Sparkle, Assassin ( Hughes Estate )


The poet Peter Porter, setting out to write an essay on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, wanted to deal mainly with their poetry but ‘the likely difficulty of obtaining permission to quote’ forced him to write a more autobiographical piece.
‘That is how it has been,’ he continued, ‘for a good number of years, going back to Hughes’ control of the Plath estate, often mediated through the supervision of Olwen Hughes, Hughes’ sister, a literary agent. There are well-known accounts of books and articles being radically altered or stopped altogether under threat of permission being refused or by it not being given at all.’
Professor Patrick Parrinder, contributing to a sequence of letters, said:
‘SURELY IT IS ABOUT TIME SOMEBODY CALLED THE LITERARY ESTATES’ BLUFF. Provided that what is quoted is less than a ‘substantial part’ of each individual poem, Ted Hughes’s estate has no right to refuse permission to quote from Birthday Letters in a critical or scholarly article. When approached for copyright permission on these occasions, literary estates almost invariably demand fees or, very occasionally, refuse outright – regardless of whether the permission is theirs to grant. The mistake is to seek clearance for material that is already covered under the ‘fair dealing’ provisions.
Instead of pleading with Hughes’s heirs on the grounds that their article is ‘notably friendly’ to Hughes, is it too much to ask the editor and publishers of the journal Textual Practice to stand up for intellectual freedom in the face of what are almost certainly groundless legal threats? If they did so, they would have all academic authors in their debt’ Patrick Parrinder. University of Reading (Times Higher Education Feb 19 99)
Alan Jackson writes: ‘Long before Parrinder’s letter I had come to the same conclusion. I have not asked for permission to quote because I wouldn’t have got it. We will see what happens.
‘The copyright laws were introduced because before them anyone could reprint a whole work: no money went to the author, and nothing could be done about it. It’s not right that a legitimate protection should be turned into a means of preventing or controlling discussion. It is an interference with the necessary public life of a civilisation.
‘Also, I think it should be noted that, if a book goes beyond the limits of ‘fair use’, the mechanism for finding out how much may be charged is not that the publisher says: ‘We wish to use so many lines of verse and this amount of prose’. No: the whole manuscript must be submitted (see Faber and Faber website). That is how the control, the threatening and the refusal can be implemented. It seems to me late in the day of our evolution in the West for manuscripts to be submitted, to live or die by someone else’s decision.
‘In the commercial world the legal doctrine of ‘restraint of trade’ has existed for a long time, whereby certain practices have been struck down because they interfere with ‘free trade in a free country’. The free circulation of ideas is no less important.
‘The work particularly of the kind of poets who bring in material from the depths (or from the heights) may take years, generations, to absorb and unfold. There has to be discussion and interpretation; the symbol and myth elements are delved into and expanded into ideas and concepts; fresh understanding can then filter into the culture at large. After two hundred years there is a great deal yet to be unwoven from the works of Goethe and Novalis, for example. Ted Hughes, whatever we finally think of his work, is such an author. Discussion and interpretation of his work has to be in the public domain.’ AJ.
Times Higher Education Supplement 12 February 1999,
‘Never friendly to critics, Ted Hughes’s estate has stopped an academic from quoting his work. Sian Griffiths surveys a battle for scholarly freedom
‘Former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes has been dead just three months yet already a swell of academic argument is gathering about the rights to his work and the notorious restrictions on quoting from his poetry or that of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.
Anne Whitehead, research fellow in English at Newcastle University, is the latest in a line of academics to fall foul of the Hughes estate, which controls the reproduction rights to Hughes’s and Plath’s poetry. For the next issue of the academic journal Textual Practice Dr Whitehead has had to rewrite her article, ‘Refiguring Orpheus: The Possession of the Past in Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters’.
Academics hoping that Hughes’s death might herald an easing of the prickly relationship between scholars and the Hughes estate are dismayed at this latest refusal. Alan Sinfield, professor of English at Sussex and editor of Textual Practice, argues that the estate’s policing of reproduction of the poetry ‘inhibits intellectual exchange’.
