‘It’s even true of Ted Hughes.’ I look across at the book, whose head is now slumped on my desk, a large and very empty tumbler adjacent to its motionless hands.
‘My theory is he wrote the first two books for people: Sylvia and his older brother, whom he idolised. After that, certainly by the time he got to Crow, his work grew out of the tension between a need to answer social impulses and that of tending to the wound in his imagination by subjugating everything to the myth (and security) of the sequence. And because he was great, the results were variable, and stupendous, whatever method he used. Moortown, later Moortown Diary, written for his father-in-law, amazing. Birthday Letters, variable to say the least. But still kind of amazing. Tales from Ovid, obviously ‘in answer’ to another poet, stonking. I think he needed that shape, that governing force, and he wasn’t too worried about where it came from, Prometheus, Rivers, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whatever. If you look at his children’s work, the same thing is going on: Moon Whales, Under the North Star, Season Songs, What is the Truth? If anything the children’s work is more consistent. You know, the best comment on Hughes I ever saw was by Pete Townshend of The Who. He was working on an opera of The Iron Man with Hughes and said to him one day in the stalls as they watched rehearsals that he was convinced the Iron Man was Hughes, while the space bat angel dragon was Plath. Hughes was nonplussed, apparently. What do you think?’
The book sits motionless at my desk. It makes a little moan, which becomes a sigh, then falls back into the regular breathing of the dream.
‘But the overall point is the same: it’s still social. I’m pretty much with Thomas Lux on this one:
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
Social capital, all of it. And I know this is true because it’s how we behave. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s relationship was essentially one of pedagogy. And I don’t just mean him teaching her. It was completely two-way. It’s why poets get together and form huddles against the hostile world. In workshops. In groups. Just hanging out. It’s always happened and it always will. The Romantic myth is just that: a myth. Wordsworth absolutely needed and depended on Dorothy and Coleridge. We should re-brand him Team Wordsworth. Same with Lowell and Bishop. They only met a handful of times but wrote to each other, with poems, their whole lives. It was as if no one else’s opinion mattered. I get that, absolutely. Just one person hovering over your shoulder when you write. Just one. But they are there and it is a human need you are answering. I’m convinced of it.’
The book still has its head on my desk. Its eyes are now open. It is blinking furiously, trying to get accustomed to what is left of the light. ‘Not much of an end of year review,’ it sniffs. ‘Where d’you get all this stuff from, anyway?’
‘Not telling,’ I say. ‘I read it,’ I say. ‘In a book.’