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Posts Tagged ‘Ted Hughes’

16 JULY, 2013

Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love

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“Two people … who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person … one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind.”

In 1960, Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — began recording a series of broadcasts for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice.” At least 17 known broadcasts were produced between November of 1960 and January of 1963, just weeks before Plath took her own life. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive, which also gave us Plath’s beautiful reading of her poem “Tulips” — comes this fascinating 20-minute interview with Plath and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, by BBC’s Owen Leeming. Titled “Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership,” it was recorded on January 18, 1961, and aired on January 31.

Though their actual first encounter was decidedly steamy and salacious, the couple concocts an intellectually revisionist history:

Plath: We kept writing poems to each other, and then it just grew out of that, I guess — a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided we should keep on.

Hughes: The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage, it took a hold. [laughs]

When asked about her childhood, Plath traces the psychoemotional backdrop against which her love of writing developed — the source of both her genius and her tragedy:

I think I was happy up to the age of about nine — very carefree — and I believed in magic, which influenced me a great bit. And then, at nine, I was rather disillusioned — I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers — and became more realistic and depressed, I think, and then, gradually, became a bit more adjusted about the age of sixteen or seventeen. But I certainly didn’t have a happy adolescence — and, perhaps, that’s partly why I turned specially to writing — I wrote diaries, stories, and so forth. I was quite introverted during those early years.

When Leeming asks Hughes whether he thinks their two temperaments are “parallel” or “in conflict” — a “marriage of opposites” — the poet gives an answer that is at once mystical, poetic, and strangely ominous in the retrospective context of what the imminent future was to bring:

We’re very alike — we like the same things, live at the same tempo, have the same sort of rhythm in almost every way. But obviously this is a very fortunate covering for temperaments that are extremely different. But they lead secret lives, you see — they content themselves in an imaginative world, so they never really come into open conflict.

In discussing the various ways in which the two have been making ends meet, Plath articulates something that would resonate deeply with most writers:

We actually look ahead from year to year, and try very hard not to look ahead beyond that … when you’re writing, you don’t do any twenty-year pension plans or anything of that sort, and need a bit more faith and brazenness perhaps than if one has a steady job. [But] I wouldn’t [have it any other way], even being a very practical and domestic housewife as I am — I think the advantages are too great to want to change.

Though jokingly offered, Hughes touches on the “hedonic treadmill” of consumerism and contributes a sad insight on material culture:

You begin to worry about money when you get a job.

(Cue in this wonderful guide to how to worry less about money.)

When asked at what stage they are going to start introducing their nine-month-old daughter Frieda to poetry, Plath, who had herself just authored a couple of little-known and lovely books of children’s verse, argues that there is no room for snobbery when it comes to priming children for poetry:

She already has listened to nursery rhymes, which I consider a poetry — I don’t believe in being self-conscious about it. I think that everything from little nursery rhymes and songs to Eliot’s Practical Cats is perfect material.

Hughes offers a beautiful meditation on the power of creative intimacy — something manifested in this lovely modern-day example — in which two people who are romantically intertwined also serve as springboards for each other’s interpretation of reality:

What she writes out needn’t be at all the contents of her own mind — it needn’t be anything she knows — but it’s something that somebody in the room knows, or somebody that she’s very close to knows. And, in this way, two people who are sympathetic to each other and who are right, who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person — they make up one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind. … It’s not that you choose the same things to write about, necessarily, and you certainly don’t write about them in the same way — it’s that you draw on an experience, it’s as though you knew more about something than you, from your own life, have ever really learned. . .

It’s a complicated idea to get across, because you’ve first of all to believe in this sort of telepathic union exists between two sympathetic people.

Pair The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath with Plath on life, death, hope and happiness and Hughes’s exquisite letter of existential advice to their son.

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19 MARCH, 2013

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls: Irreverent Vintage Illustrated Verses by Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll & Ted Hughes

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“Moral: Never stew your sister.”

In 1963, editor William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer joined forces on a little gem titled A Cat-Hater’s Handbook. The following year, the two came together in a different yet equally endearing collaboration: Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls (public library) — a charming 1964 collection of “funny, absurd, and truly ridiculous rhymes” ranging from folk limericks to anonymous poems to verses both famous and little-known by literary luminaries like Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, and A. A. Milne, accompanied by Ungerer’s signature irreverent drawings.

Cole himself sets the tone with an opening rhyme:

Here in this book, collected for you,
Are hundreds of things that you never should do,
Like stewing your sister, scarring your brother,
Or disobeying your father or mother.

What follows falls somewhere between Edward Gorey’s delightfully dark alphabet and Mark Twain’s playful Advice to Little Girls.

NOTHING TO DO?
Shelley Silverstein

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?
Put some mustard in your shoe,
Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,
Place your toys upon the stair,
Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall,
Roll some marbles down the hall,
Pour some ink in daddy’s cap —
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

MY BROTHER BERT
Ted Hughes

Pets are the hobby of my brother Bert.
He used to go to school with a mouse in his shirt.

