Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: An Archive of Writing
Carrie Smith, 21 February 2017, CEIR Seminar Series
In the second paper of the 2017 Centre of Editorial and Intertextual Research Seminar Series, Dr Carrie Smith, a lecturer here at Cardiff University, used the manuscript drafts of Ted Hughes’ final full-length collection, Birthday Letters (1998), to suggest that the collection itself becomes a poetic archive. Drawing on her soon-to-be-completed monograph, Smith argued that from its opening poem, Birthday Letters presents us with accounts of documents that cement the collection in the texture of real life.
Smith began her paper by discussing how archives are organised. Focusing specifically on the British Library and Emory University Library (the latter holds the private library of Ted Hughes), Smith argued that these spaces are usually perceived to be ‘neutral’ in their layout. However, as Smith pointed out, the archive offers a ‘promiscuity of meanings’ because it exists on the border between excision and excess, the limited and the unlimited.  While archives attempt to reserve the past, Smith in her discussion of Birthday Letters revealed that they are inherently unstable. Human decision is involved in how a collection is organised, leading to questions of whether it should be user-friendly (as in the British Library), or if it should respect the original order of the material (as in Emory University Library)? And does either way influence our understanding of the documents? Given these variations, Smith suggested that the archive must be read as a document in itself. (more…)
Lise Jaillant (Loughborough University) will be presenting her paper, ‘“Modernist” Publishers, Publishers of “Modernism”’, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 4 April 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.
Abstract Commercial publishers are nearly invisible in New Modernist Studies. There is no history of Random House, no history of Harcourt Brace and no history of Faber & Faber. One reason for this invisibility is that commercial firms published a wide range of texts—what we now see as ‘Modernism’ was issued alongside ‘popular’ texts. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Phoenix Library published Wyndham Lewis’s first novel Tarr but also popular novels and even a cookery book. Since difficult ‘Modernist’ texts continue to dominate our understanding of early twentieth-century literature, we tend to neglect these publishing enterprises or to study only the tiny portion of their activities that relates to ‘Modernism’.
This talk will address two points: 1) why so few modernist scholars have studied commercial publishers (unlike Victorianists, who have long been interested in book publishers and their impact on the literary text); 2) what we can do to expand the sub-field of Modernist Print Culture, building on existing work in periodical studies and strengthening our relationship with scholars of book history. In this context, ‘Modernist’ would be synonymous with ‘Early Twentieth Century’ to include all kinds of texts published at that time. The conclusion will present Lise’s digital map of publishers in New York in the 1920s, part of a chapter forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. (more…)
In the eighth of an ongoing series of posts, Harriet Gordon, a second-year doctoral candidate based in Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, discusses the early steps of her project: a book historical study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s global literary networks. Harriet’s project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP).
In previous posts I have discussed Stevenson’s early years of professional authorship, demonstrating his initial reliance on Sidney Colvin before his growing knowledge, confidence and connections in the literary industry enabled him to secure many of his own publishing deals. Once in America, with the vastness of the Atlantic separating him from the literary world of London, he once again became reliant on a few core members of his network. (more…)
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.
Abstract 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. (more…)