Edited by Terry Gifford
New Casebooks Series
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Paperback. xiv+204 p. ISBN 978-1137301116. £16.99
Reviewed by Sandie Byrne
Kellogg College, Oxford
This very welcome addition to the New Casebooks series is dedicated to the late Keith Sagar, once declared the Godfather of ‘the Ted Hughes Mafia’, who might have received it with mixed feelings (see the tribute to Sagar by Neil Roberts on the Ted Hughes Society website). The stated aim of the collection is to open some of the debates about potential meanings of Hughes’s work for those who might be new to the literary theories for which Sagar had a well-known antipathy. Nonetheless, Sagar did contribute to the volume, having been persuaded that no monolithic restrictive orthodoxy was to be imposed, just as his subject, Hughes, in spite of a well-advertised antipathy for literary criticism of the close reading kind, wrote criticism and offered guidance to Sagar, among others, on the backgrounds to and preferred interpretations of his own work.
To introduce readers to both Hughes’s writing and elements of a number of literary theories is an ambitious aim, for the editor of the collection and for each contributor. Gillian Groszewski (Structuralist and Poststructuralist readings), Joanny Moulin (Lacanian Psychoanalytic readings), Daniel O’Connor (Trauma Theory readings), Usha VT and Murali Sivaramakrishnan (Postcolonial Indian readings), Iris Ralph (Posthumanist readings) and Richard Kerridge (Ecocritical readings), however, manage this difficult task. The explication of postcolonial approaches is particularly succinct. Groszewski’s essay, in contrasting approaches of a number of theories under the umbrella terms of Structuralist and Poststructuralist, has to devote a lot of space (half of the essay) to prefatory material, which limits the readings somewhat.
Sagar’s essay, ‘Hughes and the Absurd’, is placed within the first section of the collection, ‘Reading Through Cultural Contexts’, which also includes ‘Hughes and Myth’, by Laurence Coupe, ‘Hughes and Post-Modernism’, by Alex Davis, ‘Hughes and intertextuality’, by David Troupes, ‘Hughes and the Carnivalesque’, by Neil Roberts, and ‘Hughes and Gender’, by Janne Stigen Drangsholt. The emphasis on clarity and demystification which, for example, leads Coupe to define myth, mythic, and mythology, renders each of these accessible and extremely useful for undergraduate study, though of course in some cases it precludes the inclusion of material that other readers might wish for. Intertextuality, for example, is restricted to the influence of Transcendentalism. Neil Roberts, taking a narrower subject which he defines and references with concision, has more space in which to expand his thesis and extend his analyses.
It might be expected that Drangsholt’s piece would read Hughes’s writing through the frame of feminist theories, and thus belong in the second section, since though gender is clearly cultural, Tracy Brain (in The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes (2011), also edited by Gifford) and others have demonstrated the validity of feminist approaches to Hughes’s work. The chapter fits well into its allotted place, however, since it approaches some of the same material of Coupe’s contribution, focusing on gendered symbolic figures: the female shape of animal energy and nothingness, and the male which, with ‘imbecile innocence’, fails to accept or complete the crucial challenge from the non-objective world. Although touching on the work of Cixous, and critiquing views of Hughes’s goddess-figure as garnered from Jung and Graves, the essay is not a survey of and requires no knowledge of post-structuralist feminist theory.
The contrasting and complementary readings of Hughes’s work offered in the twelve chapters are not self-contained, but productively carry over common themes, in particular the discussion of all that Hughes’s poetry and prose challenge and all that they champion. The occasional cross-referencing adds to the sense of a multi-faceted conversation providing complementary readings of Hughes’s work. There are consonances, for example, between Coupe’s and Kerridge’s discussion of animals and the shamanic in the poetry, Sagar’s assertion that Hughes subscribed to the view that humans are nothing more than ignorant apes, and Moulin’s discussion of the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the ‘true’; Moulin ends by naming Hughes’s poetry deep ecology. There are fruitful oppositions between Sagar’s biographical criticism, which sees the suffering in the early and middle phases of Hughes’s writing as amounting to an Absurd, meaningless, telos-less universe, and Roberts’ analyses of the trickster-figure and comic in Hughes’s poetry, and the experience of reading Hughes’s poetry, as carnivalesque.
In his introduction, Gifford recalls Hughes’s complaint that he and his co-author Neil Roberts in their Ted Hughes : A Critical Study (1981) had carped and quibbled and remonstrated, too often noting the misses rather than the hits. The same is not true of this volume, which tends towards the expository rather than the evaluative, and where it does evaluate is admiring. Disappointingly, Gifford himself has not included his own work on Hughes. Given his interest in eco-poetics and pastoral, there is much that he could have contributed.
A good range of Hughes’s poems is covered, though in many cases by one brief glance at the poem. Predictably, the largest number of references are to the early animal poems, the Crow poems and Birthday Letters. Both sections of the volume fulfil the stated aim of the series in providing students with ‘fresh thinking about key texts and writers’ and illuminating ‘the rich interchange between critical theory and critical practice’, but the focus on context, subject, theme, and lexis has resulted in a near absence of attention to poetic form. One exception is the essay on Hughes and the Carnivalesque, in which Neil Roberts provides some necessarily brief but characteristically insightful discussion of metre. Though perhaps outside of the remit of the essays, more prosodic analysis would have been welcome.
As in all of the New Casebooks, there are helpful indexes and a useful further reading section.
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