|The memories & poems of Ted Hughes
Publication: The Guardian
A poem is a practical act of memory. When most memory is out-sourced to hard drive and smartphone, the poem releases in the reader a private memory-store, prompted but not prescribed by the poem. This is a relief. It is also a remedy for the new modern disease; Alzheimer’s. We are forgetting too much. The poem is an oral medicine. Take one in your mouth once a day and read aloud. Repeat prescription.
Ted Hughes’s love affair with Sylvia Plath began with poetry and at the end of his life he took it back there. Birthday Letters was a supreme act of memory – faithful in the way that memory must be – in that it is partly invented. Hughes, the steady observer of the real, understood the quantum rule that the observer acts upon/alters, what is observed, even if the observer is unobserved. That is exactly what happens in Hughes first famous poem Thought Fox (1957). In Birthday Letters, remembering Sylvia becomes the opposite of the dismembering of Sylvia that happened after her death; the poet parcelled out to satisfy a hunger for wreck, victim, blame, martyr. Pieces of Sylvia Plath fed rumour and gossip from the second of her suicide.
It was brave of Hughes to return to the private realm what had become so public. It was brave to make public what had been private – the yearly conversation on the anniversary of her death.
But brave would not have been enough. Memory – the impression of what has been, fades and fails unless the language bears the impression of what is – the urgency of the telling. This is one of the paradoxes of poetry; it is recollection and renewal at the same time.
Time is not an arrow. Poetry disarms the clichés. Birthday Letters disarmed the commonplaces of death and loss. Love – and language- survive.
Published by Guardian November 2011 for The Forward Prize.
(past winners, one of whom was Ted Hughes for Birthday Letters)
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