By Emily Gordon
Ted Hughes, Britain’s poet laureate, died Wednesday of cancer at age 68 in his Devon home. Known as much for his tragic marriage to American poet Sylvia Plath as for his own formidable work, Mr. Hughes spent decades in the light of a public scrutiny that was highly unusual for a modern-day poet.
He was born Edward James Hughes in 1930 in Mytholmroyd, England, the son of a carpenter. After serving two years in the Royal Air Force, Mr. Hughes went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, first studying English, then switching to archaeology and anthropology. Upon graduation he moved to London, where to support his writing he worked as a script reader, as a gardener and at a zoo. (His extensive knowledge of animals would become crucial to his poetry, which often drew on the violence of the natural world.)
In 1957 in Cambridge, Mr. Hughes met the brilliant, and still unknown, young Plath. They married within a few months and moved to Amherst, Mass. Their meeting - instantly dramatic and literally bloody (in a fierce embrace, she bit him hard on the cheek) - foretold the passionate combat that would characterize their life together.
That same year, Mr. Hughes published his first book of poems, “The Hawk in the Rain,” followed by “Pike” (1959) and “Lupercal” (1960), which won a Somerset Maugham Award and the 1961 Hawthornden Prize. In 1962 his “Selected Poems” appeared, by which time Mr. Hughes and Plath had returned to England. After Plath committed suicide in 1963, Hughes stopped writing poetry for nearly three years.
Even after he returned to writing, producing an astonishing number of volumes of poetry, prose, translations, children’s books, plays and criticism - more than 75 over his lifetime - Plath continued to haunt him.
He came under fire in his role as her literary executor. (Though Mr. Hughes had left her for another woman - Holocaust survivor Assia Wevill, who later killed herself along with her child by Hughes - their divorce had not yet gone through at the time of Plath’s death.)
Mr. Hughes provoked a sustained outcry for withholding some of Plath’s work and papers from publication and denying scholars permission to quote. He omitted the angriest poems about him from her book, “Ariel”; he lost an unfinished novel; in an act that appalled Plath’s students and fans, he destroyed the last volume of her diaries.
The conflict between Mr. Hughes’ perception of his family’s privacy (his two children by Plath; daughter Frieda, and son Nicholas, are now in their 30s) and her literary and historical stature has produced its own field of scholarship and discussion, resulting in works that include Janet Malcolm’s “The Silent Woman.” It has been an emotional subject for many nonacademics as well. Repeatedly, people have chipped the name “Hughes” from Plath’s gravestone in Yorkshire. Throughout the years, while providing introductions and corrections, Mr. Hughes would not speak about his former wife, and the subject had seemed closed.
Yet earlier this year Mr. Hughes, who was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth in 1984, made a dramatic reversal and published “Birthday Letters,” a substantial volume of poems about Plath’s indelible influence on his life. By publishing the book in the last stages of the cancer he had kept secret for 18 months, Hughes ensured, and perhaps sanctioned, a perpetual interweaving of their words and lives. While often uneven, the book is startingly raw and tender.
Critics have praised Mr. Hughes for his willingness to take risks in his subject matter, his interest in mythic themes and the richness of his language, characterized by one critic as having a “nearly Shakespearean resonance.” With equal insistence, others have objected to his fascination with gore and the animal world and dismissed him as a “cult poet.” In his poem “Pibroch” (from the book “Wodwo,” 1967), all of nature is caught up in destruction and change:
Minute after minute, aeon after aeon,
Nothing lets up or develops.
And this is neither a bad variant nor a tryout.
This is where the staring angels go through.
This is where all the stars bow down.
—Published in Newsday, October 30, 1998 (continued)
Speaking From Memory
By Emily Gordon
HANDWRITING, by Michael Ondaatje. Knopf, 78 pp., $22.
THERE IS SOMETHING almost boyishly game about Michael Ondaatje’s poems: He takes risks he rarely approaches in his prose, despite the tremendous ones he ventures there. It can be startling to come upon such tender honesty, so much personal reflection and detail, in fragments from a writer whose characters and narratives—like those in his best-known book, “The English Patient”—are so well formed. We may catch ourselves wondering whether this material would be better served in fiction or memoir. But these stories are undeniably his, and his to make into poetry.
Throughout “Handwriting,” his ninth book of poems, Ondaatje continues to demonstrate that he is an emissary of the world. A Canadian who lives in Toronto, Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, and speaks from memory when he summons up saffron, parrot trees and jackfruit, “a silted water garden in Mihintale,” “a nine-chambered box from Gampola.”
The book’s first section (of three) presents landscapes and historical vignettes from his first home, replete with buried Buddhas, bronze Buddhas purloined by shaking men in the dead of night, a Buddha’s tooth “smuggled…from temple to temple for five hundred years,” heady smells, stealth and secrets. It’s clear Ondaatje loves the sounds these scenes evoke. Indeed, the names of the plants and the cities alone are redolent and magical, unfamiliarly intoxicating.
