Shakespeare in Auckland

Recently in Auckland we’ve had the ‘pop-up Globe’ (a replica of the Globe at London’s South Bank, which is in turn a replica of the Globe playhouse as it was when Shakespeare wrote for it) putting on nine Shakespeare productions. It has been a huge success, 100 000 tickets sold, 20 000 school children entertained and excited, and the season extended two or three times to accommodate demand. This is something I applaud and approve of, and I hope we will see more of this Anthony Harper company, even if my remarks below about a particular production are in certain respects negative.

I saw only one of their productions, Twelfth Night, the comedy in which twins, Sebastian and Viola, thought to be lost at sea in a shipwreck, both survive, though separately, each thinking the other must be dead, and come ashore in Illyria, in the fiefdom of the Duke Orsino, who is currently being spurned in love by the Lady Olivia.

Viola disguised for her own protection as a man, is employed as a courtier in the service of the Duke, and falls in love with him. It is her job to make petitions to Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, which she does painfully but conscientiously. In Shakespeare’s day, when women were not permitted on the stage, this would involve a male actor playing the part of a woman pretending to be a man; and it is this element of ambiguity the Auckland production exploited, by having, as in the Elizabethan theatre, an all-male cast.

The effect was good and yet not good. It was hugely successful as entertainment, and the audience was fully engaged, interacting directly with the cast in the way the design of the Globe theatre makes possible. But as something of a purist in these matters, I felt the performance was a travesty of Shakespeare’s text, which depends, as almost everything does in his work (and as a song in this play makes clear), on the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’.

Dr Johnson says of Twelfth Night, ‘this play is in the graver part elegant and easy; and in some of its lighter scenes exquisitely humorous.’ In this production there were no graver parts. Everything was made comic: it was all a hoot, a riot. So we got off at once on the wrong foot, beginning with the Duke’s romantic lines played, not as serious and deeply felt, but as the overblown and absurd maunderings of a very silly fellow:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour!

As I heard those opening lines delivered I said to the person next to me, ‘No, this is wrong’ – and it was. The Duke was played as a fool, lacking all gravitas, which soon made it difficult to understand Viola’s instant passion for him. Later in the play, when the missing brother Sebastian appears, he too was played as ridiculously comic, so Olivia’s falling in love accepting him as a substitute for his twin with whom she has first been enraptured, was equally incomprehensible. Of course there is a sense in which it is all absurd: this is romantic comedy. But that distinction between ‘high and low’, essential to the work as written, was erased.

There was brilliant use made of gay actors; but they were given licence to entertain, sometimes at the expense of the text. The least damage was done by the Viola, who in the role of a pretend-male courtier making an appeal to Olivia on behalf of the Duke, spoke his lines beautifully. Asked what he/she would do as petitioner for Olivia’s love, Viola replies that he/she would

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.

These are resonant romantic lines only Shakespeare could write, and in kind not really matched in English until two centuries later; but to be received in the fullness of their eloquence they needed, not just excellent delivery, but a dramatic context making it possible to take them seriously.

Likewise the Olivia could and did speak his/her lines exquisitely. But he camped his part up extremely, as though the comedy derived from the historical accident that men had to play women’s roles, rather than from the actual human situation Shakespeare had developed from the story as found in his Italian source. So when we came to what should have been a step down to the low-life comic sub-plot of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Ague-cheek and the trick they play on Malvolio, there was little sense of moving from high to low – only more of the same.

Of course one can go overboard for ‘poetry’, for Beauty with a big B, and produce another kind of Romantic extravagance. In other words the female roles can be sentimentalised, as it’s said they were in Victorian playhouses. But this is a play that contains linguistic riches that should not be squandered in noisy guffaws or blurred by over-acting. Once an audience is in a mood to laugh it’s easy to keep them laughing. But to run up and down the scale, from low hilarity to high seriousness, is a richer experience, and Shakespeare’s text provides the means for that. Viola, disguised as a young man, is telling and not telling the Duke Orsino that she loves him. The Duke says no woman’s love could match what he feels for Olivia.

Viola: My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

Duke:                                  And what’s her history?
Viola: A blank, my Lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm in the bud
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

One can certainly acknowledge that the audience was entertained and went home happy; but compared to what this text is capable of, they were sold short and the effect was shallow. These were fine actors; but it seemed they had been encouraged by their director in what the great Shakespearean Harley Granville-Barker would have called ‘dramatic bad manners’. They had not sufficiently respected the text.

A few days after I saw this production a piece by Paul Moon appeared in the NZ Herald suggesting that 400 years after Shakespeare’s death it was time to be ‘honest’ and acknowledge his ‘literary and cultural irrelevance’. So those of us who pretended to take his work seriously and to be enriched by it were, it seemed, dishonest.

Moon then posed three questions about Shakespeare: can you name 18 (roughly half) of his plays? Can you outline their plots? And can you describe a point of literary significance in each? He often (he told us) ‘slipped [these questions] into conversations’ and concluded, by the failure to receive full and correct answers, that ‘Shakespeare’s works are more honoured in the breach than the observance’. (Would you want him as a party guest at your place?)

Teachers, he goes on, are the ‘prime culprits in perpetrating the impression of Shakespeare’s ongoing relevance,’ requiring their classes to battle for weeks with ‘archaic language’, ‘puerile jokes’, and ‘verbiage’. He invites us to ‘pity the audiences – often dutiful parents or would-be aesthetes – sitting through Shakespeare enduring tortuous and practically meaningless lines.’ Finally Shakespearean ‘experts’ are mocked for careers built on ‘hyper-ventilated hyperbole’, ‘psycho-babble’ and other manifest absurdities.

It was difficult at first to be quite sure what the intention of this piece was, especially coming, as it did, when Auckland enthusiasm for Shakespeare was reaching a high point with the ‘pop-up Globe’ productions. This was a strange time to be expressing ‘pity’ for the audiences. Stranger still, the piece was larded with echoes of phrases from Shakespeare that have passed into common use – the ‘more honoured in the breach...’ one already quoted; then ‘all that glisters is not gold’; ‘dressed in a little brief authority’; ‘most ignorant of what he’s most assured’; and ‘though this be madness, yet there is method in it’ – two from Hamlet, two from Measure for Measure, and one from The Merchant of Venice. This led one letter writer to suggest the article must have been ironic rather than serious – but if that was Moon’s intention it was a massive miscalculation of tone; and in fact I’m sure it can only be read as meaning exactly what it says: Shakespeare is out of date and the fashion for his work is pretentious and insincere.

The quotations were there, I suspect, to show that Moon could quote with the best of us, but that he, knowledgeable about Shakespeare as those who failed his 3-question quiz were not, was nonetheless ‘honest’ enough to admit that ‘the Bard, as he is cloyingly referred to by some of his followers,’ has had his day.

