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Books / Fatwah / March 24, 2009

Nicholas Hughes' Most Recent Photograph (bottom right)

Most Recent Photograph of That Guy That Plath Popped Out
(bottom right; circa 1962)

Sylvia Plath’s son died yesterday. That’s how it was reported, even by the BBC. The dead man’s name was Nicholas Hughes, not Plath, but in death we learn which parent really mattered. For the record, he was also the son of a poet far greater than Plath, a man named Ted Hughes.

Hughes has been snubbed and despised for most of my lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic. The American response is typically simple-minded and moralistic: “He killed poor Sylvia!” The British scorn for Hughes is (also typically) bitchy and disingenuous. But the result has been a boycott of serious appreciation of his work throughout the English-speaking world, and so powerful in England that they’re willing to lose the services of the best man on their team rather than give Hughes his due, while cheering their cheesiest and most worthless literary lights, like the pitifully untalented W. H. Auden.

First, a little disclosure, as they say: Hughes was the reason I became a poet. Which, come to think of it, gives me a real reason to hate him. When I was young the only poets I truly loved were Browning and Hughes-and now I could do without the Browning. I had Hughes’s first four books memorized. I remember the sequence of titles, long afternoons in the Pleasant Hill Public Library, learning to worship the fauna of the British Isles with him: Hawk in the Rain. Lupercal. Wodwo. Crow.

Crow, of course, was his concept album, his jump into pop stardom, and it cost him, as those concept albums of the hippie era usually did cost their makers. He made his creed accessible to the hippies, too accessible, and entered a cheaper and more ephemeral world. But even Crow has moments of sheer magnificence (like “Crow Paints Himself into A Chinese Mural”: “the grass camps in its tussocks…the spears, the banners wait.”), nerdy male greatness you normally find only in science fiction or in the rare moments Stevens was willing to tell stories (eg “Page from A Tale”).

Hughes wrote like a young man. Not like a bombastic fool in the Whitman/Hemingway tradition, but a man who liked animals and gore-a normal nerd, in other words. This was a great sin in twentieth-century poetry. If you were going to write from your loins in modernism, you were well advised to be an exhibitionist closet case; if that was unavailable to you, you could try the Henry Miller schtick and stick to (apologies to French and Saunders) Raw Sex, because that at least might have the merit of offending the bigwigs. (This was of course gross naivete about the nature of the elite; cut to the young Queen Mother giggling, drunk, as Eliot tries to shock her and her equally debauched friends at a reading.)

Hughes, a respectable lower-middle class kid, was loath to talk dirty until Crow pushed him over the edge. He was happier at the zoo, enjoying the jaguars and the hawks. This was all wrong; it was too cheerful and obvious and gross.

To make it in high modernism, you were better off affecting the epicene voice of a very old man-say, Teiresias, Eliot’s official spokes-dotard, or if you were too randy to pull that voice off, like Pound, blithering on with cut-and-paste erudition made bearable only by wholesale thefts from Browning. Hughes was too straightforward and talented to notice these fickle breezes; he, like his friend Thom Gunn, did something very un-modernist: he wrote as well and as clearly as he could about the things he loved. This was unforgivable; it was a profound rejection of Modernism.

Hughes thought and wrote in the mode of an honest word nerd who loved what we all love: fierce talk and animals. A few plants, too; as with Hughes’s poem to a fern: “Like the plume of a warrior returning, under the low hills, to his own kingdom.” Hughes is an animist, and his pantheon, like the Egyptians’, is a zoo. Literally a zoo in some of his most famous early poems, like the song to a caged big cat, “Second Glance at A Jaguar”: “Skinful of bowls, he bowls them….” His most famous poem, “Hawk Roosting,” anticipated by decades Gary Larson’s animal-worship (“Birds of prey know they’re cool”). That poem drew a lot of flak from critics who found it too gory and too cheerful about it, lines like “For the one path of my flight is direct through the bones of the living….”–as if a hawk should speak like a neurotic Quaker, like Robert Lowell. I read that poem as a furious testosterone-poisoned adolescent and all but frothed at the mouth for sheer dark joy:

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.

