Carrie Smith (Cardiff University) will be presenting her paper, ‘Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: An Archive of Writing’, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 21 February 2017. The talk will take place in the Cardiff University’s John Percival Building, Room 2.48, and will be followed by a wine reception.
This paper will consider the manuscript drafts of British poet Ted Hughes’s final full-length collection Birthday Letters (1998). It will suggest that the proliferation of reported documents, photographs, journal entries and letters in the published collection is a result of Hughes’s re-encounter with these items when sorting through his late wife Sylvia Plath’s, and later his own, papers for sale. As a result Birthday Letters itself becomes a poetic archive curated by Hughes. From the opening poem, we are presented with accounts of documents that root the collection in the texture of real life. The collection works to preserve what will be lost when the papers are archived after his death; the memory-context of these photographs, drafts and objects. Hughes also provides incorrect biographical details throughout the collection. The substitution of an easily-checkable detail suggests that Hughes is creating a poetic archive of items that cannot be trusted; implying that poetry must always be questioned when mined for biography. The process of shaping his archive and literary legacy informs the collection’s focus on the fallibility of memory and the potential for documents and objects to deceive. The archive of papers tries to preserve the past, even as the arranging and destroying of the papers alters it; similarly in Birthday Letters, Hughes represents the past in poetry by using concrete items. He performs a synthesising of these items, akin to a researcher, by finding patterns in the papers. As this paper will show, the drafts of Birthday Letters form an archive of writing, placing the indeterminacy of the many variants of the manuscript page alongside the doubt over how to record a shared life in poetry.
About the speaker
Dr Carrie Smith is a lecturer at Cardiff University. Her research concentrates on literary manuscripts of various 20th century writers. Her published work on Ted Hughes focuses on questions of authenticity and voice in his poetry readings and recordings using original interviews and research undertaken in the BBC Written archive. She has also published on Hughes’s creative partnership with American artist Leonard Baskin. Her most recent publication explores Roald Dahl’s inscription and erasure of his childhood in Wales through his manuscript drafts. She is currently preparing a monograph on Ted Hughes’s poetic process that makes extensive use of the writer’s literary archives. She has also co-edited a collection titled The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation (Ashgate, 2013), which draws together archivists and literary scholars to think through the multifaceted nature of archival study.