There are of course linguistic problems with Shakespeare simply because the language has changed over 400 years, and goes on changing. Some words simply vanish from the lexicon; and reading him can be difficult, especially for the less well-educated and/or less linguistically nimble and talented. What is extraordinary, however, is how even a word now almost foreign in contemporary speech, and difficult to understand on the page, makes perfect sense when delivered from the stage, where context creates meaning. Shakespeare wrote always for the stage not the page, and there he is still unfailing.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at the Auckland University of Technology. Not everyone is gifted in language; but no one who has the gift can fail to respond to the riches Shakespeare’s work offers – to the sense of a brilliant mind working at a high pitch, almost creating the language as it goes, and with such a range of emotion, such human insight and compassion. Paul Moon illustrates that there must always be people, neither unintelligent nor lacking in usefulness, who lack some receptor mechanism essential to the appreciation of these great qualities. No one should ask of them what they have not the talent for; but nor should they try to redefine the study of English language and literature in a way more suitable to the limits of their abilities.

When that I was and a little tiny boy
        With a hey ho the wind and the rain
A foolish thing was but a toy
        For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate
        With a hey ho the wind and the rain
Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate
        For the rain it raineth every day.

– C.K. Stead

At Matahiwi

Matahiwi has been the focal point of the New Zealand poet laureateship since the honour was first established at the suggestion of John Buck and his Te Mata Vineyard roughly 20 years ago.  The laureate’s tokotoko (talking stick) has been carved, in all but one case, by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott, and presented with due ceremony at the marae.  

One off-shoot of this, important because of the award’s connection with the Te Mata estate, is that the laureate receives gifts of the finest Te Mata wines – a practice that took its idea from the British Poet Laureate’s receiving an annual ‘butt of sack’ (barrel of sherry). 
Group in front of the house, Te Mātau a Māui. Seated, Tom Mulligan on left, and CK Stead.

Matahiwi is a beautiful little marae a few kilometres out of Havelock North, down a long road, paved but hardly wider than one lane, and in countryside full of orchards and vineyards which at this time of year are in full glorious production.

Our group of marae visitors – the laureate and his family (a party of fourteen), three of the Laureate’s poet friends (Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Paula Green), and students from local schools, and others, were led on to the marae with the usual exchange of karanga as we approached.  I was shepherded by Cellia Joe from the Alexander Turnbull Library, and our group was seated on one side of the wharenui, under a kind of porch, and on the other, under a matching porch, were the marae people, their kaumatua, Tom Mulligan, who made the welcoming speech in Māori and in English, staff from the ATL who had spent the night on the marae, Chris Szekely, the Chief Librarian, and Peter Ireland.

Lee Kershaw-Karaitiana spoke for the visitors, a speech in Māori of great forcefulness, eloquence, and (I detected – in the word rangatira) hyperbole when it came to the great worth of the person about to be honoured.

The visitors coming onto Matahiwi marae on Saturday morning. Poet Laureate CK Stead (white shoulder bag) walks beside Lee Kershaw-Karaitiana.
This exchange of greetings and compliments, each with the usual support-waiata, was followed by the hongi down the whole line, visitors and locals, a novel experience especially for my London-based grandchildren aged 10 and 13. 

The lead party (myself with Kay and our three children Oliver, Charlotte and Margaret, Chris Szekely, and my three invited poets) then moved on to the paepae.  The presentation of the tokotoko was preceded by a short extract from my poem SCORIA and a brief explanation of the carver’s thoughts and materials.  He had in mind, he said, that this was a stick for a ‘scholar and a gentleman’.  He had been working in South East Asia, and had taken his materials locally.  The wood is black ebony, hardwood, and the beautifully carved handle is of water buffalo bone, a smoky colour somewhere between white and cream.  There is a circle of silver below the handle and a silver ferrule.  My name and the date and details of the award are inscribed.  The whole effect is almost ‘old world’ and distinctly elegant. 

The tokotoko was blessed in a beautiful oration/poem in Māori by Ngatai Huata, who towards the end of her reading involved the whole gathering calling on us to follow her in repeating its final phrases, and describing the position of laureate as one awarded to a person who was toi kupu rongonui.  This I felt was another great honour.  Kia ora Ngatai!
In making my speech of thanks, I regretted my lack of reo Māori, but I saluted the marae, its wharenui which takes its name (and the carving over our heads) from the hook (Te Mātau) with which Maui dragged up the land under our feet.  I saluted the ancestors of Ngati Hawea, and the people themselves.  I acknowledged and thanked John Buck and Te Mata, the Alexander Turnbull Library, Kay and our three children and their partners, and our seven grandchildren, six of whom were present; and then also my fellow poets, two of whom, Chris and Greg, had been in my Creative Writing class at the University of Auckland (its first) in 1984.  All I could claim about them was that they had arrived with what seemed fully formed talents, and that they left after a year with talent intact and undamaged.  They have since gone on to publish outstanding collections of poems, and both made their mark as arts administrators.  Likewise my fellow Aucklander, Paula, has published fine collections, and beyond that has played a significant part as an educator, both through her poetry blog, and as a visitor to schools.  Cumulatively these three have done massive work for the cause of poetry in New Zealand over the past two or more decades, and I felt my hand as laureate was immensely strengthened by their presence.

Poets and family on the paepae. From left: Poet Laureate CK Stead  (holding his new tokotoko) and his wife Kay, Oliver Stead, and Paula Green.
The tokotoko, I felt, required me to introduce myself in terms of place – my whenua – so I did that: ‘Ko Karl Stead, no Maungawhau, me Tamaki-Makau-Rau – ahau.’  Poetry is almost always regional; it belongs to, or at least has beginnings in, one place.  There is something mysterious and magical about the location where words and things first come together for the child and begin to make language.  Jim Baxter said for him it was a beach south of Dunedin. When poetry failed him he had only to return there, in fact or in imagination, and the fountain would flow again.  No matter how much you travel and how wide your range of ‘subjects’ may become, that place, where language began and the verbal imagination first took root, is your whenua.

Where I grew up there were three principal maunga in sight – the nearest, ‘in your face’ so to speak, was Maungawhau; to the east was Maungakiekie, and to the west Owairaka. We had Pakeha names for them – Mt Eden, One Tree Hill (which should now be No Tree Hill thanks to Mike Smith’s chainsaw vandalism), and Mount Albert.  But the Māori element persisted.  My primary school was Maungawhau.  My secondary school was Mt Albert Grammar but the suburb (its name up on the front of the trams) was Owairaka.  And if you wanted to get to the parkland around One Tree Hill you could go via Maungakiekie Avenue.  I knew the Māori form of the name Auckland was Akarana; and that the Ngati Whatua knew the region between the two harbours, Waitemata and Manukau, as Tamaki-Makau-Rau.  That was popularly translated as ‘the place of a thousand lovers’.   But as I grew older and learned a little of our pre-history I realised that the aroha was not just of the people for one another.  It was for the place – the region, the isthmus – a place worth fighting for and fighting over.  Those three maunga of my childhood, with their characteristic indentations, were defended pa.  They were warrior sites; from time to time war zones.

