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Poetic identity

16 October 2015


HOLDING to a religion that celebrates the centrality of the Word ought to make us take poetry, that most concentrated art of verbal exploration and communication, very seriously; and the BBC kept the octave of National Poetry Day with documentaries about two of the most popular post-war poets in Britain.

As is now normative, such serious programmes included much theological material, if only in the contrary sense of exploring two very different forms of opposition to, and rejection of, the faith and practice of the Established Church.

But, of course, other people’s opposition, especially when it is properly informed and allied to profound imagination, is of the greatest value in helping us to define more precisely what we do believe, and why we believe it.

Ted Hughes: Stronger than death (BBC2) was a Saturday-evening, prime-time, feature-length (all these factors stiffening our resolve to fight all government attempts to dumb down the BBC) biography of the most sensational poetic life of the century.

The successive suicides of his wife, Sylvia Plath, and then Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he had left her; the later serial infidelities; his uniquely commanding physical presence and film-star looks; his rejection of any softening of his burning self-definition as a poet and nothing else — all these are as potent a mixture as you might wish for.

The programme did not shy away from all these sensations, but set them securely in the context of his work, and offered, especially in the contributions from his and Sylvia’s daughter, Frieda, far richer and more nuanced readings than the feminist lynch-mob that followed him around denouncing him as a murderer. Religion is central to his world — but it is violent, nature-based animism, his shamanistic alter-ego Crow presenting a pre-Christian fatalism of mysterious, bloody power.

Deep pessimism might seem to be the only link between Hughes and the subject of Return to Larkinland (BBC4, Sunday). For all his complex love-life, Philip Larkin was not exactly endowed with matinée-idol looks: he was a notably successful university librarian, his love of jazz and the pub never undermining his sense of horror at our inexorable progress towards death and oblivion.

This was a deeply personal account by A. N. Wilson, a kind of "Philip Larkin and me" exploration of how his friendship never blinded him to the poet’s failings, and, in particular, the selfishness, racism, and misogyny revealed by Larkin's letters. Larkin was drawn to churches, finding in them something of great significance, despite his absolute rejection of the faith that built and sustained them.

Wilson’s documentaries seem to me to get better and better, finding a unique voice as he speaks from direct personal contact and response to the subject, without ever taking over the show.

His contributions help us to see the object from a perspective that helps us to imagine what ours would have been, had we had that privilege. He dares at times to find his important topics amusing, or even absurd, the perfect antidote to overweening solemnity, in poetry no less than religion.

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