A panel of editors, poets, and critics discussed the work of American poet Robert Lowell (1917-77), and British poet Ted Hughes (1930-98) on Wednesday at "Giants Across the Divide: Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes," a program co-hosted by the Poetry Society of America at the CUNY Graduate Center. Lowell and Hughes both have faced the glare of press attention paid to their private lives. Newspapers over the years have been interested in Lowell's aristocratic lineage, mental breakdowns, marriages, and political engagement, as well as Hughes's marriage to writer Sylvia Plath, whose life ended tragically.
The evening centered on three large books that fill 1,186 pages, 852 pages, and 1,333 pages, respectively: "The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell" (FSG/Faber), co-edited by David Gewanter and Frank Bidart; "The Letters of Robert Lowell" (FSG), edited by Saskia Hamilton; and "The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes" (Faber/FSG), edited by Paul Keegan.Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, said he loved these huge collected editions, while acknowledging that the books are too heavy for some to read in bed and that some complain they "break their backs" carrying them around. But Mr. Galassi nevertheless said he enjoyed seeing these books on the shelves at FSG and described them as "cultural bricks that are there permanently."
Mr. Galassi said Hughes and Lowell were "giants literally as well as metaphorically." He recounted an anecdote he heard from Barnard professor Saskia Hamilton over lunch recently: Carol Hughes said that when her husband Ted Hughes got into a taxi with Lowell, the two filled the whole vehicle. They were "physically big men," Mr. Galassi said.
Michael Hofmann, who studied Lowell's poetry at Cambridge University under the tutelage of Christopher Ricks, read poems by Ted Hughes. Next, Mr. Ricks, who currently teaches at Boston University and is professor of poetry at Oxford, followed his former student by reading a few poems by Lowell that had connected themes of turning and returning.
Picking up on the theme of the large size of these books, Mr. Keegan, who edited the volume of Hughes's works, stressed at the outset "these large bricks have an air of inevitability but in fact they are only one way through the woods." He likened a volume of collected poems to "one photograph" among numerous possible ways of organizing material.
Mr. Keegan said that alongside four decades of individual collections of Hughes's poems published by Faber and Faber, there existed a parallel set of works. Mr. Keegan was referring to Hughes's record of self-publication or private publication - a "penumbra of works" - by small presses, which accompanied his formal canon.
Some of these were published by small presses, partially or wholly owned by Hughes, his sister, or his son. Mr. Keegan said a third strand an editor had to consider in presenting Hughes's collected works were those poems Hughes had published in various periodicals.
Speaking next was Mr. Bidart, who held aloft the collected works of Lowell,saying to audience laughter,"This is the brick." He described co-editing the collection of poems "essentially existing in a polemic context." For, he said, "Lowell was much read and much the darling of the media during his lifetime and there was a tremendous reaction against this after his death." He said, "There was enormously large resentment against the way Lowell had dominated media attention in his lifetime. People were looking for ways to throw off the figure of Lowell."
The panelists spoke of difficulties facing biographers and editors. Mr. Bidart described Lowell's "lifelong propensity toward revision." Ms. Hamilton reminded the audience "the portrait we get of a writer through his correspondence is incomplete."
The audience laughed when Mr. Ricks weighed in, saying, "I think Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes wrote far too much - as did Browning and Tennyson and others."
An audience member asked how the work of these writers affected the panelists' own poetry. Mr. Bidart, who was a graduate student at Harvard when he became friends with Lowell, said, "With Lowell, I never felt he was trying to get me to write like him - at all."Mr. Bidart added, "To imitate Homer is not to imitate Homer because Homer was not imitating" anyone. Therefore, Mr. Bidart said,"Imitation of a certain kind is wrong. It's a problem if students end up writing the way the teacher writes."