I’ve been reading The Letters of Ted Hughes, which I’m finding impossible to put down. Like all letters written by people of genius, Hughes’s letters are a magical mix of erudition, crank notions, unguarded humor, soap opera, and authentic emotion. Hughes—who for my money stands as the greatest British poet of the last century—has more valuable things to say about the practice of poetry than anyone I’ve read. Herewith an example:
“Up to the invention of Caxton’s press, and for most people long after, all reading was done aloud. Most people were incapable of reading silently. And Eliot says that the best thing a poet can do is read aloud poetry as much as he can. […] Silent reading only employs the parts of the brain that are used in vision. Not all the brain. This means that a silent reader’s literary sense become detached from the motor parts and the audio parts of he brain which are used in reading aloud—tongue and ear. This means that only one third of the mental components are present in their writing or in their understanding of reading—one third emotional charge. […] Painting is successful within its limits using only this part of the brain because it uses exclusively visual symbols. But only a fraction of a verbal idea is visual.”
—Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath, letter of 1-2 October 1956
This passage is uncharacteristically developed, at least in comparison with the letters I’ve read so far. As a rule, his insights flare up like sparks amid schemes involving emigration to Australia, or astrological predictions, or becoming wealth as a mink farmer. Through it all there runs a current of energy like nothing I’ve found in other poets’ letters, with the exception of Blake and Williams.
For some reason the book has become difficult to find—I assume it’s between printings—but I recommend it to anyone who wants an intimate glimpse into the mind of a poet whose importance is only beginning to be appreciated.