Last Update: 21-vii-2003:
Proceedings of Ted Hughes 2000 — An International Conference have been published in Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons (Routledge, 2004).
TED HUGHES 2000 – An International Conference was convened by the CERAN
at Université Lumière-Lyon II on 25 & 26 February 2000.
It was organized by Joanny Moulin and Adolphe Haberer. Thanks are also due to all the invisible and semi-visible helpers who made this conference possible.
Terry Gifford sent a poem dedicated to the memory of the late Fred Rue Jacobs, a friend of Ted Hughes's and of many of the contributors. Fred had very much wanted to be at Lyon. He died in the winter of 1999.
I am well aware that the extremely brief descriptions of the talks below cannot do justice to the actual scope of the papers given (After all, speakers were allowed a generous thirty minutes to present their theses.) And in a sense this is not the place to do so. Nevertheless, I hope that, brief and limited as they are, the notes may serve the purpose of giving a glimpse of what to expect from the forthcoming conference volume.
We arrived in Lyon by train on Thursday 24 February. A late, sunny afternoon.
The atmosphere in town was warm and welcoming. It was still rather early
so that after checking into the hotel, which our hosts Adolphe Haberer
and Joanny Moulin had booked for us, we went for a few cappuccinos and
a walk to the old town. The intact though partly crumbling beauty of the
old building substance struck me as a stark contrast to many German towns,
wrecked by the war and subsequent re-building.
Returning to the hotel we found a message saying that our hosts and some other early arrivals were waiting for us in a nearby café. It was strange and pleasant at the same time to finally meet in person good friends whom I had known only through e-mails and letters.
Friday 25 February
A hasty French breakfast after getting up a little too late and a walk
to the University (Lyon II). I never expected so many students to attend
the conference. At times, the lecture hall was so packed that the only
remaining spaces to sit were on the steps.
It was Leonard Scigaj who opened the conference with his talk »The Deterministic Ghost in the Machine of Birthday Letters«. The paper centred on Hughes's retrospective portrayal of events during his marriage to Sylvia Plath. Len Scigaj found an »over-determined« portrayal of the causes of Plath's psychic deterioration. He looked into »genetic pre-determination«, »rigid mechanisms« in Hughes's description of events that seem to fail the ›real events‹ on several counts. The talk presented several aspects which, though seemingly of major importance to Plath herself, went »unacknowledged« in Birthday Letters, aspects that Hughes may have »failed to recognize« due to his »deterministic view«. [Also, on Len's handout for the first time I saw Plath's »Caryatids« poem.]
Gayle Wurst was next with her talk on »The Imagination of Ted Hughes in the Early Poetry of Sylvia Plath«. The paper started off with a mapping of Sylvia Plath's move from »juvenilia« to »mature« poetry as apparent from the published collections themselves. Gayle gave an account of the two sides of the »male muse« in Plath's poetry and showed its connections with her struggles against writing blocks and creative sterility (as apparent from her journals). The talk benefited greatly from Gayle's use of overheads of several original paintings which Plath had used as an inspiration for some of her poems. It was the first time I saw most of them.
Carol Bere's paper concentrated on a collection most of us had never seen (or even heard of) before: the limited edition (50 copies!) of Capriccio, published with Leonard Baskin's illustrations by his Gehenna Press in 1990. The book collects twenty poems which have Hughes's relationship with Assia Wevill as their background. Interestingly, eight of them were published in the New Selected Poems but in different order. The mythology of Capriccio seems related to »The Dreamers«, the »Assia-poem« from Birthday Letters. As the poems are heavily coded in mythology, Carol offered a guide into some major myths, which the poems make use of. Quite heavy and highly stimulating stuff for an early morning, and I, for one, sorely needed the break to get a grip on what I had just heard. Maybe this is a good place to thank all the students who helped making this conference possible, bustling away in the background to make attendants most comfortable and events run smoothly.
Terry Gifford was next with his talk on »Culture as Nature in Remains of Elmet and Elmet«. He presented a fascinating comparison on the differences between the two books. Slides illustrated some major points made. Terry's talk answered several questions raised by the differences between both publications, and he showed the progress in Ted Hughes's and Fay Godwin's portrayal of »Culture as Nature«. In addition to this, having just recently conducted an interview with Fay Godwin, Terry's talk was spiced with interesting insights into the collaboration between photographer and poet. A treat for attendant students, Terry gave away free copies of a paper on »Nature as Culture / Culture as Nature«. Moreover, he brought the late Fred Rue Jacobs's absence to our awareness: a friend to many of the speakers.
