Lives of the Poets
As Christmas draws near, the media fills with this year’s ‘Best of…’ lists – reviewing the past 12 months and drawing out those books, films, albums etc that we can either congratulate ourselves on having obtained or experienced or mentally file in the “must get around to that” category. With so many lists in so many places, it’s hard to ignore the trend completely, and having our good taste validated by a quick ‘top 10’, or by the fact that we clearly know better than whoever put that list together, becomes part of our year-end routine.
I’m not going to presume to publish a 2015 guide myself, but feel that it has been a remarkable year for those of us interested in 20th century poetry, and in the Modernist movement in particular.
In the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot we’ve been fortunate enough to have the first half of Robert Crawford’s biography, ‘Young Eliot: From St Louis to the Waste Land’. This is not quite the ‘official’ life, perhaps, that Eliot urged his estate to resist, but certainly a work that has benefitted from access to much that has been unavailable and which sheds new light on the ‘American’ years of Eliot’s youth and his transition to life in the literary world of post-WW1 England.
Towards the end of the year, too, Eliot scholars got an early Christmas present in the form of the 2-volume annotated edition of the ‘Poems’, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue – a work of such completeness that it is hard to see it ever being rendered obsolete. Surrounded by the drafts and marginalia, Eliot’s poems emerge even more remarkable in their complexity and scope. In this case, the opportunity to see behind the finished text into the work-in-progress in no way diminishes the poem we ‘know’ but introduces us to a host of alternatives that seem tantalisingly familiar but enigmatic in their difference.
Eliot’s readers and scholars have often wrestled with the relationship between the man and the poet, and anyone who has encountered the work of Ted Hughes must surely have felt in a similar position. The media coverage of Jonathan Bate’s ‘Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life’ focused, unsurprisingly, on the breakdown in dealings between the biographer and the estate that turned the ‘official’ life into a more complex and (in the interests of selling papers) controversial one. This overlooks, though, just how much Bate had added to our sense of Hughes as a writer and a man, and how for a man destined in the public consciousness to be forever linked with his first wife there was no easy division between private and public. We may ‘like’ him no more or no less after reading Bate’s account, but we may have a better sense of him that we had before. We may also find ourselves returning to his poems with new insights, and reading again works which we thought we knew well. That, in the final analysis, may be the best measure of a biography, and why, in my view, 2015 has been such a bumper year for those of us who like probing the terrain where life and art overlap.