Yet what this collection proves even more clearly is that Ondaatje’s true mastery lies in his diplomacy of the senses. The book’s second section, titled “The Nine Sentiments” and drawing on themes of classical Sanskrit and Tamil poetry, is a celebration of the body, particularly in the form of a beloved woman. Ondaatje’s eroticism occasionally crosses the line into excess cleverness: “I hold you the way astronomers / draw constellations for each other / in the markets of wisdom.” And sometimes it’s simply too much (“Ancient dutiful ants / hiding in the ceremonial / yak-tail fan / move towards and climb / her bone of ankle”); the English Patient would raise what’s left of his eyebrows. But the great majority of these poems are winsome and stirring, and Ondaatje’s reverent stance—“My path to this meeting / was lit by lightning,” “her fearless heart / light as a barn owl / against him all night”—allows for buzzed and empathetic reading.
And so, if the first section of “Handwriting” concerns an almost-buried time, myth, symbol and a sensory return to the childhood realm, “The Nine Sentiments” is a study in the geography of the body. It’s full of trysts, lovers’ breathing, the discovered truths of and underneath the skin. This section tells a complete tale of anticipation, connection and attendant terror, and ends with questions—“Where is the suitor / undistressed / one can talk with / Where is there a room / without the damn god of love?”—that are, alas, unanswerable, but still full of a kind of partisan allegiance to passion. In the third (untitled) section, Ondaatje exposes other devotions, as with the sentimental rush of memory for “the tears / I gave to my ayah Rosalin on leaving / the first home of my life,” and his identification with the 14th-Century poet-calligrapher Yang Weizhem, composer of an elegy for Zou Fulei, “almost unknown, / who made the best plum flower painting / of any period.”
In the lucid prose poem “Death at Kataragama,” Ondaatje leaves the human realm altogether: “There is a woodpecker I am enamoured of I saw this morning through my binoculars. A red thatch roof to his head more modest than crimson, deeper than blood…. Can my soul step into the body of that woodpecker? He may be too hot in sunlight, it could be a limited life. But if this had been offered to me today, at 9 a.m., I would have gone with him, traded this body for his.” He captures perfectly a craving for escape without death or erasure - the violent gratitude for being alive coupled with the heartache of being oneself.
The poems in “Handwriting” emphasize narrative structure less than those in his previous books of poetry (collected into one volume, “The Cinnamon Peeler,” and very much worth adding to any Ondaatje library), instead lingering in spaces and pauses that sometimes cause more puzzlement than respite. Ondaatje can tell a story, but sometimes he chooses not to, and the result can be frustratingly glancing and elliptical.
Still, the stories he does tell—in longer lines, and occasionally in the form of a prose poem—are corkers. “The Story,” for instance—which begins with a king’s premonition to his pregnant wife of a war, a seven-man journey among dancing rope-makers and a fateful creep into a dangerous castle, and continues as his son becomes one of the seven - lives the story as a fairy tale adventure, rather than as abstract parable. There is wisdom here—“There is no way to behave after victory”—as well as the humor that glitters off many of his earlier poems. The story in “The Story” is tumultuous, vibrant, tragic and over too soon.
If there is a larger theme in “Handwriting,” it is the one its title suggests: Ondaatje longs for a less corrupted life of creation, one in which, for instance, “the poets wrote their stories on rock and leaf / to celebrate the work of the day, / the shadow pleasures of night,” or a stonecutter who has only one tool and uses it expertly. Just as essential is the humility required in these endeavors, recalling Robert Frost’s line in “The Woodpile” about the dignity of abandoning fuel “far from a useful fireplace.”
In each section, through the poets and artisans he invents or recalls, Ondaatje reveals his own methods and designs, failings and desires. Like Zou Fulei, Ondaatje is concerned with explicit accomplishment: making, in words, the best plum flower painting - rather than, for instance, the great Canadian novel. He celebrates craft, vision and intense concentration, even as he is lovingly, and constantly, distracted.
Certainly, there’s ambivalence inherent in this kind of life—evident in his reverie on the woodpecker, which ends, “This woman whose arm I would hold and comfort, that book I wanted to make and shape tight as a stone - I would give everything away for this sound of mud and water, hooves, great wings.” Yet his choice of “Last Ink” to end this book returns him to the company of the calligrapher, Fifth Century seals that contain multitudes, a time “before the yellow age of paper.” Ondaatje has inherited this century’s mediums for expressing the human condition, but he can be counted among those who “shared it / on a scroll or nudged / the ink onto stone / to hold the vista of a life.”
—Published in Newsday, March 21, 1999 (continued)
On Mother’s Day, friend of Emdashes Caledonia Kearns writes:
For years I thought my father was the story, though I knew nothing of his day to day. I just knew that his life was more cinematic than mine and my mother’s—for one thing, he was dealing his way through the grit and graffiti of 1970s and ’80s Manhattan. A surviving beatnik, he went from burning his draft card and feeding the poor on the Bowery at the Catholic Worker, to selling marijuana in a loft with special built-in bins for the various varieties he sold. (continued)
“I get recognized here and there as the voice of Pocahontas. It happened a lot more at the time when it had come out. I couldn’t go grocery shopping without some little kid in the front of the cart going, ‘Mommy—Pocahontas!’”
