Wednesday 31 December 2008

Coming to the party on poetry

Towards the end of September, The Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal organised the 12th Poetry Africa International Festival in Durban. About 26 poets and performers were invited from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, Mayotte, the Netherlands and the US to provide a showcase of poetic and cultural diversity, with approaches and styles ranging from written-word poetry to rap and hip-hop.

The main venue for the festival was the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, which has 400 seats, which for most of the five nights there were well filled. However, when taking into account the overall activities of the festival – which included visits to university campuses, schools and performances in public places – the organisers estimate the audience to have been about 4 000.

These numbers seem to go against the claim by many publishers and booksellers that there is no market for poetry in South Africa, but I say “seem” because there are those critics who feel that what is being showcased at Poetry Africa these days “isn’t really poetry”. In the past few years Poetry Africa has shifted its emphasis from written-word poetry to spoken word, and two of the performers this year – hip-hop trio Godessa and Jitsvinger – were definitely more singers/musicians than poets. And besides, detractors may ask, what effect does all this have on poetry readership?

For most of the festival there was a bookstall in the theatre foyer run by independent bookstore Adams Campus Bookshop, and for manager Cedric Sissing the effect of the festival was clear: for the five nights that the stall was open, he sold more poetry collections than the store would normally do in a year.

Revenue for units (books, CDs and DVDs) sold at the festival for the past three years was R24 288 in 2006, R27 366 in 2007 (a 12, 67% increase) and this year R21 013 (a 21,23% decrease).

Sissing says that while this year’s decrease can be directly attributed the sharp rise in the cost of living in South Africa, the increase in last year’s revenue is attributed to sales of books and DVDs by the Hindi Kenyan poet Shailja Patel. About 50 units of her work sold over the period.

This year the top book sellers were Megan Hall’s Fourth Child – winner of this year’s Ingrid Jonker poetry prize and published by independent Modjaji Books – which sold 19 copies, followed by Mxolisi Nyezwa’s New Country, published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, which sold 16 copies. Both of the books were launched at the festival. In third place were various titles by US rap poet Carlos Gomez, who sold 14 books and five CDs.

Of the total 108 South African units sold this year, 86 were books, with the remaining 22 being CDs.

Granted, these figures aren’t exactly earth-shattering, and Gomez told me that in the US, where he often gives performances at schools and colleges, he usually sells about 20-30 units a night.

But for Sissing the figures are a clear indication that in South Africa the sale of poetry collections has to be event- rather than retail-driven.

“Take, for example, the work of Patel,” he says. “She sold 50 units last year when she was a featured poet, but sold no copies during the year at the shop. Three copies of her work were sold at the festival this year, even though she was not featured.”

And on the subject of whether the shift in emphasis to spoken word is having any kind of effect on poetry readership, Sissing says, “It’s difficult to prove this on paper, but in the past five years, since the rise of spoken-word poetry, there’s no doubt that the spoken- word poets lift the patrons’ passion, thereby influencing them to buy more poetry. Not just spoken word, but also written word.”

And, as the figures show, book sales are still far ahead of CDs, so it is clear that written-word poetry is not in any immediate danger of extinction.

But in a nutshell what South African poets and publishers need to do is to organise more events. We need more readings, more launches, more workshops and definitely more festivals such as Poetry Africa.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Glumlazi by Pravasan Pillay

Glumlazi is a first collection by Durban poet Pravasan Pillay, published by new small press Tearoom Books. A beautiful little debut volume, these SMS-like poems range from two to seven lines each. Two of them are as follows:


House was the grenade
Mama was the pin

and


Down the tunnels
where the lights are always on
there are still shadows


Available at R40 including postage. For order information, contact info@tearoombooks.com or tearoombooks@gmail.com.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Ted Joans: in search of the marvellous

On May 7 2003, the 74-year-old African-American beat poet and artist Ted Joans was discovered dead in his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is believed Joans, who was seriously ill with diabetes, had been dead for almost three weeks. The irony that such a gregarious man as Joans should have died alone has been commented on. Yet despite being one of the most colourful, energetic and prolific members of the beat generation, Joans was also probably one of the least known.

