range of material it is.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of writing workshops and M.F.A. programs?

HUGHES

Sometimes they work wonders. When the Arvon Writing Foundation—what would be called a creative writing college in the U.S.—was started here in England in 1969, I was asked to join the founders. I had taught creative writing classes at the University of Massachusetts and it had been rather a wonderful experience. I learned an awful lot from the students themselves. I saw how those classes worked, how the students educated each other in writing skills, how one talented student can somehow transform the talents of a whole class. But on the whole I felt that the idea was impractical for England. I thought I knew too well the bigoted antagonism that most of our older writers felt about transatlantic ideas of creative writing. I’d heard it expressed too often. So I thought the idea could not work here simply because the writers would not cooperate. But the founders of Arvon, two poets, went ahead and invited me to give a reading of my verses to the first course. The students were a group of fourteen-year-olds from a local school. Within that one week they had produced work that astonished me. Within five days, in fact. They were in an incredible state of creative excitement. Here in England the idea worked in a way that I had never seen in the U.S. So Arvon developed. Younger writers, and most of the older writers as it turned out, tutored the courses with an almost natural skill and very often with amazing results. The experience persuaded me that a creative writing course of Arvon’s kind has more impact here, perhaps because the English personality and character tend to be comparatively fixed and set, rigid, so that any change comes with a bang. You get revelations of talent in people who had never dreamed they could write a word. Amazing conversions.

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to have had such a program available to you when you started out?

HUGHES

I’ve often wondered. I’m not sure if I would have gone. What I wanted to do was work it all out in my own terms and at my own pace. I didn’t want to be influenced, or at least I wanted to choose my influences for myself. Between the age when I began to write seriously and the time I left the university at the age of twenty-four, I read very little in poetry, novels and drama apart from the great authors—the authors I considered to be great. Within that literature I was a hundred-great-books reader. My first real encounter with the possibilities of contemporary poetry came only in 1954 or 1955 when a Penguin anthology of American poetry came out. I’d become aware of some names of course—Frost, Wallace Stevens, even Theodore Roethke, Hart Crane. That anthology came out just as I was ready to look further. So I completely bypassed contemporary English poetry, apart from Auden and Dylan Thomas, and came fresh to the American. Everything in that book seemed exciting to me—exciting and familiar. Wilbur, Bill Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell. But most of all John Crowe Ransom. For two or three years Ransom became a craze of mine, and he still was when I met Sylvia. I managed to enthuse her to the point that he seriously affected her style for a period. But many things in that anthology hit me, pieces like Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck.” When I met Sylvia I also met her library, and the whole wave hit me. I began to devour everything American. But my point is that up to then my exciting new discoveries in poetry had been things like the first act of Two Noble Kinsmen (not usually included in Shakespeare’s complete works), or Lady Gregory’s translation of the Arran song: “It was late last night the dog was speaking of you.” What I felt I wanted to do didn’t seem to exist. I was conscious mainly of a kind of musical energy. My notion was to make real and solid what would contain it—something to do with the way I read poems to myself.

INTERVIEWER

And you eventually burst out of that.

HUGHES

The earliest piece of mine that I kept was a lyric titled “Song” that came to me as such things should in your nineteenth year—literally a voice in the air at about 3:00 A.M. when I was on night duty just after I’d started national service. Between that and the next piece that I saved, the poem I titled “The Thought Fox,” lay six years of total confusion. Six years! That’s when I read myself to bits, as Nietzsche said students do. Also, I ran smack into the first part of the English lit tripos at Cambridge. I got out of that and into anthropology none too soon. I was writing all the time, but in confusion. I mopped up everything that was going on inside me with Beethoven’s music. Throughout that time, he was my therapy. After university I lived in London, did various jobs, but I was removed from friends and from constant Beethoven, and for the first time in years I thought about nothing but the poem I was trying to write. Then one night up came “The Thought Fox” and, soon after, the other pieces I mentioned. But I had less a sense of bursting out, I think, more a sense of tuning in to my own transmission. Tuning out the influences, the static and interference. I didn’t get there by explosives. My whole understanding of it was that I could get it only by concentration.

INTERVIEWER

In the late twentieth century is there a tradition of British poetry that is different from other English-speaking nations?

