Poetry as Bridge

Sunday, December 16, 2007; Page BW13


Selected and with an introduction

by Ted Hughes | Farrar Straus Giroux. 216 pp. Paperback, $15


Edited by Daniel Weissbort | Farrar Straus Giroux. 237 pp. $25

Few poets have acquired so many and such diverse literary personae during their careers as Ted Hughes. There's the raw Yorkshire firebrand who burst onto the English literary scene in the late 1950s, writing poems with a visceral intensity and daring sense of invention. There's the husband of Sylvia Plath, making him part of what today might be called a literary "power couple." Later, Hughes became a tormented caricature of himself, accused by feminist critics of pushing his talented wife over the emotional brink -- and then, after her suicide, censoring her journals with an eye toward safeguarding his own reputation. But in Britain, where he was the surprise choice for Poet Laureate in 1984 -- a post in which he served until his death in 1998 -- he is regarded as a mystical poet of the natural world, one of the greatest the 20th century produced.

With two new publications, we are reminded of the even more complex nature of this writer. The first, A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse, is a reissue of a book championing the idea (hardly original with Hughes, but wonderfully realized here) that many of the speeches from the Bard's plays can stand, outside their dramatic settings, with the very best of English verse. In this selection, these passages are intermixed with the sonnets, their sources identified only at the book's end. Readers are freed to enter the imaginative realm of each verse, unbound by the characters and action of the plays. In a concluding essay, detailing the religious and social forces that charged the Elizabethan imagination, Hughes makes the most carefully articulated analysis of Shakespeare's poetic language I've ever read. He describes, as only a fellow-practitioner could, the evolution of what he calls "the language of the common bond" -- a unique diction that could simultaneously appeal to both intellectual extremes of his audience: the supremely educated aristocracy and the groundlings at the Globe, each displaying an "insatiable craving to break all barriers and enter a world in every way more impassioned and tremendous . . . on which a judicious intelligence could float fabulous devices."

Hughes produced more than 40 books during his career, many devoted to poets from diverse cultural sources. Selected Translations amply demonstrates the poet's deep intellectual curiosity, ranging from ancient times (Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides) through the modern era (Eluard, Lorca, Pilinszky). His were among the first English versions of the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and helped introduce him to the West. Hughes was keenly interested in the ways poetry might function as a cultural bridge, "a Universal language of understanding, coherent behind the many languages, in which we can all hope to meet." Along with Daniel Weissbort, he founded the journal Modern Poetry in Translation and worked with international poets and scholars. In introductory passages and extensive appendices, Weissbort carefully conveys the poet's philosophy, methodology and the impact this practice had on his poetry.

These two collections not only expand our understanding of this fascinating literary character, they may even coax readers into reacquainting themselves with a poet Seamus Heaney eulogized as "a guardian spirit of the land and language."

-- Steven Ratiner, a poet and the author of "Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets"

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