Born Theodore Jones in 1928 in Cairo, Illinois, (he later changed the surname to differentiate from the more common spelling) his parents were show people who worked on a Mississippi riverboat. In 1943 his father was murdered by white workers during the Detroit race riots. It was also about this time that he discovered surrealism, which, as he wrote years later, he chose as a weapon to defend himself against ‘abject vicissitudes’ of a racist society.

After graduating from the University of Indiana with a Fine Arts degree in 1951, Joans moved to New York where he settled in the Greenwich Village scene of artists, poets, coffee bars and jazz. He once shared a room with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and learned to play the trumpet. By the middle of the decade he had become part of the emerging beat scene, participating in public poetry readings with writers and poets such as Diane di Prima, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as fellow African-Americans Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) and Bob Kaufman.

His first poetry collections were published in the late 1950s. After the failure of his first marriage and feeling that the beat scene had become too commercialised, however, Joans set off for France in the first of a series of extensive travels that would also take him to north Africa, Holland, Germany, England and even South Africa. Wherever he went, Joans became immersed in a fervent activity of writing, painting and public reading, dividing regular residences between Timbuktu, Amsterdam and New York.

When Joans visited South Africa in 1994 he gave readings at the Windybrow Theatre in Hillbrow and at Kippies Jazz Club in Newtown. I remember being struck by his warmth and ageing grace, although he hadn’t lost any of his occasional ribald humour. His insistence that poets should focus on ‘writing the poem’, rather feeling restricted by formalist constraints, was true to the spontaneous spirit of jazz and surrealism. His vibrant, charismatic performance reminded me that poetry is a shared, living experience; not words buried alive in a book.

In almost 40 years, Joans published as many titles, the majority of them in small limited editions now out of print. Most probably the only collections still readily available are those published by Calder & Boyers in the early 1970s, A Black Pow-Wow of Jazz Poems and Afrodisia, as well as two recent selected volumes, Teducation (Coffee House Press) and Our Thang (Exstatis Editions), which also featured drawings by Joan’s companion, artist Laura Corsiglia.

Joans’ poetry is influenced by Langston Hughes, André Breton, his fellow beat poets and jazz. It is characterised predominantly by colloquial expressions of black consciousness, revolutionary pride and eroticism. Believing that any revolution based purely on political change was futile, Joans emphasised that liberation was also required from ‘self-inflicted oppressions’, particularly those related to sex. His goal was, as with Breton, ‘human emancipation’.

Although surrealism plays a somewhat marginal a role in his poetry, it is clearly expressed in his art, particularly his collages, which are reminiscent of Max Ernst. "Jazz is my religion," he once said, "and surrealism is my point of view.”

Despite Joans’ numerous publications, he nevertheless remained less known than some of his contemporaries, less anthologised, and certainly less cash flush. Yet for the man who regarded the rhino as his totem animal, he was, as he wrote to writer Jack Foley, "..never in the rat race, only the rhino race in search of the marvellous".

(Published in Sunday Independent, May 2003)

Friday 19 December 2008

Aujourd’hui est leur Créateur - Dionysos Andronis


Ce nouveau recueil de poèmes de Gary Cummiskey a comme titre une phrase du peintre américain Robert Rauschenberg. La quotidienneté serait le sujet du recueil (le mot « Aujourd’hui » est le premier du titre), mais ce serait une quotidienneté transformée poétiquement. L’univers des reportages télé (surtout dans le poème central « Et nous voyons ») est un premier point d’inspiration de ce recueil vital et significatif de l’auteur. La poésie de Cummiskey, à travers son pessimisme et sa tension existentielle, devient un champ libre de réflexion et de Création humaine, comme le dernier mot du titre aimerait nous le rappeler. Chacun de nous peut apporter sa pierre de construction de cet édifice solide d’une poésie humaine, fragile, simple et baignée dans l’immédiat et les inattendus pour la plupart involontaires de la vie quotidienne.

