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This report is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.

What's the Griff? Lawrence Sail

There are some questions which, once asked, go on rumbling round in the mind like a thunderstorm that won't disperse. One of them, for me, was the result of reading remarks made by James Fenton on the occasion of the publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. 'There is great excitement about this work, which has been kept so carefully secret. The content is obviously very interesting,' Fenton is quoted as saying. And he goes on:

One or two poets have had the ambition for a long time to write a poem a part of the interest of which would be content. People would read that poem to find out what the information in it was. Hughes has succeeded in doing this.

Everybody is fascinated to see what he felt. Content in itself doesn't guarantee the success of the poem, but content like this doesn't do much harm. What is striking is the intensity with which he still comes to the subject.

If part of the interest of this is the final sentence, which seems to make at least some concession to Housman's contention that 'Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it'1, it was that word 'information' which really stuck in my mind. How much information can or should a poem contain, and to what end? What about the information supplied by the imagination, the sub- or unconscious, our identity and our memories: by context, subtext, metatext? ...

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