HUGHES

Well, when I began to write I certainly felt there to be. The tradition had its gods, the great sacred national figures of the past. Some of them not so great. But they policed the behavior of young poets and they policed the tastes of readers—most of all the tastes of readers. Yes, in the 1950s it was still a strong orthodoxy. Eliot and Pound had challenged it, but they hadn’t fractured it. I’m not even sure if they modified it much. Mainly you were aware that this tradition was distinctly not-continental and distinctly not-American. It had hypersensitive detectors for any trace of contamination from those two sources. In general, I suppose, it was defensive. We were made very aware of it in the early fifties by Robert Graves. He gave a series of lectures at Cambridge that purged the tradition of its heretics—bad Wordsworth and so on—and of its alien stowaways Eliot and Pound. Graves had a strange kind of authority through the late fifties—the man of tradition, the learned champion of the British tradition. I fancied he had an effect even on Auden, who certainly admired him a lot. But then came the sixties. In the U.K. the shock of the sixties is usually tied to the Beatles. But as far as poetry was concerned their influence was marginal, I think. The poetry shock that hit the U.K. in the sixties started before the Beatles. Sylvia responded to the first ripples of it. In a sense, Ariel is a response to those first signs, and she never heard the Beatles. What happened were two big simultaneous events in the world of poetry—the first was the sudden waking up of the world from the ice age of the war. Countries that had been separated by blockades or crushed under the Communist ice suddenly seemed to wake up. In poetry they rushed to embrace one another, first on that amazing boom of translation, then in the International Poetry Festivals that got going mid-decade. Maybe the Pasternak explosion in the late fifties was the beginning. But in general, Bill Merwin had translated a huge amount of various authors. We had Robert Bly’s first volumes of his Sixties magazine. We collected the first translations of Zbigniew Herbert and Holub—unearthed by Alvarez in, I think, 1962. I’m not sure when the Penguin translations began, but their first Lorca edition had appeared in 1960. The boom began early and then simply grew right through the decade.

The other momentous event came from the U.S.—the shockwave not so much of pop music but of the lifestyle of the Beat poets, with Allen Ginsberg as high priest. That shockwave, which swept America at the end of the fifties, hit England in the beginning of the sixties. The Beatles were its English amplifiers in one sense, but the actual thing at the time was the lifestyle. You saw all your friends transformed in a slow flash. And with the lifestyle came the poetry, the transcendentalism, the Beat publications. Those two big waves—one of international poetry and the other, the California revolution, blend into one. What was really very strange was the way the fans of the new pop music and folk music craze all took to buying poetry—especially translated modern poetry. Penguin stepped up their output of new titles; every publisher seemed to be commissioning new translations of foreign poets. Those fans bought huge numbers of the books. They were packed in at the first of the Art Council’s big International Poetry Festivals in 1966, which I helped organize. Our program was based on an issue of Daniel Weissbort’s new magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation, which I think was the first such magazine in Britain. It was an amazing occasion. Almost every big figure I invited accepted and came. And by chance, on the day of the festival London happened to be full of poets from all over the place. We invited quite a few and they joined in. Any young poet in the U.K. aware of that must have been hit pretty hard. The variety of different poetries that were not only suddenly available, but in high fashion, was staggering.

The mad atmosphere of those early International Festivals only lasted a year or two. Probably that one in 1966 and the earlier, more spontaneous one in 1965 were the great ones. But the rest of it reeled on into the early seventies until finally the translation boom began to flag. Still, the best of the books haven’t gone away. And that awakening of all the countries to one another’s poetry hasn’t gone to sleep. Poets like Holub have become almost honorary British poets. In many ways, none of that has closed down. Has it modified British tradition? Well, it must have modified it one way: at least all young British poets now know that the British tradition is not the only one among the traditions of the globe. Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I’m reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve just come back from Macedonia—a poetry festival that was obviously very important. What was the understanding of British poetry there? 