A travers la sensation du macabre et du danger évident dans la vie quotidienne (l’exemple le plus caractéristique serait le dernier poème « Café du coin » où le propriétaire se fait tuer en secret et loin des yeux des clients) et du thème de la chasse quotidienne (le deuxième poème « Le rêve d’un rat » est caractéristique où l’on témoigne de cette chasse entre chat et rat dans notre domicile), Cummiskey nous livre un recueil qui nous concerne tous directement. C’est un recueil écrit d’après les visions et les angoisses de tous les jours mais dans la tête d’un observateur serein et calme qui est le poète lui-même. Il est observateur seulement parce qu’il sait très bien que son imagination offrira un produit artistique différent et meilleur mais s’inspirant de toutes ces situations affligeantes et grotesques de tous les jours. Ce sera une vision « noire » (au sens artistique du terme) aux antipodes des souhaits initiaux.

Café du coin

Je t’amène
au café du coin.
Il est vide
ainsi nous glissons derrière le comptoir
et nous commençons à baiser.
Après,
quand nous remontons à l’étage
nous voyons le propriétaire allongé
près de la porte, mort.

(Op.cit. page 25, traduit par Dionysos Andronis)

Friday 12 December 2008

Ave Maria, the tragic opera diva

Maria is a fat little girl born in New York City in 1923. Her parents are Greek immigrants, George and Evangelia Kalogeropoulos. George is a pharmacist with a host of mistresses and Evangelia is entrenched in the role of self-sacrificing, unappreciated wife and mother. At an early age, Maria is manipulated into a singing career by Evangelia; her ambitions to be a dentist are ignored. To Evangelia, singing will lead to success. Success means money and money leads to happiness.

Little Maria’s emotional needs are not taken into consideration. She feels robbed of her childhood and of a mother’s unconditional love. She has no friends, she believes she is ugly, and her only solace is in excessive eating. Later she will say there should be laws against treating children in such a manner: ‘A child treated like this grows old before its time.’ As she grows into adulthood, Maria’s resentment against Evangelia will be extremely bitter. At one point she will say: ‘The only time I’ll want to see my fucking mother is when she’s lying in her box, and then it’s to make sure she’s dead.’

The Wall Street Crash results in George losing his pharmacy business, and he takes a low-paid job selling pharmaceuticals. Money problems intensify the already tense domestic scene, so Evangelia takes Maria and her sister Jackie to Athens. It is cheaper to live there and the money George sends over enables Maria to study at the Athens Conservatory.

In 1940 Maria makes her public debut in Boccaccio and will have her first success two years later with Tosca at the Athens Opera. She will also perform in Fidelio, Tiefland and Cavalleria Rusticana. But Maria also performs for the occupying troops, accepting food from Italian and German admirers. When Greece is liberated, her contract with the Athens Opera is not renewed. Civil war follows soon after and Maria returns to America.

But Athens is far away from New York, and no one is impressed with her successes in another country. Maria is disheartened, eats pizza and cheeseburgers and puts on weight. When she is offered leading roles in Fidelio and Madame Butterfly, she turns them down. The artist in her does not want to perform Fidelio translated into English and she feels she is too fat to play the teenage, fragile Butterfly.

Luckily she impresses Verona Festival artistic director Giovanni Zenatello, who recruits her for the leading role in La Gioconda. Before sailing for Verona, Maria will, after much indecision, sign a contract with Edward Bagarozy, stipulating that he will be her sole promotional agent for 10 years, in return for 10% of her gross earnings for that period.

While in Verona, Maria meets an opera-loving industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a man in his mid-fifties. But he will listen to her, console her, reassure her and protect her: a father figure almost 30 years her senior. She moves on to Venice, performs I Puritani, achieves success, becomes the talk of Italy. When she performs I Verpri Siciliani at La Scala, the adulation is triumphant. The public figure La Callas is born.

