30th June 2000 at 01:00
POETS ON POETS SERIES. Ted Hughes: poems. Selected by Simon Armitage

SYLVIA PLATH: poems. Selected by Ted Hughes

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: poetry. Selected by Ted Hughes. Faber pound;4.99 each

Our previous Poet Laureate, reserved and reclusive in life, is proving positively ubiquitous in death. As Simon Armitage points out in his introduction, Ted Hughes has at times been highly unfashionable as well as easy to caricature, usually as some kind of craggy cross between D H Lawrence and Heathcliff.

At the time of his death, though, his reputation was bolstered by acclaim, both critical and popular, for his final works, Tales From Ovid and Birthday Letters. The latter attained unprecedented sales for a new collection of poetry in recent years.

Armitage's claim that the success of Birthday Letters can be partly attributed to a number of "ghouls, voyeurs and gossips with a less than literary interest" implies that lovers of literature are above such prurience. Let us not delude ourselves. From the early Sixties on, interest in the "Ted and Sylvia show" has given rise to a small industry. Hughes' initial silence on his wife's suicide, his destruction of some of her journals and the condemnation which followed, and then the belated, unexpected outpouring that was Birthday Letters, have ensured that anything connected with the Hugheses is a literary event.

These three volumes are part of a new series of small-format editions that, with the exception of whole collections, such as T S Eliot's Four Quartets, fetures poets responding to poets (also in the series is Seamus Heaney on W B Yeats, John Fuller on W H Auden, Thom Gunn on Ezra Pound and more).

As a whole, the series provides good-value primers to some of the finest and most varied poetry written, and it is difficult to fault.

The voyeurs among us might just be a little disappointed at Hughes's selection of Plath's work, which unlike most of the others in the series, consists of a bare selection and no introduction. Presumably Hughes felt, and hoped, that with Birthday Letters he'd had the last word.

Armitage includes much of that fine and revealing last collection, as well as some of Hughes's more familiar work, such as the well-known, and well-studied "Pike" and "The Horses", and a selection from Crow. The problem with Plath's work is that so much of it is unremittingly morbid. Included are the stark, shocking "Daddy" and "Death amp; Co", but Hughes has balanced these by including poems that reveal Plath's more celebratory side, such as "You're" and "Morning Song".

Hughes does provide an introduction to his selection of Shakespeare's poetry, originally published in 1971. Obviously intent on concentrating on Shakespeare's poetic element alone, he has chosen to mix and match the sonnets with extracts from the plays, all of which appear numbered but untitled. There is a certain logic in this approach, but Shakespeare out of context can be even harder to follow for readers who find him difficult. Having said that, it is worth the effort.

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