Poetic licence denied

February 12, 1999

Never friendly to critics, Ted Hughes's estate has stopped an academic from quoting his work. Sian Griffiths surveys a battle for scholarly freedom

Former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes has been dead just three months yet already a swell of academic argument is gathering about the rights to his work and the notorious restrictions on quoting from his poetry or that of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.

Anne Whitehead, research fellow in English at Newcastle University, is the latest in a line of academics to fall foul of the Hughes estate, which controls the reproduction rights to Hughes's and Plath's poetry. For the next issue of the academic journal Textual Practice Dr Whitehead has had to rewrite her article, "Refiguring Orpheus: The Possession of the Past in Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters".

Whitehead had to remove about 56 lines of poetry from the article, mostly quotes from Birthday Letters, Hughes's last collection of poems, because her request for permission to cite them was refused. Whitehead, who sent the request to Hughes's publisher, Faber and Faber, was also refused leave to cite from "The City" and "The Offers", two poems that had been printed in The Sunday Times.

The 28-year-old academic found the refusal particularly upsetting because her article, about dealing with bereavement, was written not only as a response to Birthday Letters, Hughes's retrospective poems to Sylvia, who committed suicide in 1963, but also to the suicide of her own sister last summer. "It was very important to me that my article be published," she says. Although the revised article will appear in July's issue of Textual Practice, Whitehead worries that readers may find it difficult to understand without copies of the poems to hand.

Academics hoping that Hughes's death might herald an easing of the prickly relationship between scholars and the Hughes estate are dismayed at this latest refusal. Alan Sinfield, professor of English at Sussex and editor of Textual Practice, argues that the estate's policing of reproduction of the poetry "inhibits intellectual exchange".

Sinfield has written to Faber pointing out that Whitehead's article is "notably friendly" towards Hughes (some feminist scholars blamed Hughes for Plath's suicide after the couple's separation). "(Whitehead's article) disputes the standard critical response - that Hughes's purpose (in Birthday Letters) was to justify himself by finally telling his side of the story of the marriage with Sylvia Plath - and finds the poems illuminating in their ... imaginative response to shock and grief," Sinfield says.

Faber's response was to curtly confirm refusal. "We have a set of guidelines to follow when granting permission from Birthday Letters, and permission can be granted only for certain contexts," Sinfield was told.

Demands to see a copy of the guidelines - "to help scholars, who otherwise are likely to spend a lot of time on work which can't be published" - have proved fruitless. Not explaining the guidelines "places significant obstacles in the path of public debate", says Sinfield, who wants Faber to refuse to administer copyright "in the way required by the Hughes estate".

Faber's Anna Gorst told The THES that since Hughes's death, scholarly requests are passed to the family, including Hughes's second wife, Carol, and his daughter Frieda. Faber owns the copyright to the works of both poets, but the family must approve reproduction. "The family has the final veto. It is not really our decision. With other authors it is not such a problem. In this case it is up to the family and the family is picky."

Gorst added that "guidelines" was probably too strong a word to describe the procedures governing whether poems can be quoted but "things about the suicide of Plath would not be allowed" and, in the case of Hughes's work, there are "things that Carol does not like". Restrictions are unlikely to be eased - "things will probably get tougher".

Whitehead's article is based on trauma theory, which suggests that the experience of bereavement is not assimilated quickly. She says Birthday Letters is shot through with references to the myth of Orpheus, the mortal who briefly regained his love, Eurydice, from the Underworld. "I use Jacques Lacan's work on Orpheus, which suggests that the encounter with death is a test encounter which has to be repeated to be assimilated," Whitehead says. "I read Birthday Letters in terms of a belated encounter with Plath's death in the poems."

Until 1991 Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister, controlled the rights to Plath's work, and biographers such as Anne Stevenson and Linda Wagner-Martin came under pressure to modify their interpretations of the American poet's life.

Even literary critics who did not dabble in biography but merely suggested original readings of the poems - as does Whitehead - locked horns with the family. Jacqueline Rose's book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath - which Olwyn called "evil" - was jeopardised because the legal risks of quoting from Plath's poems were so high.

Ted Hughes objected to Rose's inference of bisexuality in Plath's poem "The Rabbit Catcher". In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in 1992 Hughes described the "re-invention" of Plath's sexual identity as "humiliating" and damaging to her children. In a letter to Rose, now professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, he argued that in some countries such speculation on a mother's sexual identity would be "grounds for homicide".

In the face of such arguments, Sinfield defends scholars' right to freedom of interpretation. "I appreciate that the lives and deaths of these poets are sensitive matters. I am sorry that people have been hurt by comments that have been published hitherto. I can envisage instances where publication should be controlled; I don't think, for instance, that Hughes's private papers should be stolen and circulated. However, no one is obliged to publish poetry. Once material is in the public domain it is going to get discussed."

He concludes with a warning to academics: "If you are working on a Faber author, beware: it may be difficult to publish your ideas in a form in which they will have the influence that you intend."

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