She also undertakes the first of many performances in the leading role of Norma. But performing Norma is stressful, demanding a mastery of trills and scales, substantial breath control for long melodies, with flowing lyricism alternating with dramatic emotional outbursts. It is a substantial challenge for Maria’s voice, but she is determined to meet that challenge, and will do so repeatedly, performing the role 90 times in eight countries throughout her career. Her final stage performance in 1965 is Norma. Exhausted by the end of second act, she is not able to change into her final costume, and collapses afterwards.

Norma – the Druidic priestess who tragically forsakes her holy vows and falls in love with a Roman proconsul, is the embodiment of the conflict between public roles and responsibilities and private emotional needs. Behind the public La Callas there remains a little girl who craves for a conventional, private existence.

A few months later she marries Menehgini, despite his family’s objections. “ They thought I had come to Italy to marry a rich man,” she will later complain.

Indeed, with the public praise, there also comes much criticism – particularly of her voice. It is too harsh, too unrefined. It is not classical, not quite beautiful. Once, during an ovation, a bunch of radishes is thrown at her feet. Where Maria expects praise, instead reviews are instead lukewarm. Her moods are volatile and her temper explosive.

Maria does not just convey music through her voice, but also through her body. Some will regard her as a powerful actress. She is, almost by genetic intuition, in touch with the ancient spirit of tragedy. On one occasion, before a performance, she is found on the floor of her changing room summoning the Greek gods for strength and for guidance.

During the early 1950s Maria travels and performs in Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Covent Garden in London. She is worshipped, adored, becomes an international celebrity. She signs a recording contact with EMI. She undergoes substantial weight loss, dropping by twenty-eight kilos within two years. An elegant, Doric figure emerges and her beauty is widely admired.

When in Mexico she also meets Evangelia for the last time. Evangelia will complain afterwards that Maria treats her like a distant relative. One night, though, Maria breaks down in tears, crying that she wants children, that she wants to be a normal woman. Evangelia comforts her, but when she arrives to visit Maria in the morning, she is pushed away. “ I’m not a child anymore!’ Maria says harshly.

In 1955, the first traumatic legal wrangle occurs: Baragozy – who has not had contact with Maria for several years, is demanding his fees, totally $300 000; Maria maintains Baragozy had done nothing for her career and refuses payment. When she is handed a summons by a court marshal after a triumphant performance of Madame Butterfly in Chicago, a newspaper photographer snaps Maria’s vicious expression. “I will not be sued!” she yells. “ I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me!” The case is settled out of court two years later.

Worse still, Evangelia, now divorced from George and struggling financially, writes to Maria requesting a regular income for her and sister Jackie. Maria’s response is that her mother can go find a job. Is this what she sacrificed everything for, Evangelia asks Time magazine, in an article that portrays Maria as an ungrateful daughter and a spoiled, temperamental, heartless prima donna.

Two years later, at a performance of Norma in Rome, which is attended by Italy’s president, Maria’s voice gives out; she can barely whisper. It is rumoured Maria has been at a nightclub until the early hours, drinking champagne. Maria wants to cancel, but there no stand-by performer. So she goes on stage, but by the end of the first act, the audience begins to jeers. The experience is humiliating and she makes an exit through the back door.

Soon Maria begins what she will later call her ‘nine-year meaningless sacrifice’. She falls in love with Greek multimillionaire Aristotle Onassis, who at the time is married. Maria goes through divorce proceedings and so does Onassis, but despite Maria’s hopes, they will never marry. Nevertheless, Maria is happy. At the age of thirty-six she has found not only what seems to be true love. And, as Franco Zeffirelli will later point out: ‘It was a definite sexual passion.’

But the stress of her divorce and the public attention takes its toll. Maria is suffering from exhaustion. At a Covent Garden performance of Luica, her voice strains and she almost breaks down. Later she will say: “ It is not my voice that is sick, it is my nerves.” She will also develop sinus problems, which will make singing extremely difficult and painful.

From now on, her opera performances will reduce dramatically, from 28 in the year before she meets Onassis to 15 over the next seven years. She enjoys a period of ease amid luxury yachts and private jets. She has become the woman that part of her has wanted to be, not a public figure committed to her art. “ I don’t want to sing any more,” she says. “ I want to live, just like a normal woman, with children, a home, a dog.” To many she has not only given up her career and her voice, but also her gift to the world.

