Interviewer: Claudia Wright
Producer: Julie Copeland
Transcript © Ann Skea. Made and reproduced here with the permission of J. Copeland, who owns the tape3.
“Had six beautiful days at the Adelaide Festival… what a lovely lot they were. A gang of young Australian poets half adopted me. The wine was startling… not exported. I found 3 or 4 really good young writers.”. From Ted Hughes’s letter to Richard Murphy, 31 March 1976. Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid (Faber & Faber, 2007)
Claudia Wright: Is it difficult when people talk about poetry in this country to get through to people what the poet is and what the poetry is, because it seems to have a sort of veil around it of intellectualism and a certain snobbery? It doesn’t get through to the people.
Don Dunstan: I think that there are a a lot of people in this country who appreciate poetry. I can remember doing a programme on the ABC in which I did all sorts of things, like reading bits of Sappho and Shakespeare and Donne, and what have you. And the next day I went to a factory-gate meeting in the Kent Town Waterworks. And it was a fairly torrid meeting, with the water workers there, because I had to tell them that we were going to close down the Kent Town Waterworks and move them somewhere else, and they weren’t too pleased about that and they got into me a bit. But after the meeting was over, a couple of characters came up and said “’Ey! We saw yer programme on the ABC last night… that Shakespeare bit, and I’ll bet… That was absolutely grouse… yer know – the missus wanted us to say. She was beaut mate!”.
CW: Ted Hughes, does that happen to you, too?
Ted Hughes: Yes it does. Not so… I don’t have such a distinct anecdote of it. But… I don’t think there’s any particular barrier between… even the most sophisticated kinds of poetry and any kind of people you can find. Usually the most sophisticated kind of poets come from the simplest and, in a literary way, the least privileged families. It’s not a distinct difference in language or the way of looking at the world between the two things. It’s just that most people aren’t used to the kind of language that most poets will write in, and that most poets will easily become too complicated for anyone else to sympathize with; and out of any ten poets … ten names … ten poets you’d choose, maybe only one of them will ever be liked by anybody at all.
CW: Well. People here are saying, I don’t know… I’ve heard it often before… that you are the greatest poet in the world. Is that a title that is, you know, easily acceptable to you?
TH: That has no connection to me whatsoever. Under any circumstances. It’s a ridiculous statement.
CW: Well. People say it. Why do they want to think like that?
TH: I think that maybe Zbigniew Herbert4 is the greatest poet in the world, but can I find one other person to agree with me? Maybe. Yes, maybe there are quite a few people agree with me. But not many. I wonder…
CW: When you are writing for children, for instance, do you find that it’s more compatible, for the response you get from kids, than from adults?
TH: In theatre, if you’re writing for children, you can write more imaginatively. You can treat deeper, simpler themes. You can be more inventive. You can use more resources than you can in any other kind of drama. And the children respond immediately… to whatever of that that you use is really alive. And adults will overhear… and I came to this through my own experience of overhearing children’s drama… and it struck me that this was really, often, more interesting theatre than anything I could find in adult theatre. And I think this is a mystery that goes through into poetry, too. That you… A child audience can respond to essential things, and so if you imagine you’re writing for a child audience, you can write about the things that matter to you most and (that) the deepest things you can lay hold of, and the most difficult things you can lay hold of, and if you can put them over so that a child responds to them, you’ll find that inevitably any adult that isn’t, in some way or other, spoiled from appreciating them under any circumstances, will also respond to them. If you try to take the same themes and the same material and you write for an imagined adult audience, you’ll find that you bring in a whole host of limitations and qualifications, out of your own idea of that adult audience and their reactions and so on, and finally you won’t get through to the adult audience, and it’s completely gibberish to a child audience. So, thinking of a child audience is a way of simplifying your own way of expression, and of making your material essential and completely alive.
CW: Don Dunstan, when you’re doing poetry readings, do you choose poetry by special poets to get an alliance to the community – that community that’s going to be sitting out there listening, whether they’re politicians, or they’re workers, or they’re women or kids?
DD: Yes. I think that in choosing poetry I think that I’ve got to choose poetry that is going to communicate effectively. One of my problems about this particular festival is that I’ve been asked to read the poetry of Francis Webb5, who is a very private poet. He had an extraordinary ability in the use of language, an extraordinary ability to use its colour and texture very well, but so much of what he wrote you can only understand if you have some kind of glossary about the circumstances in which he wrote it, because he was a very obscure poet in many ways. He doesn’t easily communicate and so it’s not going to be easy to get over what Francis Webb was talking about, in a simple poetry reading.
