A correspondent of Time arrived in Dublin in 1939 to interview Flann O’Brien. The Irish writer – born Brian O’Nolan and also known as Myles na gCopaleen – was famously elusive but agreed to meet him. Asked why, his reply was that it would be good if the journalist knew nothing at all about him, but even better if he knew several things that were quite wrong. It’s a droll take on the principle that the writer’s life and work are separate things. Eliot gave us the classic formulation: “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”
This principle is too often forgotten in relation to poets. No doubt many poems have their source in lived experience and as such are autobiographical. But that connection should be understood as umbilical. A poem is nourished by the emotional experience of the poet but, in so far as it succeeds, it is freed from the circumstance and contingency of the life. Even so-called confessional poetry, when it is poetry, enters the autonomous realm of fiction, where we can access it as readers without asking if it’s true.
It seems necessary to reassert this principle in the context of Jonathan Bate’s recent biography of Ted Hughes – and the extraordinary ruckus it provoked. “Our randiest Poet Laureate gets the book he deserved,” crowed the Evening Standard (which must have peeved one or two past holders of the office). Elsewhere Craig Raine, unmentioned in the biography though he was Hughes’s editor for many years, was scathing in his assessment of Bate’s book, dismissing it as “analytically inspissated”, among other things. A more even-tempered review appears in this issue from Jane Feaver.
With Hughes, the imperative of keeping the life and the work on different burners is acute. The personal tragedies cannot be kept from our minds. Inevitably, we have an instinct to interpret the events, however inscrutable the forces at work, and an inclination to apportion blame. But that mustn’t distort our view of the poems, as happens in Bate’s case. Hughes was a great poet both in the early books and later when he produced sublime poems in Moortown and River, especially. It’s a travesty to be distracted from them in favour of the quasi-confessional, and inferior, Birthday Letters.
Should we outlaw the popular, lucrative business of literary biography? I’d feel no great loss myself. But readers generally like to know about the lives of writers. And most poets, unlike the wily Myles, it seems can’t resist being known about. The separation of poet and poem, artist and artefact, then, is a critical strategy, a proper and necessary means to experience the independent force of the work.
But there’s no changing human nature. We love gossip, rumour, slander. In films and novels we can explore the mysteries of motivation, and exercise our flawed and subjective response to human behaviour. But it appears we need, too, to inhabit vicariously the lives of ‘real people’: celebrities and public figures. And writers bring good copy to this fairly innocuous comedy. I’m reminded of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, when back in 1984 his depiction of the great man stirred up quite a storm. Vidal was interviewed on Start the Week along with Richard Adams, of Watership Down fame. Adams was asked his opinion of Vidal’s novelisation. “I thought it was meretricious.” “Really?” retorted Vidal. “Well, meretricious then – and happy New Year.”
Maurice Riordan, Editor, The Poetry Review.