Emory Report
October 17, 2005
Volume 58, Number 7


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October 17 , 2005
Ted Hughes archive in spotlight at conference

BY Michael Terrazas

Scholars from eight countries around the globe converged on campus, Oct. 5–7, as Emory hosted the fifth international conference on poet Ted Hughes, titled “Fixed Stars Govern a Life.”

Though the two-plus days of lectures, panel discussions and other events featured some 30 presenters, the conference’s real star was the Hughes archive, stored in the Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books Library (MARBL) on the Woodruff Library’s 10th floor. In between conference sessions, all of which were held in the library’s Jones Room, researchers scurried up the elevators to get a look at primary source material from Hughes himself, transferred to Emory before he died in 1998.

Melissa Maday, conference coordinator and a graduate student in English, said about 70 people registered for the conference, more than two-thirds of them from off campus. About half of those people had been to Emory before, she said, but for the rest, the Hughes archive was a new experience.

“We’ve updated it recently, adding letters from Ted to Frieda Hughes, his daughter with Sylvia Plath,” Maday said. “Some of the attendees wouldn’t take a lunch because they wanted to squeeze in every possible minute with the archives.

“It was gratifying to hear how many times the archives were mentioned by the presenters; it’s clear it is already reshaping the scholarship on Hughes,” said MARBL Director Steve Enniss, who organized the conference along with Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, and Professor Joanny Moulin from the Université de Provence in Aix-Marseille, France.

“It’s often surprising to me to see what people make of the archive,” Enniss continued. “For example, personally, I’ve never viewed Hughes’ laureate poems—those written in his capacity as British poet laureate—as being among his strongest works, but one of the strongest papers delivered at the conference was about those poems.”

Enniss said he was similarly surprised by a paper on Hughes’ criticism of Shakespeare, researched with drafts contained in the Hughes archive. Some of the attendees arrived on campus days early to spend more time with the archive, and others stayed afterward—as long as a week, Enniss said.

But when they arrived, greeting the attendees was keynote speaker Craig Raine, poet, founder and editor of the literary magazine Arete. Raine, a personal friend of Hughes and his one-time editor at publisher Faber & Faber, entertained a capacity crowd in the Jones Room on Wednesday, Oct. 5, by sharing a few bawdy tales about Britain’s late poet laureate, including the time Raine accompanied Hughes to Buckingham Palace to accept the Queen’s Medal. Accounts differed on the exact occurrences of the day, Raine said, but at least one involved Hughes and the Queen of England—after a sherry or two for both—searching on their hands and knees for the medal, which the queen had dropped under a grand piano.

But Raine, whose lecture was titled “Double Exposure,” also turned serious to offer his critic’s eye on Hughes as a poet, as a man and as a friend. “He was incapable of writing a dull letter,” said Raine, who said he looked forward one day to seeing Hughes’ collected letters in print. “[Reading that] will be like immersing yourself in a fully operational ecosystem.”

Raine’s lecture title was a take on Hughes’ ability to meld oppositional emotions or concepts, like humor and death. “The double exposure of the comic and seriously horrible is real,” Raine said. “Ted was always interested in the shared order between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the physical and the metaphysical.”