His hobby it grew, as some hobbies will,
and grew, and GREW and GREW until —

Oh don’t breathe a word, pretend you haven’t heard.
A simply appalling thing has occurred —

The very thought makes me iller and iller:
Bert’s brought home a gigantic Gorilla!

If you think that’s really not such a scare,
What if it quarrels with his Grizzly Bear?

You still think you could keep your head?
What if the Lion from under the bed

And the four Ostriches that deposit
Their football eggs in his bedroom closet

And the Aardvark out of his bottom drawer
All danced out and joined in the Roar?

What if the Pangolins were to caper
Out of their nests behind the wallpaper?

With the fifty sorts of Bats
That hang on his hatstand like old hats,

And out of a shoebox the excitable Platypus
Along with the Ocelot or Jungle-Cattypus?

The Wombat, the Dingo, the Gecko, the Grampus —
How they would shake the house with their Rumpus!

Not to forget the Bandicoot
Who would certainly peer from his battered old boot.

Why it could be a dreadful day,
And what Oh what would the neighbors say!

THE GOOD LITTLE GIRL
A. A. Milne

It’s funny how often they say to me, “Jane?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
And when they have said it they say it again,
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

I go to a party, I go out to tea,
I go to an aunt for a week at the sea
I come back from school or from playing a game;
Wherever I come from, it’s always the same:
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

It’s always the end of the loveliest day:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
I went to the Zoo, and they waited to say:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

Well, what did they think that I went there to do?
And why should I want to be bad at the Zoo?
And should I be likely to say if I had?
So that’s why it’s funny of Mummy and Dad,
This asking and asking in case I was bad,
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

SARAH CYNTHIA SYLVIA STOUT
Shelley Silverstein

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
would not take the garbage out!
She’d boil the water
and open the cans
and scrub the pots
and scour the pans
and grate the cheese
and shell the peas
and mash the yams
and spice the hams,
and make the jams.
But though her daddy
would scream and shout,
she would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
mouldy bread and withered greens,
olive pits and soggy beans,
cracker boxes, chicken bones,
clamshells, eggshells, stale scones,
sour milk and mashy plums,
crumbly cake and cookie crumbs.
At last the garbage piled so high
that finally it reached the sky.
And none of her friends would come to play.
And all the neighbours moved away.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout
said, ‘I’ll take the garbage out!’
But then, of course, it was too late.
The garbage reached beyond the state,
from Memphis to the Golden Gate.
And Sarah met an awful fate,
which I cannot right now relate
because the hour is much too late.
But, children, think of Sarah Stout
and always take the garbage out!

RICE PUDDING
A. A. Milne

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s crying with all her might and main,
And she won’t eat her dinner—rice pudding again—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her dolls and a daisy-chain,
And a book about animals—all in vain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’?s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain;
But, look at her, now she’?s beginning again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her sweets and a ride in the train,
And I’?ve begged her to stop for a bit and explain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain,
And it’?s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

THE DUCHESS’ LULLABY
Lewis Carroll

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

THINK OF EIGHT NUMBERS
Shelley Silverstein

Think of eight numbers from one to nine —
That’s fine.
Now pick up the phone and dial them all —
That’s making a call.
Now wait till somebody answers,
Then shout ‘Yickety-yick!’ and hang up quick.
And sit for a while,
And have a smile,
And start all over again.

BROTHER AND SISTER
Lewis Carroll

Sister, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.”
Thus the prudent brother said.

“Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?”
Thus his sister calm replied.

“Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth”

The sister raised her beaming eye
And looked on him indignantly
And sternly answered, “Only try!”

Off to the cook he quickly ran.
“Dear Cook, please lend a frying-pan
To me as quickly as you can.”

And wherefore should I lend it you?”
“The reason, Cook, is plain to view.
I wish to make an Irish stew.”

“What meat is in that stew to go?”
“My sister’ll be the contents!”
“Oh”
“You’ll lend the pan to me, Cook?”
“No!”

Moral: Never stew your sister.

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2013

February 25, 1956: Sylvia Plath Meets Ted Hughes in One of Literary History’s Steamiest Encounters

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“He ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears.”

On February 25, 1956, young Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience” — walked into a crowded literary party and was instantly drawn to the man with whom she’d come to enter into a tumultuous marriage, the man who years after Plath’s suicide would write an exquisite letter of life advice to the couple’s son, the man who’d become the controversial executor of Plath’s literary estate: Ted Hughes.

The encounter, which Andrew Wilson describes in the ambitious recent biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library), is the stuff of literary legend:

On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz — the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet — made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air. In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.

On arrival at the Women’s Union — the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review — Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction. Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.” Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,” “Is this the better or worse half?” Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond. From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).

By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review. When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes — who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company — and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.

Plath recorded this encounter — now one of the most famous in all literary history — in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover — she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs — she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth. Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room — in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley — and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song is sublime in its entirety, laced with the same blend of scintillating narrative and fascinating historical context.

Photographs via The Times and London Evening Standard

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