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Arts: Ted Hughes was here. In spirit

Death overshadows the Poetry International.
SELDOM CAN the first few days of a festival of international poetry have been so overshadowed by thoughts of death and mortality - and not the death of Ted Hughes alone, though his was the most looming absent presence at the South Bank this week.

In the summer, Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet, died unexpectedly - he had been scheduled to read here on Thursday. A few weeks, ago the Scottish poet Iain Crichton Smith, due to read on Wednesday, succumbed to cancer diagnosed just two-and-a-half weeks before his death. And then there were other indications of bodily decline, discovered at the party to launch the festival - Eddie Linden, about to undergo chemotherapy; John Heath-Stubbs, hospitalised by a fall in Cambridge. Will anyone wake tomorrow?

Ted Hughes had been associated with this festival since its beginnings in the Sixties, and, in part, his was such an affecting absence because he was an exemplary reader of poetry himself, a measuring-rod for all other poets.

On Sunday afternoon, we heard recordings of that scouring baritone again, reading "The Thought Fox" and other poems, between tributes from other poets. Hughes's voice seemed to have the bulk and the size of his own hulking, brooding body, though still possessing the ability to step with an almost infinite delicacy from word to word. Almost all the poets reading here referred to Hughes's absence, and none with more rhetorical passion than Derek Walcott, who was born in the same year but raised in St Lucia, half a world away from Yorkshire.

"He wrote about England," Walcott said, "with a depth and a force and a real love of this place - as deep as England itself." He had been flying over England, looking down, when these thoughts had passed through his head. "I don't know whether I can call him a friend, but it's hard to take that he has died, and since his death, I've been hearing his voice."

It was the vice of another Nobel Prize winner - the Polish-speaking, Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz - which opened this year's festival. Eighty- seven-year-old Milosz, an ancient, craggy eagle of a man with Desperate Dan eyebrows, sat at a desk to read his work. If you could have ignored the eager, prurient presence of an audience of hundreds, it would have had all the makings of a pleasingly intimate domestic interior.

Once upon a time, the formidable scholar/poet Milosz, who has spent the greater part of his life living in self-imposed exile in California, was any literary interviewer's nightmare. Woe betide anyone who did not know his Dostoevsky inside out and upside down. Now old age has clipped his wings, and he looks as benign as the photograph of any smiling man on holiday. He gave us a truncated account of his own life, as a young man in Paris during the Thirties, those terrible days in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War, and the long, later years of exile, isolation and solitude. He returned to Lithuania in 1992, for the first time in 52 years.

He had never given up the habit of writing in Polish. In fact, he became an English-language poet relatively recently. Two American poets, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass - both Bobs to him now - had made this possible.

"I exist in English solely in translation," he told us. "I am a stubborn provincial, rooted in one little spot, and I didn't switch to another language."

Milosz is both a poet of the intimate lyric, and a philosophical poet who reflects, glancingly and ironically, on his own judgements and perceptions. He reads the Bobs' English-language versions with a studied care, timing himself as he goes. Every poem comes accompanied by its own carefully weighed and crafted anecdotal interlude.

From time to time his tongue comes between him and some English word. It is only when he reads two madrigals in their original Polish that his voice fires into full life. At last there is something substantial for him to push against - the totality of his own experience of his life and language.

Poetry International 1998 continues to Sat (0171-960 4242)