Inaction, no falsifying dream

Between my hooked head and hooked feet:

Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

This was the language of everything a normal boy loved: the beautiful predators of the nature documentaries celebrated in words worthy of them for the first time. It was such a cleansing shower of un-morality, after being suffocated with the dismal quasi-Buddhism of West Coast poetry. The last lines of the poem constituted some of the very few post-war arrangements of words in this language worthy of the Nietzschean almost-world of Europe before 1945:
Nothing has changed since I began.

My eye has permitted no change.

I am going to keep things like this.

The utter flatness of those assertions, one after another, managed to find the “less and less human” voice that Stevens had prophesied, without being able to deliver (because Stevens was equidistant from every living creature, human or not).

What’s amazing, in retrospect, is that Hughes managed to be celebrated in the first place, not that he inspired hatred among literary people. How did they let that hawk onstage, in the squeamish world of the 1950s?

Hughes brought Darwin to Nature poetry (“Terrifying are the alert sleek thrushes on the lawn,/More coiled steel than living….” Without losing the forest-worship of the old island, where a squirrel could go from Land’s End to John o’ Groats without touching the ground. That was what Hughes wanted, dreamed of, and that made many breeds of humanophiles uneasy. His Britain wasn’t real because it didn’t have enough chip shops, false teeth and divorces in it, they said. That hawk of his was a fascist, a bloody fascist! (To which the answer is obvious: why yes, of course; have you ever actually seen a hawk?)

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Add your own

  • 1. hobo  |  March 24th, 2009 at 1:08 pm


  • 2. Woz  |  March 24th, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Your great writing shows when someone who isn’t interested in reading poetry can appreciate it. Good stuff.

  • 3. Moo  |  March 24th, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Okay, my interest is piqued. I’m reserving a Ted Hughes collection at the library.

    That said – can we set some end date by which the Irish all promise to stop whining about the potato famine?

  • 4. mechagodzilla  |  March 24th, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Whoa, damn! This is a well written article!

  • 5. tuffghost  |  March 24th, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    good post, as usual.

    I call BS though, on dismissing an entire movement at one point in time as “victimology”.
    I remember thinking Goddamn here we go: Dolan writes, yet again, about the Irish oppression. Whether it’s about James Frey, dead poets, abortion,whatever – it always, always comes back to them English bastards being mean to the Irish, (or if it’s too much of a stretch, we can work that in via digressions on “Ulster America”). However, that’s the thing about being forced to hear about oppression that isn’t yours or something dear to you: you get resentful having to hear about it another damn time. Annoying injustices! Don’t Bother me with that crap!
    Hence me getting tired about hearing the poor, poor Irish, or Dolan using the “vitomology” dick move like some weasling, intellectually lazy neo-con. That’s what they, do, BTW: when they can’t dismiss the cold hard reality of social inequality or historic injustice because people people won’t STFU about it , they turn “victim” into a category of derision. Whether it’s the feminists, or people who have that annoying habit of pointing out the virulent anti-Irish bigotry that historically runs through Anglo culture – the lazy way to say “STFU, I don’t want to hear about it” is to accuse them of celebrating victimhood.

  • 6. Roquentin  |  March 24th, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    You’ve convinced me to give Hughes a chance. I like Plath more than I probably should though, the sheer force of the macabre imagery was all the poems really needed to appeal to me in college. When you consider most of what gets anthologized it makes sense.

    I still firmly contend that “Daddy” is generally misread by most, the feminists first and foremost. The the main theme is really about being German and the father is more of a stand in for the fatherland. Plath barely even knew her literal father, he died when she was eight, so extreme personal hatred of him doesn’t make much sense. The poem is more about being born with the rotten German history she received through him genetically. That reading doesn’t suit victimization very well so most people never consider it, especially in a college classroom. There is an aspect of man hating to it, but it is a secondary theme.