Faber’s response was to curtly confirm refusal. ‘We have a set of guidelines to follow when granting permission from Birthday Letters, and permission can be granted only for certain contexts,’ Sinfield was told…..
Gorst added that ‘guidelines’ was probably too strong a word to describe the procedures governing whether poems can be quoted but ‘things about the suicide of Plath would not be allowed’ and, in the case of Hughes’s work, there are ‘things that Carol does not like’. Restrictions are unlikely to be eased – ‘things will probably get tougher’.
Until 1991 Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister, controlled the rights to Plath’s work, and biographers such as Anne Stevenson and Linda Wagner-Martin came under pressure to modify their interpretations of the American poet’s life.
Even literary critics who did not dabble in biography but merely suggested original readings of the poems – as does Whitehead – locked horns with the family. Jacqueline Rose’s book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath – which Olwyn called ‘evil’ – was jeopardised because the legal risks of quoting from Plath’s poems were so high.
Ted Hughes objected to Rose’s inference of bisexuality in Plath’s poem ‘The Rabbit Catcher’. In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in 1992 Hughes described the ‘re-invention’ of Plath’s sexual identity as ‘humiliating’ and damaging to her children. In a letter to Rose, now professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, he argued that in some countries such speculation on a mother’s sexual identity would be ‘grounds for homicide’.
In the face of such arguments, Sinfield defends scholars’ right to freedom of interpretation…. ‘ I don’t think, for instance, that Hughes’s private papers should be stolen and circulated. However, no one is obliged to publish poetry. Once material is in the public domain it is going to get discussed.’
Times Higher Education ‘This is not how poetry lives’
Letter from Prof. Alan Sinfield 15 February 1999
‘……..It is the error of “our rationalist, humanist style of outlook”, he (Hughes) said, to try to refuse “the elemental power circuit of the universe”; we need “rituals, the machinery of religion”. The poet taps these ultimate energies for us. This approach discourages critical thought, allowing the inference that poems should just sit, shimmering like new-minted tablets of stone in front of the reader, who is too daunted to question them. That is what some people think culture is about. But it is not how poetry lives.
….What is not fair is that scholars should spend perhaps years working and then find that their work is unpublishable because they cannot quote Plath or Hughes.
Alan Sinfield ***************
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: A Bystander’s Recollections, Peter Porter
‘The manipulation of Plath’s creative work at the hands of the Hughes estate (not just Ted but also his sister Olwen who acted for years as literary agent and Cerberus of Plath manuscripts) is complex and hard to unravel. The most thorough examination of what happened is in a chapter on Plath’s posthumous publication details in Jaqueline Rose’s study The Haunting of Sylvis Plath (Virago 1991). The policing of comment in Plath’s life and work by the Hughes estate has been extremely severe. When Anne Stevenson wrote her biography of Sylvia, she had to clear every reference with Olwen Hughes on penalty of not being able to quote any of the poetry.’ Australian Essays 2001, Peter Craven (Ed).

The Independent, Sat 6, Jan, article by Suzi Feay

Literary estates are frequently contentious, as family members, sometimes not all that close to the deceased, attempt to control or even stifle biographers, critics and academics. Those who handle estates, and therefore permissions, are feared, needed and despised by biographers unless everything is handled with the greatest impartiality and transparency. The Plath estate was to generate huge revenues for the family. The Bell Jar alone has sold 400,000 copies worldwide over the past decade, and even today, Plath’s publishers get five requests a week for permission to quote from her writing.

In a preface, Wagner-Martin (Sylvia Plath: A Biography ) related how Olwyn Hughes, acting for Ted, demanded cuts of 15,000 words in exchange for permission to quote from Plath’s poems. Wagner-Martin ditched the quotations rather than have her book gutted.

…..In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), literary critic Jacqueline Rose also recounted textual horror stories. Ted Hughes informed Rose that her speculation about the sexual subtexts of some of the poems would not only upset the children…but in some cultures, be “grounds for homicide”, a shock tactic that, he later claimed, was not intended to threaten but to awaken…..

Alan Jackson

Poetry , Prose and Sparkle, Assassin