After lunch, Christian la Cassagnère gave a talk on the poem »Wind«. He applied his knowledge of Lacanian thought, to examine in great detail the conflict between »Real« and »Sublime« in the formal poetry, with central focus on different »horizons« in the poetic text. He also portrayed Hughes as one of the »last romantics«.
Ann Skea presented stunning findings on Birthday Letters. The 88 poems, it seems, correspond to aspects of Cabbalist numerology (paths of the Sephirothic Tree), while Tarot cards appear to have been used as a mnemonic in writing and/or sequencing the poems. Well aware that almost anything may be interpreted into a book of poems, Ann carefully presented sample charts of correspondences between Cabbala, Tarot and poems from Birthday Letters, strengthening her point.
Next was Stephen Enniss, curator of the Ted Hughes archive at Emory University, Atlanta. Steve had changed the topic of his talk and gave a fascinating account of Hughes's self-representation as apparent from his treatment of his own manuscripts: Soon after the publication of his first volume of poetry, Hughes seems to have become aware of the value and advantages of his MSS over the published versions as representing works in progress. The many hundreds of manuscripts at Emory seem to bear witness to Hughes's change in self-representation.
After the well-attended book launch of Keith Sagar's The Laughter of Foxes in a downtown bookstore, we left the party (who were to dine in a beautiful old restaurant) so I could finish shortening the jumble of notes for my own talk to the required thirty minutes. Sadly, therefore, we missed out on most of a very happy gathering.
Saturday 26 February
Another early morning after a rather late night. Half-missed breakfast
and arrived late for the first talk: Axel Nesme on »Drives and their
Vicissitudes in Ted Hughes's Poetry«. From what I gathered, the paper
drew on the Lacanian concept of the drive (esp. the »death drive«)
in connection to Hughes's writing, and on the conflict between silence
and voice in the poetry.
Neil Roberts's talk on the »Female Addressee« in Hughes was next. Neil focused on presentations of the Female from such early poems as »Song« right through to such as »The Rabbit Catcher« of Birthday Letters. It seems as if Hughes »obliterated« actual women from the texts of some of his early poems, women on which the texts were based (or to whom they spoke). What emerged from this was an »anonymous«, hard-to-grasp image of the Goddess. As an effect of this, as Hughes seems to have become aware, some poems were often ›mis-interpreted‹. Obviously, the poems from Birthday Letters stand in marked contrast to this early approach. Here, given the readers access to/knowledge of biographical information, the Female all but anonymous.
Joanny Moulin concentrated on Ted Hughes's »anti-mythic method« and found traces of »anti-Christian myth« in the work. As an example for this he referred to the »revised crucifixion poems« of sequences like Crow or Prometheus on His Crag. The basis for Joanny's talk was his idea that Hughes uses the energy of existing myth in order to counteract on it. This, Joanny found, had the effect that the poetry became »ideological polemic« or in the case of Birthday Letters even became »anti-poetry«.
Diane Middlebrook's paper offered a glimpse of her work-in-progress: Ted Hughes's autobiographic self-representation through his late poetry. Concentrating mainly on Birthday Letters, Diane focussed on Hughes self-presentation as »husband/father«. She then linked this approach of Hughes's to poems presenting Sylvia Plath's development with frequent allusions to birth-imagery.
Paul Volsik looked at narrative strategies used by Hughes, which seem based on a »romantic« understanding of folk and fairy tales. From Paul's talk emerged a picture of Hughes as a »neo-romantic« poet, whose writing was strongly influenced by nineteenth-century anthropology. Presenting the scope and the effects of this influence, the paper also took into account the interesting political dimension of Hughes's views.
My own paper focussed on Ted Hughes's books for children (and adults) and their particular place/importance in his work as I see it. His »Moon-Poems« (from The Earth-Owl, Earth-Moon and Moon-Whales) were the basis for my talk.
Keith Sagar was the final speaker on the conference and beautifully he brought it to a close. Rather than offering literary criticism, he presented us with original Hughes, with the voice of his poetry. Keith read several unpublished or hard-to-find poems and briefly illuminated their particular backgrounds. In this, he presented some amazing pieces that had »slipped through the net« when Hughes selected the New Selected Poems. It became obvious that the New Selected Poems, though a fine and representative selection, cannot capture the full scope of Hughes's oeuvre. And the papers presented during those two days share this slight ›flaw‹.
Our two-and-a-half days of amazing hospitality and literary criticism ended with a wonderful gathering at Adolphe Haberer's house in a village outside Lyon. Great many thanks are due to his wife and children, who prepared the event.