CW: Would it, you know… would it not be proper to read, perhaps, Henry Lawson or Banjo Patterson6 in an atmosphere like this?
DD: (Sigh) I don’t think so. Now Henry Lawson was a great writer. I don’t think he was a great poet. I think Banjo Patterson was very much a doggerel poet, too. I think it’s time that Australia cut away from the ocker image in poetry and turned to what poets in Australia have really been about. The greatest poet in Australia, so far, is Judith Wright7. Judith Wright is the best poet that this country’s produced. She’s marvellous, tremendous.
CW: Yes, but do you know what Judith Wright says? She says, “All the children that read me at school think I’m dead, because they assume poets are dead”,… and this is why… she gets very browned-off with the way that the education system teaches poetry.
DD: Well I think this is right. I think that this is one of the problems about poetry as a form of communication. The fact is that kids have been taught poetry under circumstances where poetry is not communicating to them and so they’re a bit browned-off with the idea of reading or hearing poetry. Well I think that poetry readings and the sort of thing that Ted has been talking about now can really change that.
CW (To TH): How do you… how do the kids react to your poetry in schools, the way it’s taught?
TH: I get a lots of letters and so on from children. But I only get letters from the children who like it. But a lot of it seems to be taught in schools. It seems to be used a lot in exams in England, and so on. But during the last ten or fifteen or twenty years in England, there’s been a whole new kind of teacher, or English teacher. In a way, I suppose they’re more… they’re more aware of modern literature than the teachers of the previous generation were. At university for instance, modern literature, for me, ended with Henry James8 … nothing came after Henry James. And that pattern of… a way of looking at literature… is… arises from exactly what you’re talking about. When I was at school in England, all poets were dead… they were old poets… they were a breed that was extinct. And this newer generation of teachers, in fact, if anything, neglect earlier poets. They’ve understood that one of the things that kills literature for children is trying to force onto them writing by poets whose sensibility is completely alien to them, because they belong to another age. I agree with him that Judith Wright is a wonderful poet and it seems to me that… I certainly find more in her than in any other Australian poet. But I know very little about Australian poetry. She’s a poet that’s managed to be exported. Somehow or other, her poetry’s got through to England, at least, and obviously to America. For instance, I think Patrick Wight9is a great poet, he’s a very great poet, of a different kind. And there may be others that we just haven’t lifted the lid off. They can lie around for a long time in a great country like Australia, which isn’t under heavy exam… heavy literary examination from many directions. A poet can be unrecognized … simply misunderstood. Because there are… what have you… eight to nine-million people? How many people live here?
TH: Thirteen million people. That’s not very many to produce… how many people are interested in poetry? How many thousand… who are going to examine the poets that are writing? So it reduces the number again to how many hundred who are going to be able to recognize a great poet if there is one? It maybe boils down to ten or fifteen people. If they see his poetry. And maybe his poetry isn’t even published.
CW (To DD): Do you have any struggles in Adelaide with your opposition or with other politicians… to be able to take stand you do take on culture?
DD: Yes. Over a period I’ve had a lot of criticism about the amount of money we’ve spent in this area. In European terms it’s really been very small. We don’t, for instance, spend the proportion of our budget that a number of German States do in this area. But eventually, I was able to get through the message that it was essential for us to have our cultural facilities as well. And the criticism ceased when the Festival Theatre was first opened. We opened it on a weekend before the official openings so that people could go through it. We stopped counting at twenty-thousand. And from that time on, there was a change round. Previously, the taxi drivers had been saying, “Ah, Don’s spending too much money on the ruddy Arts. You know, all this funny business… all these characters coming here with the Arts”. Today, the taxi drivers will say, when you get to the Adelaide Airport, “’A’ ya seen our Festival Theatre?”. And it’s there. Everybody goes. Everybody loves it. It’s theirs. It’s not an elitist thing. It’s part of the culture of the people. It’s working.
TH: It’s really a matter of cultivating it isn’t it? You speak to Hungarians, or Russians, and they say they publish a book of poems and it’s not a few hundred that they sell, it’s thousands and millions. And it’s not a few teachers and fellow-writers that read it, which is the case here, and the case in England very largely. It’s everybody, every truck-driver has a book of poetry lying around in his cab. And it’s not that the poetry is simpler. It’s complicated, and more complicated and sophisticated than ours. It’s just a different attitude, of everybody, to writers. It’s just a more… it’s a more primitive attitude in a way. That these writers aren’t different people, they’re simply us… who happen to write poetry, and this is the sort of poetry we’d write if we began to write. So they feel that, in a way, these belong to them. Whereas in England, and I imagine in Australia, the moment a man begins to write, most ordinary people feel he’s cut himself off from them. He’s become something unrecognizable and different and strange and, you know, suspicious.
