'This is not how poetry lives'

February 12, 1999

Poetic licence denied

"What can one do?" Olwyn Hughes once asked. "Should one just let them quote and let the myths get wilder and wilder - or should one try to correct them, as I have done?" What is plain is that the Hugheses have not succeeded in controlling the Plath myth; instead they have contributed distinct inflections to it. "The myth of the Plath estate is fast becoming as unpleasant and artificial as the Plath myth itself," Olwyn observed in 1988.

But then, the truth about these poets is not the point. The Plath-Hughes story has become one of the cultural myths through which our central dilemmas are focused. Through such iconic figures we conduct debates about the nature of the world and our places in it.

Mythic stories elude the bourgeois concept of individual intellectual property: they belong to the culture. The Plath-Hughes myth is a way of talking about gender and breakdown and how those themes constitute the very idea of modern poetry.

This is not a use of the term "myth" that Ted Hughes would welcome. It is the error of "our rationalist, humanist style of outlook", he said, to try to refuse "the elemental power circuit of the universe"; we need "rituals, the machinery of religion". The poet taps these ultimate energies for us.

This approach discourages critical thought, allowing the inference that poems should just sit, shimmering like new-minted tablets of stone in front of the reader, who is too daunted to question them. That is what some people think culture is about. But it is not how poetry lives.

What is not fair is that scholars should spend perhaps years working and then find that their work is unpublishable because they cannot quote Plath or Hughes. Textual Practice will ask Faber for a meeting between the Hughes estate and senior academics with a view to finding a better arrangement.

Alan Sinfield

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