|Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews|
Anvil Press (Oct. 2002) 109 pages
ISBN: 0 85646 341 8
I do not know Daniel Weissbort, but I did know Ted Hughes. So, my reaction to these poems is not impartial, and what I like about them is the way in which they prompt my memory and evoke the man. Anyone who knew Ted Hughes will recognize him here: his height, his physical presence, his concentration on the task in hand, and his generosity and concern for others. "You inserted yourself into this life or that," Weissbort writes in "Silence, Worse," "with care, paying attention to the surroundings / trying not to disturb them..." And that was how Ted was.
As a reviewer, however, I had to ask myself how those who did not know Ted Hughes, or any of the circumstances behind Weissbort's poems, would react to them. So, I took Letters To Ted to my poetry group—a bunch of ordinary Australian women and men who write good, bad and/or indifferent poetry themselves, who know little about Hughes apart from what I have shared with them, but all of whom love poetry in all its forms and love to read and talk about it.
I explained, as Weissbort does in his Introduction, that he and Hughes met at Cambridge in the early 50s and that their friendship lasted until Ted's death in 1989. We read, too, about the beginnings of the magazine, Poetry in Translation, which Hughes suggested to Weissbort on New Year's Eve 1963/4, which they co-edited for a few issues, and which Weissbort still edits. Then we read some of the Letters to Ted, each person making their own choice of poems. Reactions (predictably) were mixed but on the whole favourable.
"He's very brave," one poet said, "to write in a style that's so similar to Birthday Letters." And yes, the style is simple, spare, and moving, and the address is direct, just as it is in the poems Hughes addressed to Sylvia Plath. "Perhaps," I said, "the first poem 'Getting There' deals with just that sort of courage": Weissbort writes of his and Ted's shared dilemma of "wanting to please whoever had a claim" and of the need, sometimes, to ignore that and "not to be afraid to disappoint." That, certainly, is a brave choice to make, and at the end of the poem Weissbort sees Ted "nodding, wordlessly, / or just waiting for me to continue." So he does. And these letters, as Weissbort explains, are "a sort of continuation" of the correspondence that he and Ted had over the years. Clearly this correspondence involved both letters and conversations, and to continue conversations with a dead friend or relative is quite a common way of coping with grief. In that way, these poems were understood by everyone.
Yet, in spite of the informative notes at the end of the book, the very personal or specific references in poems like "Betrayal?" and "The Cure" caused puzzlement and a feeling, in some members of my group, that there was more behind the poem than Weissbort was willing to share. And maybe there is some truth in that, for "Untranslated" begins, "Do I preserve what I know by not transcribing you?"—as if Weissbort feared that by presenting his memories of Ted too fully, he might somehow lose them.
Transcription and translation, however, were shared interests for Weissbort and Hughes, and what better comment on Ted's methods of translation could one get than from another poet (like Weissbort) who is skilled in that art. "Translation" comments on Ted's "X-ray vision" (as Hungarian poet Janos Csokits apparently called it) and on "how clearly [he] heard / how vividly, vigorously" he translated. The notes to this poem throw further light on Ted's methods, and "Literalness," "Narrative" and the note to "A Translation" tell more. "A Hypothesis," however, suggests that Ted's "waxing powers" in translation were what "did [him] in" by demanding more and more of his energy, like being embraced by a muse with "more limbs than Shiva." Ted himself thought otherwise but would probably have responded as Weissbort remembers him responding to the suggestion that he "invented a version of Nature" ("Was it Nature"): "Maybe!" But Ted would have enjoyed Weissbort's final picture of the Gods, all stirred up by Ted's translations about them, "almost believing in themselves," and Ted himself, like one of his own tramps, caught with his "swag" of translations in his hands, in fragrante delicto.
In essence, Letters To Ted is a very personal, loving memoir of Ted, written by one of those "three or four" friends of whom Ted wrote in "Visit" in Birthday Letters, "who stay unchanged / Like a separate self." Readers looking for gossip about the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath will be disappointed. Weissbort was there at the fateful St. Botolph's party. Dragged there from his "bed-of-safety" by Ted, full of cold, he was "that red-nosed piano player" ("St Botolph's Review"). But his memory of that night has, it seems, survived in far worse condition than the copies of the St. Botolph's Review which he recently found.
Other poems remember Cambridge University, friends, fishing expeditions, food and laughter, But most of all, Weissbort's poems celebrate Ted: fisherman, pedagogue, thinker, sharer, poet. For me, the most moving poems in the book are "Winter is Coming in" and "Your Voice in Westminster Abbey." The first carries (but sadly) the song of "Dick, Jack, Dan," adapting it to an ancient tune; the second tells simply and powerfully of the shock of that moment in the Memorial Service when we heard and recognized Ted's voice, and recognized, too, his absence.