Some of this I said in my speech; and I suggested that the same aroha expressed itself now in high house prices and gridlock at rush hours.  We were the place of a 1.5 million lovers; but it was still my whenua – the place where my imagination had taken root and sometimes had taken flight.
Left to right: Musician Robbie Duncan, poets Chris Price, CK Stead, Paula Green and Greg O’Brien at Poets’ Night Out.
I began writing poems at the age of about fourteen; and though I have gone on to write short stories, a dozen novels, literary journalism, academic studies of poets and poetry, even a couple of movie scripts, I have always come back to poetry.  Poems can be simple and beautiful, or complex and difficult; they can be the result of hard work, or occasionally of ‘inspiration’; but however they arrive, poetry can never be described as ‘easy’.  It is the most challenging, the most demanding, but also the most satisfying of literary forms.  Language is what distinguishes us, the human race, on our planet; and poetry at its best is language at its best – the fullest expression of that humanity.

That is why this welcome on the marae, the presentation of the tokotoko and all it symbolised, seemed to me a wonderful moment at this late (and no doubt last) stage of my career as a writer.  I was immensely honoured and touched – and I’m sure everyone could see that I was.

My son Oliver, who is also a curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, sang a powerful waiata, and that brought the presentation part of the morning to an end.        

What came next was organised by Marti Smith, a local poet and school teacher.  There were readings from each of the four poets (Chris Price accompanied on the guitar by her partner Robbie Duncan), and then performances of high quality – singing, violin, and guitar – from students at local schools.  There was also a poem from a local student (she was absent, ill, but a school friend read it for her) which she had written, it was said, in protest at the idea that a laureate might be required to write poems to meet public occasions (something the New Zealand laureate is not in fact required to do, though he/she might choose to).  The image was of a bird, and the poem asked did it need to be taught to fly, or does it just fly because it’s a bird?  This struck me more as a telling rejection of the idea that the writing of poetry can be ‘taught’ than of the idea that poems can be written to order.  Poets write poems because they are poets, just as birds fly because they are birds: this was the message, I thought, and effective as an argument because the poem itself was so graceful, so beautifully turned.
The crowd of 150 for Poets’ Night Out at the Havelock North Function Centre.
Then came an excellent and generous marae lunch, with Te Mata wines. 
The afternoon was free.  Some slept, others climbed Te Mata Peak.  In the early evening we all ate at the Pipi café whose owner, Alexandra Tylee, is a poet and poetry aficionado.  From 7.30, at the Havelock North Function Centre, I read with Chris (accompanied by Robbie again), Greg and Paula, an event publicised as Poets’ Night Out.  We were supported by the wonderful voices of Taylor Wallbank, Emanuel Fuimoano and LJ Crichton, three students aged 17 and 16 who are products of Anna Pierard’s Project Prima Volta. The boys gave a sort of ‘Three Tenors’ opera performance and a display of great talent for the future.  

Marty Smith was M.C. for this reading which had been organised by the Writers in Wineries Charitable Trust, a group mainly of women – writers, booksellers, librarians. 

Next morning we returned to the marae for poroporoaki and breakfast, more speeches, and a general reflective and grateful korero.  Talking to Tom Mulligan I was struck by how pleased he was that all my whanau had come back for breakfast.  This, even more than their presence at the event itself it seemed, signalled our warmth and gratitude and that the role of the marae in the whole process of the Laureateship had been taken seriously, as indeed it had.
                                                                                                                         - C.K. Stead
   Images by Joan McCracken and Lynette Shum

For other inside view of these events see

Big Spender and little Matthew

The big Spender I have in mind is Stephen, poet and man of letters, international conferencer and literary big wig; and I call him big Spender, not because he ever had much money, apart from a modest private income on which he seemed to get by without paid employment as a young man, but because of his stature, 6 foot 3 – not so very tall these days, but exceptionally so when he was young.  In the famous pictures of him with his contemporaries, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, he towers over them. My first sight of him was in June 1965 in the foyer of the Globe Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London (not to be confused with the modern replica of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank) at a commemoration of T.S. Eliot who had died in January of that year.  It was an extraordinary theatrical homage, involving music by Stravinsky, poems chosen by Auden, Groucho Marx reading from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrey Voznesensky reading his own, Henry Moore represented by an immense marble sculpture creaking around on a revolving stage, Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth doing Sweeney Agonistes, readings of Eliot poems by Peter O’Toole, Paul Scofield, Laurence Olivier...   And there in the foyer was big Spender, his rather fine head above the crowd.

I stared at him because he had figured in my consciousness since poetry had made its surprising intrusion into my life while I was still a Grammar school boy.  Not that I thought of Spender, in 1965 or even earlier, as one of ‘the truly great’ (to use the phrase a poem of his had made famous, and slightly infamous); but he had mixed with them, thought about them (he told us) ‘continually’, had figured in their lives, had always and everywhere seemed part of the contemporary poetry scene; and so it was not just unsurprising but right that he should be present at this ‘momentous occasion’.  And that’s what the death of Eliot was said to be – ‘momentous’, ‘the end of an era’.  Eliot had dominated the Anglophone literary world for three or four decades, both as poet and as critic, and there was no one of similar stature to replace him.

 As a student I had bought Spender’s autobiography, World within World (which typically he had written at the age of 42); and I had even bought a book of his poems (I could ill-afford either) Ruins and Visions, which recounted the painful ending of his first marriage.  He had a talent for representing his own shames and failures, which appealed to a young, shy and constantly embarrassed poet; and humiliation was what he had suffered constantly in the presence of the magisterial young Auden, his contemporary at Oxford.  In World within World he describes showing some of his poems to Auden and being told that he was now ‘one of the Gang’ and that he must write ‘nothing but poetry’.

This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair in which I cried, ‘But do you think I am any good?’  ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly.  ‘But why?’  ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated.  Art is born of humiliation.’

 The autobiography was also unusual in that it was frank about his emotional attachments to men, but without ever suggesting (or denying either) that these might involve physical love-making.  So Spender was generally thought of, when he was discussed among literary people, as ‘bi’, having a foot in both camps – and with his second marriage to the pianist Natasha Litvin and the birth of their two children, Matthew and Lizzie, the ‘gay’ phase was supposed to  be over.  That, anyway, was the story that Natasha promoted and Stephen did not discourage, while unsubstantiated gossip constantly suggested otherwise.