HUGHES

I had a curious experience on the airplane coming back. I boarded in Skopje and noticed this young woman on the opposite side of the aisle, oh, about thirty-five. I saw her look at me and I thought because the whole festival in Struga had been so publicized and televised throughout Macedonia—that maybe she felt she had seen me, maybe even recognized me since they gave me the Laurel Wreath of Gold this year and there’d been a certain amount of camera concentration. But neither of us said anything. Then there she was again on the next leg of the flight in the seat in front of me, and she asked if I was who I was. She had seen me on TV. Finally she said, I was very surprised that they gave the prize to British poetry. Naturally I asked her why. And she replied, Well, I thought British poetry was dead. It turned out she was a doctor in Dubai. I had with me this rather magnificent Macedonian-made volume of my poems translated into Macedonian. So I handed her the book and said, Here’s an opportunity to examine the patient. When she returned it to me half an hour later she was very gracious. Ten minutes after that I saw she was reading the latest Times Literary Supplement

INTERVIEWER

It’s like the British poet is dead every few years, isn’t it? 

HUGHES

What struck me was that it came out so pat. A sort of obvious truism, as if everybody over the continental landmass simply knew it. And in the TLS she had her finger on the pulse. 

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry as vital to people now as it was thirty years ago? Aren’t sales of poetry going up? 

HUGHES

Well, it’s a fact—not much observed maybe except by the judges of children’s writing competitions—that the teaching of how to write poetry is now producing extraordinary results. Mainly at the lower ages. This might not be so new in the U.S., but in the U.K. it’s a phenomenon of the last fifteen years, especially of the last ten. The twenty-five-year influence of the Arvon Foundation can’t be ignored. You only have to ask around among young published poets and look at the prizewinners of the various competitions. And Arvon has spawned a host of other places doing a similar job. All this must be helping sales in the U.K. It’s a new kind of reading and writing public that simply didn’t exist in Britain before the early seventies. And it’s definitely not confined to the universities.

But I expect the real reasons must be deeper. Poetry sales are supposed to rise during a war, aren’t they, when people are forced to become aware of what really matters. You could invent an explanation, I’m sure. Maybe something to do with the way we all live on two levels—a top level where we scramble to respond moment by moment to the bombardment of impressions, demands, opportunities. And a bottom level where our last-ditch human values live—the long-term feelings like instinct, the bedrock facts of our character. Usually, we can live happily on the top level and forget the bottom level. But, all it takes to dump the population on the top level to the lowest pits of the bottom level, with all their values and all their ideas totally changed, is a war. I would suggest that poetry is one of the voices of the bottom level.

The poetry translation boom of the sixties was inseparable, I think, from the Vietnam War. That war felt like the Cold War finally bursting into flames—the beginning of war with the combined Communist regimes. And the translated modern poetry boom was inseparable from that catastrophe. It pervaded everything. Two societies, the U.S. and the U.K., that were notably stuck on the top level were trying to divine the bottom-level reality being lived out in Southeast Asia. But in general everyone under the Communist regimes was on the bottom level. You remember all those attempts to actualize it, to live it secondhand? To be part of it somehow?

Pasternak was the first big voice to be heard from under the Russian ice. But then came Yevtushenko and Voznesensky on their reading tours through the West. Their popularity, their glamour, was amazing. I remember C. P. Snow introducing Yevtushenko onstage at the South Bank by characterizing him as “what we really mean by a celebrity.” Behind that, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, and the rest were suddenly the greatest names; translations began to pour out. There was a huge thirst. And I remember the big shock—another of the big literary shocks in my life—of discovering the poetry of Russia’s victims in Herbert, Holub, Popa, and so on, and along with that the poetry of Amichai, Celan . . . So you could say the great craving of the U.S. and the U.K. on the top level to anticipate and experience that reality on the bottom level did take in one way the form of a craze for translated poetry, an almost undiscriminating appetite for any news whatsoever through that hotline. The market for those books was colossal.

Now what’s going on in the Balkans is making that bottom level resonate again, as well as the African famines, the thirty-odd horrible little wars crackling away, and behind all that a new sense of impending global disaster, an obscure mix of environmental and political breakdowns, runaway populations, and the economic threat of the Far East. Anyway, a sense of big trouble coming, with all the evidence of the first phases jamming the TV screens. Here in the U.K. we’re still only an audience on the top level watching the calamities taking place on the bottom level. But we’re a twenty-four-hour-a-day top-level audience, supersaturated with impressions of life on the bottom level. The war in former Yugoslavia has raised the curtain on it all. So given that model of the two levels, the appetite for poetry should be rising again, a little. Or slowly. 