Naturally, during a conference as diverse as this ideas may clash and emotions. So, here is a little ›post-conference discussion‹ of some of the issues that, obviously, were at stake too. Keith Sagar's good-humoured initial note was the only reply to my invitation to share impressions of the conference with a wider public. I should note that the discussion went unedited and that it was (is) open to everyone.
(Clearly, the ›additional notes‹ given below cannot do justice the content of the talks - they are intended as a kind of very rough guide to some of the topics covered.)
Leonard SCIGAJ (Virginia Tech, USA):
»The Deterministic Ghost in the Machine of Birthday
- on determinism in Birthday Letters;
- other points discussed were the portrayal of Sylvia Plath, of Hughes and of the events and circumstances, in the poetry of the collection;
Gayle WURST (Princeton, USA):
»Words to ›Patch the Havoc‹: The Imagination
of Ted Hughes in the Early Poetry of Sylvia Plath«
- on Ted Hughes as imagined/portrayed in Plath's poetry;
- on Sylvia Plath as imagined/portrayed in Hughes's poems;
- other points discussed were male/female muses, imitation, Plath's struggles with creative blocks, the impossibility for the female writer to meet Graves's ideas of muse outlined in his White Goddess;
Carol BERE (USA):
»›Complicated with old Ghosts‹: the ›Assia‹ Poems«:
- on the »Assia poems« in the limited ed. Capriccio (Gehenna Press, 1990);
- republication of eight of them in the New Selected Poems;
- underlying mythology of Capriccio;
- poetry and illustrations;
Terry GIFFORD (Bretton Hall, Leeds, UK):
»›Dead Farms, Dead Leaves‹: Culture as
Nature in Remains of Elmet and Elmet«
- on »Nature as Culture« and »Culture as Nature« in the two books;
- fascinating comparison as to the differences in both publications;
- on the collaboration between Hughes and Godwin;
Christian LA CASSAGNÈRE (Lumière-Lyon II, France):
» Ted Hughes's Crying Horizons: ›Wind‹ and
the Poetics of Sublimity«
- analysis of the poem »Wind«
- on Lacanian thought in the poetry, »the Real« and »the Sublime«;
- on Hughes as one of the »last romantics«;
Ann SKEA (Sydney, Australia):
» Poetry & Magic«:
- on correspondences between Birthday Letters and Cabbala;
- on Tarot cards as mnemonic and structuring device;
- further information on Ann's home page (listed in the Links section)
Stephen ENNISS (Emory, USA):
» Fragments of a Life: A Preliminary Reading of
the Ted Hughes Archive«:
- Steve changed the topic of his talk and presented a paper on »self-representation« as apparent from the MSS collection;
- on Hughes's change of approach towards his own MS;
Axel NESME (Lumière-Lyon II, France):
» Drives and their Vicissitudes in Ted Hughes's
- on Freudian and Lacanian thought in connection to Hughes's work;
Neil ROBERTS (Sheffield, UK):
» Hughes and the Female Addressee«:
- on presentations of the Female in Hughes's work and changes thereof;
- Goddesses vs. ›real‹ women;
- early work / Birthday Letters;
Joanny MOULIN (Montaigne-Bordeaux III, France):
»Ted Hughes's Anti-Mythic Method«:
- on myth/»anti-myth« in Hughes;
- on »anti-Christian« myth and »anti-poetry«;
- Hughes vs Eliot
Diane MIDDLEBROOK (Stanford, USA):
»In Search of the Autobiography of Ted Hughes«:
- on the literary autobiography as apparent from Hughes's writings;
- on self-presentation through the work;
- Birthday Letters;
Paul VOLSIK (Paris VII, France):
»›Merely Anecdotes‹, ›Small Tales
... Big Myths‹ and ›Successful Legend‹. Ted Hughes and the
- on the sense of narrative and story;
- on folktale traditions and their role in Hughes's work;
- romanticism and Hughes as a »neo-romantic« poet;
- on political implications of some of his writings;
Claas KAZZER (Leipzig, Germany):
»›Earth-Moon‹: Ted Hughes's Books for
Children (and Adults)«:
- on Hughes's books for children (and adults);
- on Peter Hollindale's concept of »childness« as applied to Hughes;
- on the »Moon-poems«;
Keith SAGAR (Manchester, UK):
»Not the New Selected Poems«:
- Keith gave a reading of some unpublished and hard to find poems that did not make it into the New Selected Poems. He also gave some information on the background of the poems read.