“[Children] don’t know that I’ve done those other things. They know me by my voice because children hear me in a supermarket; sometimes I’ll be chatting with a friend about lettuce, and suddenly a child will say, ‘Mrs. Potts!’ It’s enchanting.”
This site turned eight at the new year, which is almost a million in internet years. What have we been doing with ourselves? After a couple of years in Chicago writing theater reviews, I’m back in New York, getting to work with longtime hero Jen Bekman at 20×200 and living in hilly and historic Peekskill with wonder duo Todd Londagin, on the trombone, and Merideth Harte, on the Wacom tablet. (Todd has a new album out, by the way, and you gotta hear it. Look Out for Love!)
How about my friends and co-conspirators? Emdasher Martin Schneider is writing Box Office Boffo. Paul Morris (a.k.a. Pollux) is, as usual, a whirlwind of visual productivity, from Art-o-Mat to, well, everything. And the erudite Jonathan Taylor is grad-schooling and writing. (continued)
Once upon a time, from 2004 to about 2010, Emdashes was a New Yorker fan blog. But now that The New Yorker has so many blogs of its own for people to follow and be-fan, we’ve slowly started morphing back into what we intended to be in the first place: a punctuation blog.
Fortunately, sometimes our first love, The New Yorker, venntersects with our second love, punctuation. Today marks one such occasion. You probably already know that the magazine sponsors a weekly Twitter contest, Questioningly, in which people tweet entries (along with the hashtag #tnyquestion) in response to editor Ben Greenman’s inspired and loopy challenges. Greenman just posted the results of the most recent contest: Invent a new punctuation mark. Some of the winners: (continued)
Emily Gordon writes:
Lately, when I’m not at work, cooking up a blog redesign, or buffaloing cartoonist and critic Pollux into coming up with a comic (drawn and debuting soon!) to herald the site’s new focus on images and symbols, I’ve been noting sentences that strike me in this Tumblr, The Beautiful Sentence. If you submit a sentence you like (from anywhere you like—a novel, a blog, an article, a cereal box) and I like it too, I’ll post it. A beautiful sentence can be funny, wise, intricately constructed, or just cool. (continued)
Bill Haast, 100, Florida Snake Handler, Is Dead
Snake Handler Bitten by One of World’s Most Poisonous Vipers
Snake Handler Hospitalized After Suffering 102d Bite
Snake Handler Dies of Bite, As His Father-in-Law Did
Snake Handler Recuperating
Jolo Journal; When the Faithful Tempt the Serpent
Kentucky Man Killed by Rattler In Rite of Snake-Handling Cult
Defiant Snake Handler Dies
SQUEEZED BY AN ANACONDA; A TRYING MOMENT FOR AN EXPERT SNAKE HANDLER
Drought means booming business for Southern California snake handlers
SNAKE BITES A SHOWMAN; “Rattlesnake Pete” Gruber Thought to be Dying at Rochester
Zoo Burglar Tries to Steal Deadly Cobras; Mystery in Raid on the Bronx Reptile House
CHURCHES CHIDED ON MATERIAL AIMS
One African Takes Fangs Over Fido As a Sentry (continued)
BNR: …Apart from all your second-guessing of your writing itself, I’ve noticed that you’re really hard on yourself for using a font based on your handwriting to letter your frames.(continued)
AB: I do feel guilty about it, like it’s somehow cheating to use a digital font, and to not actually hand-letter my work. But at the same time, I have these lengthy passages of quotations from [Donald] Winnicott or from Virginia Woolf that I have obsessively hand-lettered.
Print is dead? I was watching Ghostbusters (1984) this weekend, and at one point the character Egon Spengler is asked a question, to which he responds: ‘Print is dead.” What is the earliest recorded use of this phrase?Among the satisfying replies:
I found a reference in the Antioch Review (1967) that uses “print is dead” as the characterization for Marshall McLuhan’s scholarship, which make a lot of sense to me in this context. This previously is also pertinent.And:
Someone else in that group also mentions that the “print is dead” line actually gained some popularity in the early 80s in tech circles as the personal computer gained prominence. It likely wasn’t the earliest recorded use, but Egon’s quote may have just been a result of the growing sentiment of the time.Meanwhile, a recent post on Movies.com answers the question I somehow didn’t think to ask, which is what the various Ghostbusters would look like if they were cartoon ghosts. Now you know. (continued)
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
The blog’s now treading the territories of punctuation, publications, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a brilliant brigade of culture writers, editors, and artists. You can read all about the people who've helped build Emdashes here at “Who We?” (That’s a New Yorker joke. Old habits die hard.)
I welcome submissions, questions, corrections, and ardent, obsessive contributors. I also host occasional book-related contests and giveaways. Questioners and publishers, just email me.
Jennifer Hadley designed the original Emdashes pencil logo, based on a 1943 Dorothy Gray ad.