  • 7. FOARP  |  March 25th, 2009 at 2:51 am


  • 8. HASSO VON MANTEUFFEL  |  March 25th, 2009 at 7:52 am

    i hope the magazine goes bankrupt – except john dolan and war nerd

  • 9. BourgeoisEnglishman  |  March 25th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Brilliant, but depressing as usual; it should not take an irredentist Irish republican to tell the simple truth about English poetry.

    I only managed to hear Ted Hughes read in person once – he was the only poet on the stage who didn’t come across like they were only writing poetry because they were too cunting wry and ironic and detached to do anything else.

  • 10. Viking  |  March 25th, 2009 at 9:10 am


    Yes we’ll stop whining about the potato famine when Brits stop patting themselves on the back for survivng WW II.

  • 11. wengler  |  March 25th, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I read it all the way through. And it was about poems even.

    Consider that a pat on the back Mr. Dolan.

  • 12. salamanderbaby  |  March 25th, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I’m guessing it’s about 3 inches, hard. Am I right or am I being too generous?

  • 13. Tam  |  March 25th, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Nice article but I’d take issue with Hughes not getting the attention he deserves. He was made the British Poet Laureate in the 80s after all, and his stuff’s well enough known that even people like me who don’t really ‘follow’ poetry recognise his stuff.
    If highbrow critics don’t like his stuff then that’s got something to do with the fact that he was Margaret Thatcher’s choice for poet laureate which would have tainted him irredeemably in the eyes of the liberal and very right-on poetry establishment.

  • 14. 青岛鲍伯  |  March 25th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    流放不再是滑稽或相关的。 再见,流放。 生活是母狗。

  • 15. E  |  March 25th, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    My compliments, this was a good read.

  • 16. JamesP  |  March 25th, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Claiming that Hughes was somehow scorned by the British establishment is just bollocks, really; he was massively anthologized, spoke all the time, was well in with other poets for the most part, etc, and was one of the best-selling poets in the nation, especially ‘Birthday Letters.’

  • 17. Nate  |  March 26th, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Best prose of the genre I’ve read in awhile. Seriously. Where the fuck does Exiled find its writers?

  • 18. londoninflames  |  March 26th, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Top piece. I was a massive fan of Sylvia Plath as a teenage miserablist, and in many ways I still am a massive fan. But for a while I believed that anti-Hughes horseshit. Fortunately a teacher at school put me right about that, and over the years Ted Hughes has become my favourite poet. Plath is a great poet, but is responsible for probably more bad imitators than any other poet ever. Hughes is a better poet, and his legacy is far more important.

  • 19. Lighty  |  March 26th, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    First time you mention Miller and you dismiss him. I could try and show you how wrong you are but I can’t be bothered. I was going to make a donation but I can’t be bothered with that either – not just yet – and I’m caning the last credit card that works anyway.

    Miller did what he did for his own good reasons. He and Hunter Thompson are giants and John, A Pleasant Hell won’t make the nut. You are ten times better here than you were in that book – which is why it breaks my heart so much when you step over a good man.

    You are right about so many things; which is why I try to read every fucking word you write, but you’re not right about Henry.

    Hope the toe gets better and some money comes in. We’re all going to die anyway – in horrible fucking ways. Make the most of it. Take plenty of drugs.

    If I send you 50 can I plug my book? Whatever…

  • 20. Anonymous  |  March 28th, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I liked this article a lot.

    Other commenters, Dolan’s “harping” on Ireland is too much for your taste? Cry me a river!

    Perhaps I’m just biased, since my ancestors were allegedly more Irish than anything else. However, I allegedly have plenty of ancestors from England, France, Germany, and all over the rest of Europe, my trailer trash forebears haven’t shared with me any records of their ancestors that go back beyond those born in the US, and I have never heard so much as a peep out of any of my relatives about anything having to do with Irish history, which appears to be a subject that does not interest them any more than Belgian or Guamanian history.