Stephen’s early fame came as one of the group of new young Leftist poets of the 1930s – the MacSpaunday group the South African-born poet Roy Campbell mockingly called them – Auden, Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice.  They were also known as the Pylon Poets because of their very conscious inclusion in their poems of the ‘unpoetic’ features of modern industrial landscapes and cityscapes.  It was clear to me early on that Spender’s talent as a poet was rather fragile, and that the more (in differing ways) robust Auden and MacNeice were more notable.  But Spender had that talent for always being a part of the significant scene; and a fellow student and I  used to play her 78 rpm disks of him reading some of his early and famous poems – ‘I think continually of those who are truly great’, ‘Landscape near an aerodrome’, ‘The Express’, ‘Thoughts during an air raid’.  I liked his delicate, rather posh voice.  He lacked the authority of Auden or MacNeice, but he had sensitivity, and sounded like someone you might like in person.

Many years later I did meet him.  First it was at lunch with Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, and later through the Australian comic actor Barry Humphries, a friend of many years, whose fourth wife was Stephen’s daughter Lizzie, who had her father’s blonde hair, blue eyes and stature.  In those years I was a visitor to London, but a frequent visitor, and after the late 1970s a year never passed without my being there for a month or two, sometimes more.  The lunches with Alan Ross were very literary, very civilised, pasta usually, and always with an Italian fizzy wine, Lambrusco, which Ross favoured.  Two or three times Stephen came too, and Alan asked me to write an essay about him for the magazine.  I did that, but found it difficult.  How did one convey (to put the difficulty with less subtlety than was called for) that a poet was important even though none of his poems was very good?

What I did was to first tell a (true) story.  I described finding myself in autumn in Germany, in the peculiarly redolent literary atmosphere of the forest-park around the tower where the poet Hőlderlin had been incarcerated for 35 years, and being invaded there by the feeling that I was ‘inside literature’.  At first I was not able to pin-point what this feeling meant.

Then it occurred to me that what I was feeling was that I was inside a poem by Stephen Spender, one which, like the very best of his poems, has never been written.

To this I added a reminiscence of walking in a London street with Christopher MacLehose and being stopped by Christopher’s friend, the Liberal Peer Mark Bonham-Carter, who wanted to show us a little book he had just acquired.  He put the book down on the nearest car bonnet which at once set off its alarm; but Bonham-Carter, undeterred, simply moved on up the street, away from the racket, and tried again.  The book was the list of people, drawn up by the German SS, of those who were to be summarily dealt with when England was invaded; and there, among the names marked for death, in black German Gothic, was Steffan Spender.  It seemed to mark out his importance – that even the potential invader should know about him and want to be rid of him.  What we learn now, from his son Matthew’s book (see below) is that Stephen had anticipated this and had a suicide plan: if the Germans occupied England he would simply swim out to sea until exhausted, and drown.
I don’t know what Spender thought of an article which praised him for the poems he had not written rather than those he had, but much worse had been said about him, and my article also acknowledged his affirmative temperament, his humour, above all his honesty and accuracy, equally in describing what  he saw and what he felt.  Not a great poet, I implied, but an important observer, an identity and a presence for poetry in the world.
The reason for the second half of my title is that ‘little Matthew’ has long since grown up and is the sculptor Matthew Spender who lives and works in Tuscany, has written an excellent book, Inside Tuscany, and has now published a book about his parents, A House in St John’s Wood.  It is a subject which interests me especially because Kay and I spent a few weeks in that house, 15 Loudoun Road, as house sitters.  It was in 1992 when an unwelcome biography of Stephen by Hugh David was published and Natasha rang saying, ‘We’re having a besiege!’ and asking would we occupy the house and keep it safe while she and Stephen escaped to their retreat in rural France.  The rather dilapidated rented house in Loudoun Road, which they had occupied for decades, had many valuable works of art and famous archives.  It had an alarm system linked to the local police station (as I discovered when I accidentally triggered it), but they felt it was safer if there were people in constant occupation, and their usual house-sitters were away.  We were glad to fill this role.  In fact it was to be my joke that I’d spent the night of my 60th birthday in Stephen Spender’s bed, but with Kay not with Stephen.
The ‘besiege’ Natasha spoke of was by journalists wanting to ask them about this new biography which the Spenders, Natasha in particular, thought had unfairly focussed on the homosexual aspect of Stephen’s life.  In fact Natasha wrote a long complaining piece  about this in the TLS – a mistake, I suspect, because it only drew more attention to the subject she wanted swept under the carpet, increasing the intensity of the besiege; also because the book itself is surprisingly cautious on that subject and pays fulsome tribute to Stephen’s family life with Natasha.
Matthew Spender’s book is not a defence of family honour on this question, nor an upholding of Stephen’s heterosexuality.  It is, rather, a truthful account of growing up in a family where the father’s more or less continuing homosexuality is denied by the mother, and not to be spoken about.  ‘Willpower on her part,’ Matthew writes, and ‘good manners on his, papered over the cracks’.  Stephen’s sexuality is not the sole subject of the book, which is a broad and honest account of a childhood that was by no mean blighted or unhappy, but was, at least in this respect, distinctly odd.  There is much in it that is colourful and full of interesting people – Auden for example, ‘oracular’ at the dinner table and smoking between courses; Stephen in argument with William Empson and throwing a glass of wine over him; Natasha’s ‘non-sexual’ love affair with Raymond Chandler;  Louis MacNeice, ‘tall and pale’, arriving at the house to meet Auden, who had been waiting for hours; Chester Kallman’s ‘disbelief in heterosexual love’ and its consequent absence from the libretto of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; Auden weeping as Chester went off in pursuit of a beautiful young man.
The book also reveals a lot about Natasha’s life as a concert pianist, its slow decline and gradual replacement, in later years, by her studies in the theory of aesthetic response (aural perception in particular), a subject she became expert in and taught at the Royal College of Art.  She also turned their French rural retreat, Mas St Jerome at Maussane-les-Alpilles, into a thing of beauty and wrote an excellent and beautifully illustrated book about creating the garden there with the necessary assistance of a very deep well and consequent water supply.  Matthew reveals how little Stephen noticed or interested himself in these accomplishments.  He was the poet and man of letters, and their public world revolved around him while in private he still fell in love with younger men.
Matthew has had access to Natasha’s journals as well as Stephen’s; and what emerges early is Natasha’s naïve idealism about their future together despite all that Stephen had told her about his past.  This is not so odd in itself as is her persistence with the fiction right through to their old age.  Stephen was not gay; or if he was, you shouldn’t say so.  Primarily he was a loving heterosexual husband and father.          