Her admirers' resentment is expressed when she performs Medea in 1961. Her voice is losing its power and the audience begin hissing. When, in the opera, Medea denounces Jason as ‘Crudel!’ (“Cruel man!”), Maria addresses this directly to the public, angrily waving her fist at them, singing: ‘Ho dato tutto a te’ ( “I gave everything to you!”.) The audience bursts into applause. Ironically, a few years later, these words could well be addressed to Onassis.

Onassis, who had no love for opera, has cruel, insensitive streaks. He mocks Maria: ‘What do you have? Nothing. You just have a whistle in your throat that no longer works.’ When Maria discovers she is pregnant, Onassis is unenthusiastic and Maria has an abortion.

In 1965 she will give her final operatic performance as Norma. She collapses unconsciousness the moment the curtain goes down. There will still be concerts and recordings but her musical career is effectively over.

So too, within a few years, is her relationship with Onassis, as he marries the widowed Jackie Kennedy. Onassis does not even inform Maria of his intentions. Maria is broken, almost destroyed, and almost a decade of barbiturate dependence will follow.

Still she takes up an offer to play the lead in Pasolini’s move Medea. Medea: the sorceress who helped Jason win the Golden Fleece, only to be discarded by him in favour of another. In resentment, anger and jealousy, Medea murders his royal betrothed and kills their own children. Critics say it is a role made for Maria. Unfortunately, the movie is a flop.

Maria still regards Onassis as the most important love of her life, and continues to see him as the multibillionaire begins to realise his marriage to the extravagant Kennedy has been a mistake. But Maria and Onassis’s relationship will not be rekindled. In 1970 Maria is rushed to hospital with a drug overdose; speculation is that it is attempted suicide.

In the early 1970s Maria gives a series of master classes with opera students in New York and embarks on a concert tour with former colleague Guiseppe di Stenfano. But her voice has lost its strength. Some of the audiences are disappointed, but the majority continue to adore her, and each performance concludes with applause, gratitude and love.

Onasis dies in 1975, a few months after Maria’s final concert, in Japan. Without his existence, she feels life is devoid of meaning. The past is dead and there is no future. Maria withdraws, living behind closed doors in her Paris apartment, going out only to walk her dogs. It is an enclosed world of despair.

On 16 September 1977 Maria experiences a sharp pain in her side. She collapses and is put to bed. A doctor is called; she dies before he arrives.

Maria is cremated and her remains kept at the Pere Lachise cemetery in Paris. Later they will be returned to Greece and her ashes scattered over the Aegean Sea.

The popularity of La Callas does not wane after her death; in fact it increases. But behind the public figure - the loved and adored singer, as well as the stormy and unpredictable prima donna – there remains a woman who wants nothing more than a calm, uneventful, conventional life. But she is constantly torn, like Norma, between her sense of public role and private emotional needs. But as both public and private lives collapse, she finds nothing but Medea’s pain, anguish and emptiness.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, July 2004)


Monday 08 December 2008

Sylvia Plath: The enigma of posthumous fame

For many years I disliked their poetry. His poetry – filled with cold, bleak landscapes, hawks in the rain, battered cats, and predatory fish hiding in ponds deep as England – gave me a taste I imagined as being similar to frozen mud. Her poetry – with its intricate imagery of birth, death, flowers, trees and bees – seemed too restricted, constrained, and laboured (is it true she wrote with an open Thesaurus at her side?)

It’s difficult to believe they were married. On the surface, despite their shared literary activities, they didn’t seem suited, almost from two different worlds.

