In his 1989 poem "Telegraph Wires," the late Ted Hughes wrote, "Towns whisper to towns over the heather. / But the wires cannot hide from the weather." No matter how secret the whisper, the weather breaks in and distorts the voice. In his poetry, Hughes (1930–98) tried to capture that spontaneous and confidential tone. He hated what he called "the meanness and deadness of almost all modern English verse." But at the same time, he wanted that living voice to coincide somehow with the mythic, the elemental, and the timeless. The birthing of a lamb, which he described in brutal detail in an earlier poem, simply titled "February 17th," turns into a savage spectacle; the speaker must hack the lamb's head off to free it from the womb. Death, rather than life, comes to birth on that winter morning. The poem is bloody, yet its effect is curiously bloodless; a myth has been delivered instead of a lamb.
These preoccupations are much in evidence in "Letters of Ted Hughes" (Faber and Faber, 780 pages, £30), selected and edited by the English poet Christopher Reid, and yet to be published in America. Though this is a hefty book, it represents only a small portion of the letters that Hughes wrote over his lifetime; in fact, as Mr. Reid notes in his affectionate introduction, the complete correspondence would easily fill "three or four" comparable volumes. Each letter is prefaced by an explanatory note and each is scrupulously annotated; there are some 44 illustrations, including facsimiles of Hughes's original drafts with their "galloping" handwriting. Mr. Reid has given some letters in excerpt but in all, from first to last, an unmistakable voice sounds through. Hughes didn't need telegraph wires for his communications: His distinctive accents, booming, rambling, unkempt, and often riotous, infuse every line.
Hughes may not have been one of the great poetic letter-writers; on the evidence of this selection, he had neither the brilliant insouciance of Byron nor the scrupulous delicacy of Keats. But his letters do have the one indispensable quality, which distinguishes original correspondence: His communications sound like no one else's. It must have been a startling pleasure for any of his recipients — from such luminaries as T.S. Eliot or Seamus Heaney or her majesty, the queen mother, to forgotten or obscure correspondents — to receive one of these bluff and plainspoken missives. Even as poet laureate, Hughes was no silver-tongued courtier.
From start to finish — from Hughes's first letter of 1947, penned when he was 16, to the last one included here, written on October 19, 1998, only nine days before his death — his voice remains unmistakably his own. There is, of course, some youthful posturing. In 1954, while on military service, he wrote, "I could never suffer to be slowly killed by conforming to the absurd hysterical clock-kingdom legislation." And by and large, Hughes did escape the daily grind most of us must endure. His letters are alive with striking turns of phrase; it is something of a shame that so little of this spontaneity found its way into his poems. Of Cambridge University, which he attended fitfully, he wrote that it is "a ditch full of clear water where all the frogs have died."
About rival poets he could be scathing. W.H. Auden, whose poetry he disliked, had a face "like a reptile." The poetry of Hart Crane was "just electronic noise." Of William Carlos Williams, he could say that "in a way he's a genius, but prevailingly a fool, and essentially a huckster." Of America itself, where he sojourned briefly, he remarked, rather predictably, that it was a "cellophane-wrapped" land and yet, the letters demonstrate him to have been acutely sensitive to the subtleties of the New England landscape.
Inevitably, Hughes's letters to Sylvia Plath, whom he married on June 16, 1956, will command most readers' immediate attention. These range from the embarrassingly intimate ("My Darling Sylvia Puss-Kish Ponky" he addresses her in one) to more impressive letters in which he comments, word by word, on her early poems. After her suicide, on February 11, 1963, he could write with characteristic bluntness, to his sister Olwyn, "On Monday morning, at about 6 a.m. Sylvia gassed herself," and to other friends, he added the ghoulish detail that when she was found, "she was still warm." To those who hated Hughes and blamed him for Plath's suicide, this will be proof of his heartlessness. But the letters disclose a deeply tormented man. "No doubt where the blame lies," he stated in one letter, and to Plath's mother, Aurelia, he wrote, "I don't want ever to be forgiven." The fact that six years later, his lover, Assia Wevill, killed herself and her child while estranged from Hughes only compounds the horror.
Mr. Reid remarks that Hughes was "the most cruelly vilified of writers" and as the letters show, this is certainly true. Hughes was a poet who sought myth in natural phenomena — the flash of a pike or the death-in-birth of a lamb — and in his best work, in "Crow" or "The River," he came as dangerously close as he could to this impossible ideal. And yet, there is an awful irony in the fact that he found himself caught up in a relentless public myth not entirely of his own making. "Everyone treats it as a mysterious dream," he wrote in one letter after Plath's suicide, "a sort of free space for them to air their own nightmares and self suspicions." His letters are a strange testimonial to the lifelong atonement that nightmare demanded. As such, they constitute, in his words, "a whole autobiography of my mythic life."