THE GOOD, THE GREAT & THE UGLY No. 99 Ted Hughes

What exactly is new about the new Ted Hughes Selected Poems?

Well, er, well, it's the first selection since 1981, and the first to include some of his verse for children.

Lots of funny poems, then?

Hardly. Hughes is no laughing matter, unless you count his efforts as Poet Laureate.

What's funny about them?

As parodied by Private Eye, they consist of hundreds of lines about mice getting their heads ripped off by owls with a couplet tacked on the end wishing some minor Royals or civic dignitaries all the best on their happy event.

And is that fair?

Not really. These poems rhyme, which is presumably some concession to Royal taste, and they display a judicious amount of sentiment, even whimsy. But they're still identifiably, and often bafflingly, Hughes.

So what is he, bafflingly, all about?

An England of dark myths and sudden animal violence - some critics call it the Hammer Horror school. He particularly warms to predators: the pike, the crow, the hawk. Fluffy kittens are notable by their absence.

Where did he acquire this view of nature?

As a child in Yorkshire he spent all his time catching and killing animals. "When my enthusiasm began to wane," he noted, "I began to write poems." After Cambridge, he worked in a zoo. And he's been a farmer.

Popular with farmers, I imagine?

Not always. One complained to the Daily Telegraph that farming wasn't really as gory as all that. "I do not understand the poet's preoccupation with blood and guts, wombs and placentas," he wrote.

But why is his stuff so bleak?

It always was: and then his life followed suit. His first wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself, after he left her for Assia Wevill, the wife of a friend. Six years later, Wevill killed herself and their daughter, Shura.

But that was all a very long time ago, surely? He's remarried very happily since then, hasn't he?

True, but Plath has become a feminist icon, and Hughes has been the subject of morbid speculations and accusations ever since. Recently someone even proposed a film.

What was so terrible about that?

Plath would have been played by Molly Ringwald.

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