Sylvia must have been impossible to live with, or even to have around. As a child, on hearing of her father’s death, she announced: ‘I’ll never speak to God again!’ A stubborn, angry, refusal, born out of shock and disbelief; acceptable perhaps in a child, yet the same attitude seems to have continued into her adulthood: a sense of betrayal, a demand that things go her way, that all events and people adhere to her wants and needs. And when the universe would not adhere to her wishes, she withdrew into rejection and depression, casting friends aside, highlighting how they let her down, how they failed to live up to her expectations, just as both God and her father had betrayed her. Shortly after his death, she demanded that her mother Aurelia sign a pledge not to remarry. Aurelia, still in her early thirties, adhered, but this wasn’t enough to satisfy Sylvia. Later she would attack her mother precisely for signing it. With Sylvia, one has the impression you could never win.

But such contrariness was not simply that of a spoiled child. Sylvia’s psyche was in a near-continual state of torment, hurt, fear and instability. Throughout school and university she did her utmost to conform, to fit in, to be popular. She tried to be the model student and the model daughter. She insisted on perfection, for herself and for others. She dyed her hair blonde, had several boyfriends, each of them initially satisfying her need for a father figure, the strong, ever-reliant God, unwavering and invincible; the man who would never fail her, but inevitably they would – and then it was they who were to blame. As one of her biographers, Ronald Hayman, remarked: ‘She was good at making friends, and she was good at losing them’.

In 1953, shortly after spending a month as guest editor of Mademoiselle, Sylvia told Aurelia: ‘The world is so rotten, I want to die! I Let’s die together!’ Her mother’s response was to place her in an institution where she was subjected to electric shock treatment, later to be recounted in her prose work, The Bell Jar. Perhaps understandably, Aurelia also soon found herself on Sylvia’s betrayal list. On returning home, Sylvia attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills (‘At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you.’) but was rescued in time.

Nevertheless, Sylvia managed to win a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge in England, where in 1956 she met up with the young Ted Hughes at a party. Their first meeting was aggressively physical – he ripped off her hair band and kissed her, while she bit his cheek so hard that it bled. Ted was now Sylvia’s God, the tremendously strong masculine father figure who would be unwavering, dedicated and unfailing. She insisted on remaining at his side for years, rarely separated from him for more than a few hours at a time.

Within a few months they married, but even while on honeymoon in Spain, it became clear to Sylvia that the marriage would not be as ideal as she imagined it would be. Ted had untidy habits, leaving clothing and papers lying all over the place; she was fanatical about cleanliness. Tension rose. He even hit her on occasions. Ted’s family didn’t warm to Sylvia too well either, particularly his sister Olwyn. Sylvia was also ill at ease in English literary circles.

Despite all, she remained dedicated to him (‘Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face…’) She typed up his manuscripts and sent his poems off to literary journals with promptness and devotion. She was determined to make him known as a great poet. When his first collection, Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957 and won a major literary prize, her faith in him seemed vindicated.

In the meantime, they travelled to the US where Sylvia taught at Smith University. She worked hard at her own poetry but her attempts to find her voice remained frustrating. Worse still, one day she caught Ted in what seemed like a hurried termination of an amorous encounter (later Ted maintained he had bumped into the woman only seconds earlier and had simply chatted to her). Soon after, the couple returned to England, mainly at Ted’s insistence.

After a brief period in London and the birth of their daughter Frieda, they moved to a house in a village in Devon. Sylvia was initially ecstatic about the move. Ted was becoming an increasing well known and respected poet among the English literary establishment, and her own first book, The Colossus and other Poems, was published in 1960.

But the optimism and calm was short lived. A miscarriage, financial pressures and increasing frustration over the isolation of the village sent Sylvia into a depression. When Ted’s affair with the seductive Assia Wevill was uncovered, tension reached new heights. Even the birth of their son Nicolas could not save the marriage. They separated at Sylvia’s insistence.

Left alone with two small children in the village, Sylvia’s powerful poetic voice burst forth in many of the Ariel poems, such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Fever 103’, ‘Poppies in July’ and ‘Sheep in Fog’ each of them revealing her sense of anger, betrayal, loss and inner torment, taking her ‘through to a heaven,/ starless and fatherless, a dark water.’