There are also glimpses, and sometimes details, of Stephen’s involvement in matters of literary and publishing politics – his editing of Encounter, for example, and the scandal when it emerged that it was secretly funded by the CIA as a cultural weapon in the Cold War.  Had Stephen known – or not?  Matthew appears undecided about this.  And the power of Stephen’s influence: ‘all he had to do was pick up the phone to a publisher,’ an aspiring writer told Matthew, ‘and a contract appeared.’
The boy Matthew agonised over the question of whether his father was, as his school mates said, a member of the British Establishment.  Clearly he was, but the young Matthew disliked the idea and wrote Stephen ‘a bitter letter’ from school when he accepted a knighthood.  Stephen wrote ‘an extraordinary reply’.  Life, he told his son, was ‘very much like school.  Sooner or later one had to join the Sixth Form.  Most of his friends were in the Sixth form already.’  And he listed various friends who were knights, and asked, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ – adding (cunningly Matthew says) that the boy should ‘think of the pleasure it would give’ his mother.
Matthew was still very young when he began living with Maro, daughter of the painter Arshile Gorky, and they moved to Tuscany, so his separation from his parents – from Natasha particularly, who could not get on with or approve of Maro – was considerable.  This book is his way, I suppose, of reclaiming them.
I last saw Stephen the Sunday night, 9 July 1995, exactly a week before he died.  I had dinner, at a restaurant called Caprice, with Stephen and Natasha, Barry and Lizzie – just the five of us.  I was in London on my way to an Ezra Pound conference in the beautiful little medieval town of Brantome in France, where I would see Pound’s opera Le Testament de Villon performed in a cave.  When Stephen died, suddenly and unexpectedly, Barry rang my daughter Charlotte, who was living in London at the time, asking her to pass the news on to me and suggest I call him, which I did.  He no doubt had many people to call, but it was clear he thought I would want to know and to come back for the funeral.  I pleaded conference commitments – there were things I didn’t want to miss.
Opera or obsequies, Ezra Pound in a Brantome cave, or the funeral of big Spender – it was difficult, and on reflection I think I probably made the wrong choice.
                                                                                                                        C.K. Stead

A Circle of Laureates

A Writers Week special event for the New Zealand Festival

This event was held at the National Library of New Zealand, on Friday 11 March 2016
The National Library and Te Mata Estate Winery co-hosted this evening of poetry from our nine Poets Laureate. The Laureates were joined by Rob Tuwhare - son of the second Te Mata Laureate, Hone Tuwhare – who read his father’s work, and thereby completed the Laureate circle.

MC Fergus Barrowman directed proceedings and a full house of 200 gave Laureates Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner, Jenny Bornholdt, Michele Leggott, Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, Rob Tuwhare and current Laureate CK Stead, their rapt attention for more than two hours.

Read Poet Paula Green’s lyrical response to the evening
See more photos from the event on the National Library's Facebook page

A Circle of Laureates was recorded for RNZ National, the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre and the National Library.

Laureates and audience – from left: MC Fergus Barrowman, Vincent O’Sullivan, Ian Wedde, CK Stead, Cilla McQueen, Michele Leggott, Jenny Bornholdt, Elizabeth Smither and Brian Turner.

Time to get serious

I apologise in advance for this blog which is rather remorselessly technical; but it may be interesting at least to some readers of poetry; and these are matters which teachers and students in Creative Writing classes should certainly consider from time to time.

In a recent issue of his journal Areté Craig Raine has an article about ‘the line’ in poetry, arguing that it is the basic unit of meaning, and that it sets a pattern against which the deviations essential to a work of art are measured.  This is one of those important subjects poets do, or certainly should, think about constantly, but seldom write about because so much is dependent on instinct, and it’s so very hard to make and defend rules.  It is brave of Raine to have a shot at it.
            My response is the Leavisite one: ‘Yes, but…’

My first reservation is that he puts too much emphasis on the iambus – the da dum metre.  When I was young I quickly decided that the basic unit of English poetry was the pentameter – five stresses, which the line did not encourage you to speak as if they were iambics, though historically they mostly were.  There is a brief period when the iambus rules, and you hear the da dum drum beating – in Dryden and Pope, in Dr Johnson – but that historical phase passes quickly.  Before and after, while observing the iambic in writing, poets invite you to ignore it in the reading – or at most to hear it only as a ghostly presence, a ghostly absence.  The measures are there; but you are not asked to hear them, or sound them in reading.

 Ben Jonson said ‘Donne for not keeping of accent deserved hanging.’  What did he mean by this?  Only that in reading his poems you have to ignore, forget, pass over, what the poet has not ignored in the writing.  Donne’s discipline in ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ is extraordinary – five 9-line stanzas, each rhyming abbacccdd, and with the lines being, in order, 2 pentameters, 2 tetrameters, 1 trimeter, and 4 pentameters.    

            Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
            Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,    
                 The sun is spent, and now his flasks  
                 Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;          
                            The world’s whole sap is sunk:
            The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,
            Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
            Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh
            Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.                        

Keats’s Nightingale ode is 8 stanzas of 10 lines, all iambic pentameters except the 8th, a trimeter, and rhyming ababcdecde; but to read them as you would read lines by Pope would sound artificial and absurd.*

            My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
                    My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk,
            Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
                    One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk:
            Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
                    But being too happy in thine happiness –
            That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
                                In some melodious plot
            Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
            Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

When it comes to the 20th century there is a general freeing up. In the 1950s the idea of speech stresses was common.  The basic line was still the pentameter, but you counted, not iambic feet, but where you felt the speech stress fell.  The lines were mostly pentameters, but could move around rather loosely between three, four and five stresses.
And then there was Ezra Pound, whose case Raine avoids altogether.  Pound said, ‘to break the pentameter – that was the first heave’ (Canto LXXXI).  He doesn’t say ‘the iambic pentameter’.  It was the norm of the five stress line that he felt was constructing and had to be broken.  Pound did it by a general looseness, the rule of instinct, and even of lawlessness, rather than the rule of law – insubordination of the kind which Donald Davie, who thought he was England’s advocate for Pound, nonetheless deplored as a symptom of social and even moral decay.

            The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s
            bent shoulders
            Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
            Thus Ben and la Clare a Milano
                             by the heels at Milano
            That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock
            […]                        but the twice crucified
                                         where in history will you find it?
            yet say to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper
                 with a bang not with a whimper,
            To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of

            The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
                                         Rain also is of the process.
            What you depart from is not the way
            and olive tree blown white in the wind
            washed in the Kiang and Han
            what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
                                                                 what candour?

It is not only the iambus that is gone; so is the pentameter.  Craig Raine would probably say the line is still there – and that that was his point; and it’s true that the lines and the line-breaks in that passage, and probably in most of Pound, are important.
            But Raine’s article makes an exception to his rule that the line must be a unit of sense.  His exception is W.C. Williams famous ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’:

            so much depends

            the red wheel

            glazed with rain

            beside the white

(He suggests, cleverly, that each of these pairs is visually – i.e. in its shape – a wheelbarrow.) I think if you make one exception there will always be more.  It is easy to find an absurd example, as he does, of Robert Creeley’s strung out poems; but not difficult, to find one that works.

            light –


The point here perhaps, as with the Williams wheelbarrow, is the direction, down the page.  That is another kind of ‘poem’ – the kind that races over the line and achieves an onward momentum by not allowing the line to be the unit of sense, but part of a larger sense which won’t allow it to stop.

