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Books / Fatwah / March 24, 2009
By John Dolan

Ted in better days

Ted in better days

Hughes knew well enough about the false teeth and soggy socks of the actual postwar Britain. He grew up in it, the son of peasants turned shopkeepers. Like most such people who’ve actually experienced that life, he didn’t much want to talk about turnips and tuppences-though he could, brilliantly, when he felt like it, as in his early poem detailing the wordless struggle over tea between a miner and his wife. To call up the early denunciations of Hughes now is to be sickened by the crude hypocrisy of rich kids lecturing an actual Yorkshire plebe on his duty to be more proletarian.

Beyond this was the whisper that Hughes took himself too seriously. He wrote about animals like he liked them; he had no interest in garbling his verses; they contained no in-jokes, allusions, or tips of the hat to fellow poets. He was suspect on many vague charges of the sort British people take very seriously: being up himself, not playing the game, being sentimental about things not on the approved maudlin list. And above all, there was a sense that somehow, he was a bad man-that hawk, you know, a bit too Wyndham Lewis, something a little too enthusiastic about it.

Odd, it seems to me, that moral objections should be used to suppress this particular English poet, when you consider the list of charges that could be brought against every other English poet who ever lived.

Pick a moral test at random-oh, say, Victorian poets’ response to the Great Famine. Start with Wordsworth, whose only comment on the Irish Famine was an irritated mention of certain namby-pambies who were following M. Necker in appeasing the dangerous, ungrateful hordes; Tennyson whose tour of Ireland took place in a closed carriage, and even then only after his hosts had agreed that there would be neither mention nor view of “Irish distress”; Stevie Smith’s little charmer “The Celts,” Spenser….but the list is far too long to finish here. Just google English Writer’s Name plus “Irish” and see how long your faith in the essential goodness of human nature lasts.

Of course, you’re not supposed to mention that, and if you do, you get, “Oh, not again!” An interesting reaction, because I can’t find anyone mentioning it at all. On the contrary; it’s one of those taboo topics so overdone and talked out that no one ever, ever speaks of it at all. A Wodehouse phrase comes to mind, something about “a conscience as tender as a sunburned neck.” And determined never to mention, let alone regret, its foul history, yet always ready to shout down anyone who mentions it with the cry, “Oh, we’ve heard all that before!” Next time somebody tries that on you, ask them where they’ve heard it before. The real answer would be, “In my head! Make it stop!” but if they’re forced to name actual published texts, they’ll say, “Uh…Terry Eagleton (that sad trusting fuck)…and….” And that will be the end of the list.

The fact is that, with the shining exception of Prometheus Himself, George Gordon Lord Byron, who can never be sufficiently praised, the Pantheon of English poets consists of provincial bigots with very meager talent. Name the English poets of Hughe’s generation who wrote some worthwhile poems: Gunn, Larkin…that’s about it. Contrary to popular belief and its own vast self-importance, English poetry, as opposed to British-Isles poetry-poetry by born-and-bred English folk like Hughes, does not have talent to spare.

Odd, then, that they are determined to ignore their best man. It can’t just be the fact that he took the laureateship, because here again we hit that strange double standard, finding hosts of English poets who took the stinking money and kept their reputations. (Everybody thought Andrew Motion’s zippy poem on the wedding of Prince Whatever-His-Name-Is was just Cool Britannia Bananas.) Something else is at work here, and in the best English tradition you don’t have a hope of hearing the real reason. Instead you get their usual display of misdirection plays, the old conjurers. Craig Raine recently published an odd, grannyish un-appreciation of Hughes accusing him of being less than forthcoming about his vile lusts.
It seems Hughes liked to have sex with women. Granted, this places him well outside the main stream of British literary life, but I had not been aware it was actually considered a crime, especially when placed in historical context. Hughes was, after all, the preeminent British poet of the 1960s, and there are rumors that during this period, there was a certain amount of sexual license in both American and British literary circles. Surely Mr. Raine has heard of these rumors, in that he himself was one of Hughes’s rivals for poetic prominence during that era? Not that he himself could possibly have been involved in such antics.

Raine differs from Hughes in another manner, of course: he never had a hundredth of Hughes’s talent. When the talentless outlive the great, such articles are inevitable.

What a wonderful thing it would be if some bored alien deity would visit Earth for a while-one of Raine’s stoned sixties Martians, perhaps-and let us borrow a machine that would rank writers by their real crimes. I suspect the pious crone Wordsworth would fry the circuitry, and other bastions of respectability score far into the red zone. But Hughes? What exactly is this terrible thing he did?

In a sense, what Hughes did that no one will forgive is this: he wrote like a man, rather than a thwarted nobody, and there was really no call for that sort of voice in English-language poetry. It had nothing to do with how he actually lived. As Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin revealed, Larkin, the “watch-chain-wearing” representative of the Establishment, who wrote as if he’d never kissed anybody but his mummy, was having affairs with every female in the Civil Service. But he didn’t write like it. Hughes wrote like somebody who was getting off, and it didn’t go over too well. not what poetry is for. All these oblique moralistic critiques fed, on this side of the Atlantic, into a much, much simpler, not to say downright retarded, campaign of persecution that resembled nothing so much as a grad-school version of the hounding of Fatty Arbuckle. It came down very quickly to this: “Ted Hughes killed Sylvia Plath!” And his sentence was to be snubbed for life. Way back when I was a Berkeley student, I mentioned his name adoringly to an earnest Midwestern woman in my workshop. She recoiled and said in all seriousness, “You shouldn’t say his name.” I made some snorty noise of the sort overconfident young men like to make in front of earnest women, and she amended her advice with a final warning: “At least don’t say his name anywhere near Wheeler Hall.” Wheeler Hall was the HQ of the horrible UCB English Department, and she was deadly serious; she was trying to save my life.

It wasn’t the pedantic ferocity of the Hughes-hating cult I minded; that’s usually a sign of a healthy art. Like when this punk woman who was interested in me got right down to business on her first visit to my apartment by vetting my LP collection. After a few grunts of agreement she stopped, looked up in horror, and howled in disgust, “The STRANGLERS?” Now that was healthy bigotry, a sign of how much music mattered, how closely it was linked to mating. (Luckily, the next record in the stack was Crass, which almost made up, in her mind, for the Stranglers-though it’s the fact that I owned a Crass record which makes me flinch now.)

The problem with the boycott of Ted Hughes is that it had nothing to do with his poetry. As if anybody at Berkeley cared about that; the number of people on that campus who could tell the difference between good and bad verse…well, as they say, “One hand grenade…” He was a bad man; he killed Sylvia; they rested their case.

The fact that Hughes wrote like a young man, in a recognizably male voice, made it easy to cast Hughes as the satyr-villain in the big victim-melodrama of 1970s feminism, with Sylvia as his martyred virgin victim. (Of course, he was a villain they loved to hate, too, a Dracula many Plath-cult girls masturbated to”Kill me Teddie!”–but that never made it into the public discussion.)

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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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