    It all comes down to “write what you know.” Dolan’s view of the world is that it is the fundamental nature of humans to abuse one another, for shortsighted gain, and xenophobic hatred, and the sheer joy of hurting someone when you’re angry, even if you’re just angry because you’re 16 and male and pumped on testosterone, or because your life is imperfect like everyone else’s, or some other non-reason. Frankly, I think the tale of England and the Irish makes a perfectly good habitual case in point. Not to mention, it’s clearly something Dolan’s aggrieved and dysfunctional family drilled into him at an early age, so he knows a lot about it and wants quite badly to discuss it.

    What would you have him use instead?

    Darfur, because the feckless “Free Tibet” college trustafarians have shifted their sights there, lusting as always to make friends with an Exotic Other ethnic group so desperately persecuted that they’ll suck up to Americans who have bothered to learn roughly one sentence about their history and culture?

    Nazi Germany and the Jews, like a peabrained Republican who sincerely believes WWII veterans are The Greatest Generation?

    Israel and the Palestinians, like a bored kid irrevocably wasting precious minutes of his tragically short youth by trolling the peabrained Republicans?

    The Columbine shooters and their bullies, because Dolan’s articles just aren’t long and complex and offensive enough for you yet?

    England and the Irish is a well-documented, recent, probably mostly finished conflict, where both sides were white, English speaking, and undeniably like us.

    The Ottoman Empire and the Armenians is the only case that might be as suitable, and the War Nerd loves Turks, who are still busily denying the Armenian genocide, so Ireland it is.

    As long as he doesn’t entirely lose the thread of whatever other story he’s telling, why not humor Dolan’s digression, especially in the interest of bringing the occasional new fan up to speed?

    And tuffghost, you’re right that Dolan does write with a lot of fear and anger toward women as a group, and does unfairly ignore the entire women’s rights movement. Furthermore, I do think the 70s feminists were correct that Hughes’ Nietzschean attitude was and is a stupid and dangerous mistake entirely characteristic of Thatcher’s Tories, even if it was also the balm that Dolan’s soul wanted in college, and I haven’t read enough of Hughes and Plath to confirm Dolan’s contention that Hughes was much better at expressing his ideas than Plath was. However, I think Dolan makes an excellent case that 70s feminists unfairly laid the blame for Plath’s suicide at Hughes’ feet, and that no one has refuted that claim yet.

    (Admit it, exile comment moderator(s): you’ve missed my mind-numbingly long rants lately, haven’t you? Now that I’m a subscriber I feel entitled.)

  • 21. supdogg  |  March 28th, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Lighty, are you retarded? That’s a serious question.

    Stop trying to take the high-road with comments like “but I can’t be bothered” …. that’s the kind of thing you say when you’re PRETENDING you know what you’re talking about. I got a GOOD laugh at your “can I plug my book” comment. Let me guess … a book about your “mental breakdown” … kind of like the one you tote around on your site? Good thing you quit smoking and drinking to recover, my man … those habits may increase your chances of getting cancer!

    PS: Stop dragging Thompson’s name through the mud, it’s really sad.

  • 22. Lighty  |  March 29th, 2009 at 11:54 am

    No, you’re wrong Supdogg. I couldn’t be bothered because I was just so tired, and near the end. John knew what I meant.

    And this is book…

    Free and shit. ‘Cause that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

  • 23. Peter  |  March 30th, 2009 at 9:12 am

    These are the two sides of Dolan. The first side is him fighting the stupid, irrelevant battles of his youth. Who gives a shit about the 70s feminists? As far as I can tell, I couldn’t be bothered with either them or Hughes, although I’ll concede his point that Hughes sounds a touch more honest, and hell, reading Dolan blather about the 70s is actually pretty good fun even if it’s slightly embarassing.

    Then there’s the glaringly, painfully relevant side, and the Famine is part of that. It’s not because of its victimology but because it was the beginning of something that shaped the whole world but that no one wants to talk about; the British reshaping of the globe into their own image, rights and lives of other people be damned. Dolan is the only person I can think of who writes cogently and readably on this, just like Ames (who’s another one with a substantial pitiful-bullshit side) and rampage shootings.

    What ties the two together is how people use literature to evade obvious truths and make palatable stories out of the world. The anti-Hughes faction did and do it and so do the Tory apologists, and that’s why they’re both in this article (as well as Dolan’s habit of digressions, but fuck it, I’d rather read his digressions than most writer’s main points anyday).