She took sleeping pills to ward off insomnia, but by dawn they would have worn off and she was unable to get back to sleep, and so remained awake until it was time to tend to the children. A friend suggested she use this time to write, and so The Bell Jar was written.

Leaving Devon, Sylvia moved to a flat in London, desperately trying to make a new life for herself and the children. But at the height of a freezing winter, depression, illness, despair and financial worries overtook her. On February 11, 1963, she committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven (‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’) She had carefully sealed off the children’s bedrooms to ensure they would be safe from inhalation. A few weeks earlier The Bell Jar had been published anonymously and she had prepared Ariel for publication.

After her death – and the arrival of posthumous fame – the debate about the reasons for Sylvia’s suicide began to emerge, as well as often bitter battles between pro-Plath and pro-Hughes supporters.

While acting as editor of Sylvia’s works and ensuring their publication, Ted’s editing was regarded by some as over-zealous. When Ariel was published in 1965, he removed about 14 poems that touched on their collapsing marriage. These poems were only included in a later edition.

When Sylvia’s journals were published in 1982, Ted admitted to deleting passages, though oddly enough included some unflattering entries, including those referring to his beating her. However he also stated that one volume of her journals had ‘disappeared’ and admitted to destroying another (‘I did not want her children to have read it,’ he said.)

When A Alvarez included a chapter on Sylvia in his book The Savage God – a work that brought Sylvia’s tragic life to the public – Ted tried to halt its publication. This was the beginning of several legal wrangles regarding publications on Sylvia’s life.

While Ted’s grief over Sylvia’s death was certainly genuine, his actions suggest an increasingly public figure eager to hide any shortcomings in his personal life. When Assia committed suicide in 1967 – also by gassing herself and killing her and Ted’s son Shura at the same time – Ted’s life became even more emotionally strained. Some people had felt that both Ted and his family had laid the blame for Sylvia’s suicide at Assia’s feet.

Bewildering to many was Ted’s decision to make his sister Olwyn the agent for Sylvia’s estate, especially considering the antipathy that had existed between the two women. While Olwyn had told some that she had always acknowledged Sylvia’s poetic gift, she had also, according to Hayman, called her ‘a famous poetess Grace Kelly dream who descended on Yorkshire. Bloody cheek. An American student with a couple of poems in magazines.’ When Anne Stevenson published her biography of Sylvia, Bitter Fame, in 1989, presenting very much a pro-Hughes slant, it emerged that the book was effectively co-authored by Olwyn, particularly the final chapters.

Eventually, in Birthday Letters, published in 1998 shortly before his death, Ted spoke openly about his life with Sylvia. The book is filled with warm, sad and painful memories (‘Remember how we picked the daffodils? Nobody else remembers, but I remember’), devoted to the woman who was caught in her ‘tortured, crying / suffocating self’, a woman he felt to be ‘locked/ Into some chamber gasping for oxygen/ Where I could not find you, or really know you,/ Let alone understand you.’

So who was Sylvia? Was she, as Anne Stevenson called her, ‘a martyr mainly to the recurrent psychodrama that staged itself within the bell jar of her tragically wounded personality’, a self-destructive woman who wrote: ‘Dying/is an art…/I do it exceptionally well’, an explosive and unpredictable neurotic woman ‘terrified by this dark thing’ deep within her?

Or has the truth of the final months of Sylvia’s tragic life been sacrificed to the interests of a respected poet laureate and his protective, dedicated sister?

It is unlikely the full story will ever emerge.


(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 2004)

Friday 05 December 2008

Timbila 6

The sixth issue of literary journal Timbila has just been published. Edited by Vonani Bila and Mark Waller, it contains poetry (and a bit of prose) by writers such as David wa Maahlamela, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Michelle McGrane, Kobus Moolman, Goodenough Mashego, Gary Cummiskey,Vonani Bila, Mark Waller, Alan Finlay, Liesl Jobson, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Mxolisi Nyezwa,Mpho Ramaano, Mzi Mahola, and Mzwandile Matiwana. 300 pages, R160 per copy. Contact timbila@telkomsa.net to order.