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This item is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.

The death of Ted Hughes was an occasion of national grief: a remarkable poet, an effective Laureate, like (and unlike) Sir John Betjeman before him. His laureate poems are ridiculed, yet they contain some of his most precise writing; there can be no doubt of their sincerity, however unfashionable it may be. When he accepted the laureateship he spoke of what it meant to be English and what the monarch embodies (not represents) within the continuum of British political and social culture. The terms he used would have been understood by Coleridge, Clarendon and Hooker. They were not understood by his contemporaries: they expected him to be a neutral sort of laureate.

How far from understanding they were, and when he died the claims they made - 'the greatest English poet of our time', 'one of the greatest English poets of all time' - were inflated by sorrow and journalistic misunderstanding. The best-seller success of Birthday Letters appealed to a popular hunger for confessional narrative; but the durable achievement of his last years is Tales from Ovid (1997), a book which will survive as poetry and as a resource for poets even as Birthday Letters is processed and re-processed through the machines of journalism and biography.

Hughes was a poet of surprises. The versions which will emerge after the dust of adulation settles (the dust of opprobrium settled some years ago) may be rather different from the ones produced in the wake of his death. For one thing, it will be recognised that he was an eminent critic, not in the way of academic or journalist but as an engaged writer. However loopy his fat book on Shakespeare, his introduction to A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse (1971) is an arresting essay. His advocacies of Emily Dickinson, Keith Douglas, Laura Riding and others in English and translation were forceful and affected our reading profoundly. His anthologies, individual and collaborative, freed up poetry in various ways. His central role in the creation of the Arvon Foundation was crucial, too. Did he realise that the only way to wrest poetry back from the academy was to get people writing, because people read to write and read differently from the scholar, critic or student? They can come to understand - if they can hear - how poetry works. They can fortify themselves against theory and learn to understand poetry as primary experience.

His commitment to theme does not reflect on morality but on essential energy, is not 'considered speech' in Davie's sense but 'authentic speech' (some of it hard to speak aloud), the language of Heathcliff rather than Linton. Yet an incongruity in Hughes is that, while his poems celebrate natural action, direct perception, the language is often worked up, laboriously alliterative and assonantal, larded with adjectives (especially in Gaudete): a baroque imagination with a bone through its nose.

In abandoning the ironic but various world of the Movement, Hughes strikes deep notes, but his thematic range remains narrow. Solitariness, choicelessness: his animal and human creatures are distorted in order to serve his themes. This is his candour, diffracting through images taken from a common world an uncommon sensibility, passions and anxieties. Creatures become emblematic, illuminate a metaphorical, not a natural truth: the quintessence of the pathetic fallacy. He isn't interested in language and form in a cool, craftsmanly way; he does not think but feels his way forward. But in Tales from Ovid he steps into quite another world, a classical world not made of marble, not ruined, a space in which extreme action is not the sole option, where the lyrical has a place and psychology is more nuanced and various than it has been before. He sets himself free, by an act of will, of the repetitive world of his earlier writing. His kind of candour was exorcism, working out emotions and impulses through image and complex cadence. Exorcism is a candour which side-steps confession. The freedom of Tales from Ovid does not reject but incorporates in a larger pattern what has gone before.

The death of the Oxford University Press poetry list was sudden. More than forty poets found themselves, at different stages in their careers, abandoned. Various distinguished lists have come and gone: Deutsch in its heyday published Hill, Jennings, Fuller, Levi, Lee; Chatto, Macmillan, Secker, Sinclair-Stevenson and others have followed a course dictated by accountants. But the Oxford list, like Faber & Faber's, always seemed a relatively unwobbling pivot. It was, more than any comparable list, international, drawing on poetry from the English-speaking world and including many distinguished translations. The problem for the Delegates, who must have had some say in the closure, was not that the list was loss-making, rather that it was not sufficiently profit-making. Even the great academic presses, it would seem, have been brushed by the wing of the evil angel of Mammon. When did you last see a range of Oxford Standard Authors in a bookshop?

The decision is less outrageous than regrettable, following as it does on the running down of other primary Oxford lists. It is regrettable because poetry publishing is becoming more and more the domain of small publishers without the substance or durability of the large houses. Most of the Oxford poets will find publishers elsewhere, but it will not be the same for them, and it will not be the same for poetry readers. What it demonstrates, however, is that, contrary to well-promoted rumours, and in the teeth of National Poetry Days and the cheerleading of interested parties, there is no poetry boom. Instead there is tremendous over-production from the smaller houses and a breakdown in the serious critical culture which once underpinned a diverse, commercially-based poetry publishing scene.

This item is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.

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