Emory Report
September 6, 2005
Volume 58, Number 2


Emory Report homepage  

September 6 , 2005
Exhibit previews Hughes conference

BY michael terrazas

On display now in the Woodruff Library’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) is an exhibition drawn from the papers of late British poet laureate Ted Hughes, in anticipation of a major international conference on Hughes to be held at Emory, Oct. 5–7.

Only the fifth such conference ever held, the event will draw scholars from all over the world, both as presenters and as participants, according to MARBL Director Steve Enniss, who helped plan the conference along with Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, and Professor Joanny Moulin of the Université de Provence in Aix-Marseille, France.

Both the exhibit and the conference are titled “Fixed Stars Govern a Life,” and they are meant to capture the breadth of Hughes’ career and talents; though understandably best known for his poetry, he also wrote plays, children’s literature (including the classic The Iron Giant), literary criticism and translations of works in other languages.

“The title is purposefully ambiguous,” Enniss said. “It could refer to the fulfillment of his literary ambitions, or to the fatalism of Hughes’ own tragic vision. In another way it is also about the major themes and preoccupations of his work that are only now taking definite shape in our collective understanding of his achievement.”

Enniss went on to explain that the line “Fixed stars govern a life” concludes the final poem of Ariel, written by Hughes’ first wife, American writer Sylvia Plath; the line reappears in Hughes’s poem “A Dream” in Birthday Letters, Hughes’ 1998 book of poems devoted to Plath and, in effect, his first public commentary on their marriage since Plath’s suicide in 1963.

In this country, Enniss said, Hughes’ seven-year relationship with Plath has colored the perception of his life and career. Hughes even avoided traveling to the United States after a public appearance of his was disrupted by Plath devotees who blamed him for his late wife’s death. But internationally, Enniss continued, scholars and critics tend to look at the entirety of his life and not just his relationship with Plath.

“It’s an unfortunate aspect of his American readership; he just stayed away and didn’t cultivate his career here,” Schuchard said. “Hughes is a major 20th century poet; he’ll never be separated from the Sylvia Plath connection, but more and more people are studying him, in his own right, here in America. This conference will foster that.”

The conference, along with the exhibit, will give the Hughes-Plath relationship its due attention, but it also will feature sessions exploring the connections between Hughes and other poets, on Hughes and war, and on his lifelong friendships, among others.

“What were the fixed stars for Hughes himself?” asked Melissa Maday, a graduate student in English who curated the exhibit and serves as conference coordinator. “He had a lot of things happen to him, but he continued to write poetry. What were the things he kept coming back to? The exhibit explores things such as his family life in Yorkshire, his friends from his days at Cambridge, his connection to nature and farming.”

Enniss stressed that the conference is open to the entire Emory community. Theater Emory, in conjunction with the Out of Hand Theater Co., will produce Hughes’ translation of Euripides’ Alcestis on Oct. 6 as part of the conference.

“Fixed Stars Govern a Life” will be on display in MARBL (formerly known as Special Collections), on the 10th floor of Woodruff Library, through Nov. 30. For more information or to register for the conference, visit http://specialcollections.library.emory.edu/hughesconference.html.