I remember asking myself why James K. Baxter’s open (unrhymed) sonnets were spaced out in couplets when there was nothing, neither rhyme nor the run of sense, that made it necessary or was advanced by it.  It was a form he took from Lawrence Durrell; and I decided it was just a matter of eye-and-mind, to make the reader take the poem more slowly and consider the words more carefully.  Fourteen unrhymed lines hunched up on a page are not encouraging.  They don’t invite, or suggest, an open mind or a relaxed discourse.  Spread out, even in pairs which are otherwise lacking any particular utility, they are more inviting. And for the reader to be puzzled, asking, ‘Why these breaks?’ and finding no obvious answer, is keeping attention longer and more carefully focussed.

Slowness or speed – the spacing can collaborate with either, and affect the sense; which is why Anne Carson, in another example Raine offers, has breaks which (he complains) are ‘arbitrary’.  Arbitrariness is a little assault on the reader, like a nudge – or even an elbow-jolt.  It’s uncomfortable not to be able to cite a rule, or at least a reason, why something is as it is, and why it works or doesn’t; but that, I think, is what poetry has become.  More, it is what it has always been.  Criticism, saying and showing why poems work or don’t work, was always a matter of preferences dressed up in the uniform of authority.  The critic succeeds, not by being ‘right’ (any fool can be right) but by persuasion.  You like it?  Try to tell me why, and I will try to tell you why I don’t.

Discussing the Carson example Raine says it may seem stuffy to object – ‘a bit like faulting Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.’  But his way around this is to reiterate his basic point, as if by simple repetition its truth is established:

            But the line is the fundamental unit of poetry.  The line is the steering wheel that
            harnesses the Pegasus power of poetry.  You can’t give up the steering wheel,
            you can’t relinquish control completely.

It is so because it is so; and there’s a slip into analogies-and-assertions in combo – the line is like the steering wheel in the car, and we all know how important that is!  To me these statements are very nearly meaningless.  As for the Pollock analogy, it deserves better consideration than the aside it gets: ‘I’m with Giacometti, who characterized Abstract Expressionism as “l’art du mouchoir”’.

One element in the making of modern poems which Raine doesn’t mention is syllabics – something Auden learned, I think, from Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.  In About the House, the poems he wrote to celebrate his enormous satisfaction in at last achieving home ownership, Auden offers a sequence of chatty introductions, one poem to each room.  ‘This egocentric monologue’ he calls the one addressed to the ghost of Louis MacNeice, about the room in which his writing was done – ‘The Cave of Making’.

                                                     After all it’s rather a privilege
                 amid the affluent traffic
            to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
                 background noise for study
            or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
                 cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
            or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
                 being read or ignored: our handful
            of clients at least can rune.

The syllable count is loose, but throughout quite a long poem it roughly alternates 15 and 8, producing, not a sense of form so much as an amble – a passeggiata as untidy as the man himself, and as interestingly full of quirky information.  I think syllabic poems of this kind challenge Raine’s idea of the line as the unit of sense.  It runs on like prose, and the sense runs with it.  If we apprehend it as poetry, that has little or nothing to do with the line, and depends on distinction in the language, the grammar and syntax, on wit and intelligence, and on the sense of compression and linguistic economy.  Yes it could all be written as prose, and no that would not be the same; so the fact that it is ‘in lines’ is important – but that is not the same as saying ‘the line’ is the ‘unit of sense’.  If there is anything of primary importance it is the forward momentum, grammatical and syntactical: in other words, the writing.

It will be useful here if I take an example from my own work, because I can explain the thinking behind it.  In my novel My name was Judas I made Judas a poet, and each chapter ends with a poem which in some degree reiterates what has just happened, but also adds to it and sometimes reflects on it.  For each of these I used a form I’d used a few times before, the three-line thirteen syllable tercet.  This meant the individual lines varied in length, but each three line group added up to thirteen syllables.  I had thought of putting a tercet at the front of the book which would explain, or excuse, the form, but decided against it, hoping someone might arrive at it without prompting.  So far as I know only one person did – Professor Mac Jackson who is also an expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The key was going to be

            Thirteen syllables
            because there were
            thirteen of us.

which is, of course, itself thirteen syllables, the number of Jesus and his twelve disciples.  Here is the poem* at the end of chapter 4, in which the boy Jesus, visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, is given the opportunity to offer a pigeon for sacrifice, but at the last moment, when he is supposed to utter the prescribed prayer and hand the bird to the Levite ready with the knife, he releases it, saying that was what Yahweh instructed him to do:

            In the beginning
            was the word, the
            sentence, the text

            that made of the
            pigeon a paradigm
            of the soul

            and gave to
            the stone he held the
            light of the divine.

            He was his own
            first convert, able
            to see himself

            burning, bathed
            in the white fire of
            the noun and the verb.

There are two complete sentences here.  The poem could, of course, be set out as five 13-syllable lines, but that would have a different effect and still not alter my argument.  It is not the line as unit that matters here but the sense of a march of meaning down the page.  That was the effect I was most conscious of in writing these poems – that I was working always for economy, for a movement of sense ahead, and that the syllable count forced me to consider every word and every alternative way of making the same sense – not line by line, not even thirteen by thirteen, but sentence by sentence, and as a poem.

Postscript:  Craig Raine is an old friend and when I sent him this piece he protested that I had not done justice to his argument – indeed, that I had misrepresented it.  I wanted to add his protest (and anything further he had to say) to the blog, but he wouldn’t allow that because it ‘had not been written for publication’.  So I simply record here that that is what he felt, and leave the reader to discover exactly what he said in Areté itself, in issue 48, Winter 2015.  In any case, whether fair to Raine or not, it seems to me what I wrote here about poetic form and the poetic line is of interest without reference to what triggered it.  These are matters that should be thought about consciously by anyone/everyone who aspires to write poetry.  If you think you can get away with writing stuff that doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page, but without giving matters of poetic form and its history a thought, you are deluding yourself and should try something else – singing in the bath, for example.

Areté has a surprising range of top contributors, the result partly of Raine’s network of connections dating from the time when he was Faber’s poetry editor, and equally from his many friends in the British literary and academic community.  He has been a don at Oxford during the past decade or more, and has recently retired but is still a Fellow of New College.  If you wish to subscribe to Areté, or persuade your librarian to subscribe, it can be ordered on line at  

The address is Areté Magazine, New College, 8 New College Lane, OXFORD OX1 3BN, U.K.

And a note to Auckland readers: Dean Parker’s play POLO, currently on at the Sky City Theatre, is not just a left-liberal satirical romp with side-swipes at Judith Collins and the National Party, but more than that – a comedy that becomes a poem about Auckland, a sort of love lyric to our city, whimsical and in the end quite moving.