  • 24. Some Random Asshole  |  March 30th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Sylvia Plath was fucking hot though. And with all these mental problems, you know she’d just about rip your dick off.

  • 25. Slithe  |  April 1st, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Some Random Asshole,
    You must be looking at a different picture ( than I am. I would do her (if she were alive and still looked like that picture), but I am a horny basement-dwelling nerd.

    Dolan, I am surprised that as a lover of opium and an appreciator of fantasy that you don’t give more credit to Coleridge. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is BY FAR the best work of fantasy (real fantasy i.e. phantoms and fancy as opposed to untalented ripoffs of Dark Ages England) in the English language (to my knowledge). Despite it being a poem, it is vastly superior (in the area of storytelling) to the plodding Lord of the Rings. Also, do i have to mention “Kubla Khan?”

  • 26. Tim  |  April 1st, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Brilliant. Every. Fucking. Word.
    I’m trying to say something besides amen.
    When I read the obits, I was, at first, shaken at the tragedies that seem to hover like the Furies around Ted Hughes when I read his son’s obituary (his son sharing the same love of the wild and of fish as his father), but then, pissed, too at the slighting.
    More than that — I feel a bit the same way when I found someone else who liked Joy Division back in the day. I’ve never met any one who shared my enthusiasm and admiration for Hughes. I can’t tell you the useless hours I spent making a case for Hughes with the members of the Plath coven. I was serious enough that I blew my chance for certain sex with some of them. Well, one of them, anyway (Now that seems like a rare example of good taste and good judgment on my part, then, it was a minor tragedy.) I’ve lost hours, maybe weeks of my life, trying to defend Hughes against the W.H. Auden devotees, too. To find out someone — really, any one, let alone someone whose work I deeply respect — fought the same battles and shared the same cause — is just a magnificent relief.
    Thank you for your generous and grand article.

  • 27. L'artista precedentemente conosciuto come principe.  |  April 6th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Parole vuote di uno studente del secondo anno di invecchiamento.

  • 28. privileged ape  |  April 8th, 2009 at 4:10 am

    No, a weak article. Plath and Hughes don’t need to be foils for each other – both have idiosyncratic strengths — nor has either poet been in any way neglected by the poetry-reading community.

    Pleasant Hell is a great piece of writing – Lighty is wrong.

    I hope you detest the intellectual parasites that stick to the bottom of your articles as much as I do.

  • 29. JB  |  April 12th, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Hi John,

    Great article and I really enjoyed the podcast. I read that a critic should not simply grade art but adds value by placing it in context. Nobody will remember you as a critic because you create art. I recall the cyanide bullet poem with fondness, though only Googling around much later did I figure out WTF you were talking about. I will read some Hughes, since I can see that same dark joy.

    You sounded good during the interview. You were very on point and prepared. I was a bit disappointed with the ambush comment against Britain that your interviewee never got to respond to, and the apology of self-indulgent length. Also, the intern who said “copyright 2009” sounded like McLovin from Superbad.

    Best wishes,

  • 30. Leianna Zohs  |  November 9th, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Interesting read.Nice voice. You should write more often eh?

  • 31. BGR  |  February 18th, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Although I, too, adore Hughes, I find it very disappointing that on the occasion of his son’s death, someone would publicly refer to him as “that guy that Plath popped out.” Camp Hughes or Plath, doesn’t matter. But to exploit a person’s tragic death, using it as an excuse to propagate a personal agenda exalting one man and denigrating many others is, in a word, uncool. Yes, Nicholas Hughes was most famous for his parents (both of them, in spite of your self-pitying rant against the so-called Hughes haters), but he was above all an accomplished scientist and idividual in his own right, and he deserved to have his name mentioned independently, at least in death. Personal attacks aside, I thought this article was pretty exceptionally written, but great art does not a shameful opportunist pardon.

  • 32. A Concerned Mom  |  February 28th, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Why do you appreciate women so much?

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