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This article is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.

Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar
edited by Keith Sagar (The British Library) £25
Vidyan Ravinthiran
Ted Hughes's correspondence, like his verse - and the critical prose he insisted it physically hurt him to write - has a desperate, lunging quality. In his poems, he tries to codify this movement as a type of decisive violence, like that of his 'Thrushes' who famously 'with a start, a bounce, a stab / Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing'. But really it's more vulnerable than that - there's something of Tourette's about it. As if Whitman's 'barbaric yawp' weren't proud self-affirmation but a kind of desperate cry that couldn't be contained. And it's about communication - a dishevelled lurch into the world that is also a lurch towards another person whose rejection Hughes can't bear but needs to confront, and at times provoke. As he lamented in 1989, 'audience — one's idea of audience — is the great problem' - a concern that repeats throughout his correspondence, where this interpersonal dilemma is of course immediately relevant. There's a touching example in Christopher Reid's Faber selection, where Hughes writes to Philip Larkin, dying of cancer of the oesophagus, to recommend the faith healer Ted Cornish. He must know that Larkin will think this nonsense - just as he must have foreseen, before unleashing on the world Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, something of its vicious reception. But still, he has to write the letter. 'Please don't write back,' he tells Larkin, 'or mention this again—no point. But the impulse to tell you all this has ...


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