                                                                                                            C.K. Stead

* Oddly there is one irregularity – the last line of stanza 2 is inexplicably an alexandrine.
* ‘The stone he held’ is a reference back to something earlier in the chapter, where the boy Jesus gives an impromptu sermon on a stone,


Reading Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Ted Hughes has set me reviewing my own encounters with the poet’s work at intervals over most of my literary life since I bought his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, and gave it to Kay for her 24th birthday in 1957. We still have that now badly foxed first edition which I had inscribed with quotations from the poems themselves:

                 For Kay

                Who sees straight through the bogeyman,
                The crammed cafés, the ten thousand
                Books packed end to end


                This mildewed island
                Rained on and beaten flat by wind and water.

                Karl, Bristol, 24.12.57

At the time I was doing a PhD on poetic Modernism, so my attention was focussed on the early years of the 20th century, on the impact of Yeats, the Georgians, the poetry of World War I, and the arrival of Eliot and Pound on the scene. As for contemporary British poetry of the 1950s, I had discovered two years earlier the poems of Philip Larkin and had been keenly interested and impressed; and now here was Hughes. I soon found him an alien temperament. In the back of the book I noted (as was my habit at the time, thinking always of how many poems and lines my own first collection might have to be) ‘41 poems, 974 lines’ – and put it aside. Larkin was more interesting among British contemporaries; and beyond work on the PhD, my keenest contemporary focus remained always on what was happening in New Zealand.

But Hughes is such a large presence he is not one I could go on ignoring forever. Reading this Jonathan Bate biography I’ve felt again that I’ve been resisting Hughes most of my life. There’s an anxiety about this, a habit of critical conscientiousness learned when young, a feeling almost of guilt as if, as a serious reader of poetry, it’s my duty to have an opinion. This is slightly absurd; but these literary-critical questions are worth exploring – there’s usually something to be learned from them, if not about the poet then about oneself.

Aspects of Hughes’s life have been impossible to ignore – most notably his marriage in 1957 to the American poet Sylvia Plath, the birth of their two children, the break-up of their marriage when he left her for the beautiful, thrice married Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s suicide in 1963, and then the impact of the post-mortem publication of her poems. I have that first Faber edition of Ariel, Plath’s posthumous collection which was a sensational public success, with its dark malevolent images of the male, sometimes father, sometimes husband, often both. Ted appears there as ‘the vampire’ who ‘drank my blood’ for seven years, and her own suicide is foreseen and celebrated:

                Is an art, like everything else
                I do it exceptionally well

The two books, his of 1957 and hers of 1963, seem to match one another, both with yellow and blue dust-jackets now, after almost sixty years, falling apart. Whereas my reaction to his poems had been one of failure (his or mine) to engage, with hers I felt the force of them, a sense that it was a raw force, rough, even rough-shod, with an edge of hysteria and self-dramatisation. The sense of immediacy was what was most striking, and that made Ted’s poems by comparison seem muffled.

For all of 1965 (the year of T.S. Eliot’s death) I was on leave in London and took part in the Commonwealth Festival readings at the Royal Court Theatre. One of the poets I read with was the Canadian David Wevill, whose wife Assia had left him for Ted, and had borne Ted’s child Shura. Rumour and gossip surrounded him and one looked for lines of distress and thought they were there. His book of poems, Birth of a Shark, published only the year before, was dedicated to her. They had not divorced, and the rumour was that he looked after the Hughes child some of the time, and wanted to preserve the marriage. There were eighteen Commonwealth poets at the Festival and each was commissioned to write a poem. David Wevill’s began

                Every man
                Carries a scandal
                At his heart.
                The woodpile hides
                A baby or
                A dead wife’s bones

And ended

                Down the same darkness
                Retrieve my lost diamond.

The alliance of Ted and Assia (David’s ‘lost diamond’) we now know went through many ups and downs until 1969 when she too killed herself. Sylvia in her suicide had taken special care that the gas did not reach the children asleep upstairs. Assia on the other hand took her and Ted’s little daughter Shura with her – curled up with her on the kitchen floor so they died together.

When word of this got about, Ted, already in disfavour because of Sylvia’s death, and because of the way she seemed to present herself as his victim, became the object of a feminist vendetta which over the next two decades increased in volume and nastiness. He was reviled, his books stolen and savaged in bookshops, his house set on fire and archives damaged; he was hounded in public places and attacked at poetry readings as Plath’s murderer. Plath’s grave in Yorkshire, where Ted’s family came from, was attacked again and again and his name chiselled off the stone that identified her as ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’.

Ted’s infidelities were indeed multiple and complex – the woman he was in bed with the night Sylvia died, for example, was not Assia but another; but he was also by now a grieving father and husband, and no feeling was spared for him. His life had become, for the time being, thoroughly politicised; and though there had been no sign of him at the 1965 Festival he continued to publish new work. We lived on Prince Albert Road that year, in sight of the Zoo that figures in his poems, and in ear-shot of the occasional lion roar or wolf howl. Within easy walking distance was the house, blue-plaqued because W.B. Yeats had lived there, where Sylvia died. Our G.P. was Dr Horder who had described Sylvia as ‘a model patient’ and who had phoned Ted with the (surely intended to be accusing/punishing) words, ‘Your wife is dead.’

By now my own first book of poems had been published in New Zealand and my first critical book, The New Poetic, in the U.K. with a U.S. edition pending. Insofar as contemporary British poetry interested me, Auden, the senior figure, was still producing new work, and Larkin seemed the junior, weird and wounded perhaps, but a star. At least equally important, in America Robert Lowell and John Berryman were filling the frame. Lowell, whose Life Studies had so strongly influenced Plath, would soon be moving on to the liberation that his sequences of ‘open’ sonnets represented.

I was conscious of new work by Hughes, but didn’t look closely until Crow (1970, dedicated ‘To Assia and Shura’), whose raw energy I tried hard to like and admire, but which made me wonder sometimes whether he was trying to match Ariel for impact. If he was, he was not succeeding. You can’t manufacture desperation on that scale. Only circumstances in combination with temperament can give it to you; and though Ted may well have had (indeed had created) the circumstances, his temperament was curiously British and unruffled. The wildness of Crow struck me as what the French call voulu – willed, trumped up, meretricious.

                Something grabs his arm. He turns. A bird-head,
                Bald, lizard-eyed, the size of a football, on two staggering bird-legs
                Gapes at him all the seams and pleats of its throat,
                Clutching at the carpet with horny feet,
                Threatens. He lifts a chair – fear lifts him –
                He smashes the egg-shell object to a blood-rag,
                A lumping sprawl, he tramples the bubbling mess.
                The shark-face is screaming in the doorway
                Opening its fangs.

