11th May 2012
Dear Ted Hughes,
I'm writing this knowing you'll never read it, which is more frustrating than you'll know. I've never felt moved to write to an author, and really, I can't write to you, but I can pretend.
My first book of poetry was Birthday Letters, which my mother bought for me in 1999, a few months after your death. She bought it for me because everyone was talking about it, and I knew why, but I didn't grasp the importance until a few years later when I was in university.
I can't remember the first time I read it, but the last time was a few nights ago. I've been working through your poems, Faber & Faber's Ted Hughes: Collected Poems. I'll finish it tonight, I should think. I only have one collection left. I remember buying it, or rather begging my boyfriend at the time to buy it for me in Waterstones, Newcastle. By that time (mine is a 2005 edition), I already had Crow, Tales from Ovid, and New Selected Poems, which my friend bought for me one day - a random act of kindness. There are two authors who I love completely - Virginia Woolf, and you, but with you, I don't remember when I began to love your work. I remember buying Crow - my first copy was a black cover Faber and Faber, bought from Blackwell's, the student bookshop in Newcastle when I should have been buying a text book. I suppose it would have been around 2002, or 2003. But I do not remember how I came to love your poetry, and I do not remember what sparked it. I'm trying to, right now I am trying to think what the first poem was that I read and loved so much I had to read more. Perhaps it was from Crow, perhaps that was a random purchase. I did know your name, I knew you as the Poet Laureate.
You are the reason I know a fair bit about Sylvia Plath. I read those biographies searching for you. The only biography I've been able to buy was Elaine Feinstein's (I know there are a few more). But it was you I was searching for, you I wanted to learn about. Aside from The Bell Jar, I hadn't read many poems by Sylvia Plath until early this year. I was looking for you.
I started reading the Collected Poems in December, I think. My first read of the year was Season Songs in a working men's club in Amble where my boyfriend was playing. I sat on a sofa surrounded by adverts for entertainment acts with my feet up resting on the sink. Since then, I read a few collections here and there but focussed more on novels. It wasn't until the very end of April when I began to really focus on your work. My intention was to read ten collections this month, then eleven in June so I would finish it by Solstice. Once I got into it, though, I've been unable to put it down.
And I love it all. I was talking about you tonight on the way home. It was getting dark and it was pouring down, the moors are almost black with rain and night. A barn owl flew out, and we swerved to miss it, and I remembered your poem about a badger you'd found. Road kill. We were talking about that, wondering if we'd ever stop wincing at dead animals on the road. I remembered your poem because you made that badger important by writing about it. You made other animals important, as well. That is one of the things I love about your poems. I had a cat called Effy, and one of the few comforts I have in her death was that I did make her important. She stopped being a stray cat, neglected and starving, and became important, at least to us. There's two pictures of her on the bookshelf, along with other cats we've had. She was loved and is remembered. I said that one day I would finish my novel and she would be in it, and she'd be even more important. But you have done that already, you've made animals important. Even the little calf that hardly lived, that calf is part of the great canon of poetry now.
You understand what it is like to love in the country. Some people see it as idyllic, as though it was a retreat from real life. But it isn't, it's brutal. Like the poem about the birds, hiding away at night and clinging on to wet branches with their twiggy legs, always on guard. It's life or death here, it's not idyllic at all, but it's beautiful. Living here is no escape, in fact it's the closest I've ever been to living. It's the root, and animals know only themselves and the limits of their own power and purpose. Everything else is a threat. You understand, you know.
And the search for the beginning is expressed no better than by you. I love looking for, imagining, and trying to understand the genesis, so I love your poetry more. I wish that I could meet you, hear your thoughts unprepared. People talk about their fantasy dinner party, but I would like just to sit with you in the kitchen by the stove, or better, to go for a walk with you through the forest here. You'd be good to listen to, to talk to. I was only a few months out, perhaps if I had have come across you earlier I could have at least seen you in the street. I would have liked that. Just a few months out.
I'll re-read your poems again and again, and search for you a little more. I've never been so intrigued by an author, not even by Virginia Woolf. A part of me would like to meet her, as well, but only a small part. I'm happy to read from a distance, it's you I wish I could engage with. I would like to see the man who wrote about life and death and the beginning of creation. Even just to look you in the eye and nod. Perhaps that would be best, because your poetry is head-spinning. It's so much, sometimes too much. I can't organise my thoughts, but I appreciate it and I love it, and I will keep reading it. I'll finish my first read tonight, put it down on my knee and stare into space whilst thinking about how to hold on to it. I am not so good with poetry, I struggle with it, and you are the only poet I've come close to understanding. But summing it up, grasping it and being able to hold on to it with a few pertinent words at least - I can't. Not yet, I can't. If I don't keep reading it, it will fall through my mind and I'll lose it. There's so much there, so much quality, so much wisdom and understanding and I want so much to be able to hold on to it.
I wish I could have met you.