INTERVIEWER

Finally, what does this progression mean in terms of form? What are your thoughts on free as opposed to formal verse? 

HUGHES

In the way you’ve put the question “formal” suggests regular metrics, regular stanzas and, usually, rhyme. But it also suggests some absolute form that doesn’t have those more evident features; it suggests any form governed by a strong, inflexible inner law that the writer finds himself having to obey, that he can’t just play around with as he can play around with, say, the wording of a letter. That kind of deeper, hidden form, though it doesn’t show regular metrical or stanzaic patterning or end rhyme, can’t in any way be called “free.” Take any passage of “The Waste Land,” or maybe a better example is Eliot’s poem “Marina.” Every word in those poems is as formally fixed, as locked into flexible inner laws, as words can be. The music of those words, the musical inevitability of the pitch, the pacing, the combination of inflections—all that is in some way absolute, unalterable, the ultimate perfect containment of unusually powerful poetic forces. You could say the same of many other examples: Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” any passages in Shakespeare’s blank verse, Shakespeare’s prose. To my mind, the best of the kind of verse usually called free always aspires towards that kind of formal inevitability—a fixed, unalterable, musical, and yet hidden dramatic shape. One difference between this kind of verse and regular, metrical, rhymed stanzas is the problem it sets the reader at first reading. Regular formal features give the reader immediate bearings, the A-B-C directions for reading or performing the piece being nursery simple; the poem has a familiar, friendly look from that very first encounter. But when these are missing—no regular meter, no stanza shape, no obvious rhyme—the reader has to grope, searching for that less obvious, deeper set of musical dramatic laws. That takes time, more than one or two readings. And it takes poetic imagination—or some talent for rhythmical, expressive speech. But if those laws are actually there, as they are in the Eliot, the Smart, and the Shakespeare, sooner or later they assert their inevitability in the reader’s mind, and the reader begins to recognize the presence of some absolute, inner form. Of course if those laws aren’t there, they can never assert themselves. The piece never gets a grip on the reader. It might be interesting and even exciting to read at first encounter, but then it will slowly fall to bits. The reader will begin to recognize the absence of any law that makes it go one way rather than another . . . the absence of any deeper pattern of hidden forces. So the thing ceases to be read.

In the long run, the same fate—to be rejected and forgotten—overtakes most formally shaped verse too, no matter how strict its meter or how accurate and dexterous its rhymes. Good metrical rhymed verse, if it’s to grip the imagination and stay readable, has to have, as well as those external formal features, the same dynamo of hidden musical dramatic laws as the apparently free verse.

Having said that, I think you are then left with the pro and contra arguments for using or not using those features of regular meter, stanza, rhyme. The main argument, to my mind, for not using them is to gain access to the huge variety of musical patterns that they shut out. Imagine if Shakespeare had stuck to sonnets and long-rhymed poems and had never got onto the explorations of his blank verse and those wonderful musical flights of dialogue or onto his prose. Imagine what might have come out of the eighteenth century in England if the regime of the couplet hadn’t been so absolute. How could Whitman ever have happened if he’d stuck to his crabby rhymes? That seems to me a strong argument. But the main argument for using meter, rhyme, stanza also seems strong. It’s not just that rhymes and the requirement of meter actually stimulate invention—which they obviously do, at certain levels—but it’s the strange satisfaction of making that square treasure chest and packing it. Or making that locket with its jewel or its portrait. Or making that periscope box of precisely arranged lenses. There’s mystery to it, I’m quite sure. Maybe a mathematical satisfaction. Take the ballad stanza, which is basically just an old English couplet. The best of those quatrains have a kind of primal force, not just musical finality but an inner force, a weight of paid-for experience that most people can recognize. Yet when you break the meter, lose or disarray the rhymes, everything’s gone. Then there’s Primo Levi’s remark. He found that in the death camps, where it became very important to dig poems out of the memory, the poems of regular meter and rhyme proved more loyal, and I’m not sure he didn’t say that they were more consoling. You don’t forget his remark.