Who was he trying to frighten? Himself perhaps. Now here are some lines by Larkin written around the same time. The poem begins typically, ‘Groping back to bed after a piss’, and has the poet parting the curtains to look up into the interchanging moon-and-clouds of the night sky. It ends

                One shivers slightly looking up there.
                The hardness and the brightness and the plain
                Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

                Is a reminder of the strength and pain
                Of being young; that it can’t come again,
                But is for others undiminished somewhere.

The writing is not perfect – the movement of the lines, especially the last, is slightly awkward. But in their tentativeness they seem truthful and don’t aspire beyond the level of the human and fallible. Craig Raine writes that ‘Ted had more charisma than anyone I’ve ever met’, and that he was ‘a spell-binding talker’. I never met him, nor Larkin either, so didn’t experience the ‘charisma’ of the one nor the reputed stammering insufficiency of the other. In the end, as always, it’s the poems on the page that matter – in Hughes’s case so many, and in Larkin’s so (relatively) few.

Two books; 'The Hawk In The Rain - poems by Ted Hughes' and 'ARIEL - Poems by Sylvia Plath'.

Meanwhile the Plath dispute raged on, clouding the critical climate. Nothing said about Hughes as poet could seem to stand entirely separate from Plath; and Plath the poet was difficult to separate from Plath the ‘victim’ of Hughes. There were those who took Plath’s side, notably the British critic and Hampstead Ponds swimmer Al Alvarez; and those who took Hughes’s – including the American poet Anne Stevenson, despite the fact that she had been at College with Sylvia. And then there was Janet Malcolm who stood brilliantly between, striking a balance in her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I once in the 1980s travelled in a tour bus at an academic conference with Anne Stevenson, who turned out to be deaf in one ear – so on the return journey I positioned myself on her hearing side and we had our previous conversation over again, filling the gaps. When I told this a few years later to Alvarez he said (of course) that Stevenson was deaf on the Plath side.

In 1984 the poet laureate John Betjeman died, and it was assumed the post would go to Larkin. It was offered, but poetry had deserted Larkin in recent years and he declined. It was then offered to Hughes who accepted – embraced it with an eagerness many found bizarre. The Plath affair had slowly faded from public consciousness, and the poems he now produced as laureate gave new and quite different grounds for anxious attention. As Bate writes, ‘With his belief in the poet as shaman of the tribe and the royal family as embodiment of the land, he took the role more seriously than any of his twentieth century predecessors.’ He was soon the Queen Mother’s favourite fishing companion, and regarded by Prince Charles as a ‘guru’. His 1992 collection of laureate poems, called Rain Charm for the Duchy, had the little rhyming epigraph

                A Soul is a wheel.
                A nation’s a Soul
                With a crown at the hub
                To keep it whole.

The title poem of the collection had the sub-title ‘A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Harry.’ There was no irony here – this was serious right royal, loyal British stuff.

But while the critics gasped, the wider public embraced him. If he was good enough for the Royals he was good enough for Britain. So now with confidence that many – probably the majority – were on side with him, he began to feel he could return to the subject of that first marriage and Sylvia Plath’s suicide. The result was the 1998 collection Birthday Letters in which he goes over that painful ground in memory. My feeling when I reviewed the collection in the New Zealand Listener was that it was as if we had all been hearing about, and even perhaps attending seminars on, the Hughes/Plath story for two or three decades, and that Hughes had been attending them too – but with the advantage that he had access to the diaries, his and hers, that had kept the record. The poems didn’t strike me as sharp new insights, but as pieces written by someone who knew what we all knew, but knew it better, and was versifying. I also had the memory of Verlaine having said, on reading Tennyson’s In Memoriam, written to commemorate the death of his friend Hallam, ‘When he should have been heartbroken he had many reminiscences’. There was good writing, it was accessible, human, sometimes touching, but lacking economy and the intensity economy brings; or perhaps that should be reversed – lacking the intensity that enforces economy. It was autobiography in verse, on a par with something like Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal of 1939, but without the historical interest.

But the success of Birthday Letters with the buying public was extraordinary. It was said a book of poems had never sold in such numbers since the days of Byron’s fame. What can match celebrity gossip for attracting public attention? The Times greeted it as
The Greatest Book by our Greatest Living Writer
and reported that ‘Hughes gives his account of one of the century’s most celebrated and tragic love stories.’ All around the Anglophone world the news was that a great poet had ‘broken his silence’. Almost overnight the devil Hughes became Saint Ted, royal favourite and sad rememberer. The British poet Anthony Thwaite, who had just published his Selected Poems, complained that it received no public attention at all: ‘Taddeo Grande [Great Ted] has swept the board.’ Once again, and more dramatically even than usual, the ‘Faber poet’ sucked all the oxygen from the poetry scene and left it otherwise depleted.

Bate acknowledges that critical (as distinct from journalistic) responses were mixed; but his own tone is reverent. He rates Hughes high among the English poets, alongside Wordsworth, sometimes with Shakespeare. One has to take this opinion seriously; but it seems to me there is little or nothing critical, analytical, detailed, to support it. He appears on the whole to be in the grip of a very English kind of nationalistic awe.

Birthday Letters is the collection that gives this biography its shape. Bate takes a line here from Hughes himself – that the whole Plath debacle had deflected him for many years from ‘the true voice of feeling’. ‘Everything I have written since the early 1960s’ Hughes wrote in a letter, ‘has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them. […] If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago I might have had a more fruitful career.’

So Sylvia figures in the end as both the cause of a major interruption to the career of a great poet; and yet at the same time, as the subject of his major work. Perhaps there is not a contradiction buried somewhere in this, but to me it feels as if there must be. And when Bate, seeming to follow hints from Hughes, suggests ‘his infidelity to others was a form of fidelity to [Plath]’, I felt there was something shabby either about the poet, or his biographer, or perhaps both. Not that sexual fidelity is a necessary moral principle; but to make it a principle observed by non observance seems devious in the extreme.

When Hughes died in October 1998 there was a funeral service at which Seamus Heaney, Irish Nobel Laureate for literature and professional/international charmer, spoke of ‘a rent in the veil of poetry’. Hughes was cremated and his ashes scattered in a spot he’d chosen on the Duchy of Cornwall, equidistant between three fishing rivers, where his name and dates were chiselled on a slab of granite. The following May, Bate reports, ‘the great and the good of the nation’, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Prince Charles, gathered in Westminster Abbey where Hughes was to be remembered in Poet’s corner. Heaney delivered ‘another silken eulogy, comparing Hughes to Caedmon, father of English poetry, and to Wilfred Owen, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and to Shakespeare. The Prince of Wales described his poet as the incarnation of England.’

I suppose Queen Victoria might have referred to Tennyson as ‘her poet and the incarnation of England’, but I doubt there is another precedent.

                                                                                                                    - C.K Stead