CW: Well, how do you survive in those circumstances?
TH: I live in the middle of a fairly unpopulated County, and the people I know are farmers and builders, and so on. They’re not literary people at all. And they don’t know me as a writer at all. But just this last six months, after living among them for maybe ten years, this last six months, somehow or other, through one or two specific occasions, it’s suddenly gone around that I’m a writer. And I can feel this wall, now, building around me. That they regard me as something strange, and suspicious. In Russia instead, or maybe in Ireland or in Wales, they would immed… my relationship with them would be stronger, because I was a writer. But in England, it’s a wall. So I’m… In a way it’s isolating me completely from them and then I shall have to go somewhere else.
CW: Can I ask you a question… I was told perhaps you would jump on me… I was very interested in Sylvia Plath, your first wife, and I’ve never ever heard you talk about it. I mean, I haven’t read anything about Sylvia Plath from you and I just wondered if you’d tell me about her?
TH: What could I tell you?
CW: Well, the person that she was. You’re telling me that, you know, the reality of people can be changed by the people pressing in on them and I just wondered, you know, the woman… what she was and the poet she was, and how you thought about her.
TH: It’s a very big question.
... And when she died she was not much regarded as a writer.
... So in her relationship to other people, to stick to that, for instance, nobody knew her really as a writer except other writers. So that wasn’t a complication. Now, I imagine it would be very difficult. I don’t know.
CW: Do you think she was unrecognized as a writer?
TH: Well, she was known as a writer, and lots of people were great fans of hers, but everything that was really extraordinary happened in the last six months of her life. And, a lot of that stuff, that she was trying to publish, was not published, it was rejected. It was… people didn’t particularly respond to it. It was only when she died that it suddenly became visible.
CW: Was it in… comparative with your writing, sometimes better than your writing do you think?
TH: She was… I think she was an extraordinary genius. But then I always thought that. And… I don’t think there’s anybody like her… like… Those last poems are something unique in English literature.
CW: Is it very difficult, the relationship of a creative man like you and a genius person like her?
CE: Can you give to each other? I mean…
CW: Did she have any great influence on you?
TH: Must have done.
CW: You’re not aware of it though?
TH: Not specifically. I might even have influenced her.
CW: I was just wondering… You’ve brought your father out here to Australia. And you were saying before that most people, you know, who are poets… sort of start off, from ordinary families… the ordinary background… was that your background or not?
TH: Yes. I was trying to think of some English writer who… English poet who, returning to his family and presenting his poems would have been regarded as a monster. But you imagine that Shakespeare would have been quite well understood, but would have been reprimanded. You would think of just the great ones, obviously. Keats, I imagine, they would have just shaken their heads. Wordsworth? They’d probably have told him to come to his senses. After, you know, from the 18th, 19th century, I think whatever it was that developed in England… you call it a kind of philistinism, but it isn’t that… it’s a resistance to that flexibility of mind and feeling that developed among almost everybody in England, and it’s part of English culture, to regard poets as outcasts, vagabonds, somebody who is getting away with it. And every development of literature seemed to justify this. Maybe less so now, but at any time in the last 300 years. Less so in the last 30 years that at any other time in the last 300.
END OF RECORDING.
1. Don Dunstan ((1926-1999) Premier of South Australia from 1996-1997 and 1970-1979. He was well-known for his role in reinvigorating the social, artistic and cultural life of South Australia during his nine years in office.
2. Ted Hughes (1930-1998). British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death.
3. Julie Copeland remembers that Ted Hughes was jet-lagged and that the interview took place under the trees on a day when the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius. Various sounds of the Festival can be heard in the background.
4. Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998). Polish poet and writer. Ted Hughes was largely responsible for making his work available in English translation.
5. Frances Charles Webb-Wag (1925-1973). A South Australian poet who suffered from schizophrenia. He wrote under the name of Francis Webb.
6. Henry Lawson (1867-1922). Popular Australian poet and writer. Banjo Patterson: Andrew Barton Patterson ( 1864-1941) Australian bush-poet and writer, best known as the author of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
7. Judith Wright (1915-2000). Well-known Australian poet.
8. Henry James (1843-1916) Born in America but was an expatriate in London from 1876 until his death. He became a British citizen in 1915.
9. Patrick Wight (1912-1990) Born in England to Australian parents who returned to Australia when he was six-months old. He was educated mostly in England, lived for a while in the USA, but spent most of his life in Australia. He became internationally known for his novels. His poetry and plays are less widely-known.