When Ted Hughes died in 1998, he was as valued and admired as at any time in his career, and his two final collections, Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters, had met with resounding acclaim. During the 1970s and 80s, however, to speak up on his behalf, whether as a reader or writer, was to take a position. To support Hughes’s poetry was to support the man himself, a man whose ideologies could have been described as unfashionable, and whose poetic style was seen by some as stubborn and entrenched. Hughes had become increasingly private and his poetry seemed to be in hiding with him. The criticisms over his role in the death of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, had reached fever pitch, especially in the US, and even those with little or no knowledge of his poetry were quick to offer an opinion of it.
Possibly the tide will turn again, but Hughes’s poetry has reached a new high-water mark in recent years. Birthday Letters is now one of the biggest-selling poetry titles of all time, with sales climbing towards the half-million mark. But it is the quality of the writing that brought Birthday Letters such recognition, a quality of extraordinariness that for many of Hughes’s supporters has been present throughout.
It is worth noting that aside from the steady, sometimes obligatory admiration of his contemporaries, interest in Hughes’s work has been renewed and revitalised by a younger generation of writers, many of whom have talked about the importance and influence of his poetry. The swag-bag of prizes and plaudits that Hughes carried off for those last two publications – pretty much a clean sweep of the board in the case of Birthday Letters – owed much to a new wave of poets, keen to make public an affiliation they had felt for years. It was a case of poets having their say, poetry putting its own house in order. Once that had happened, the ingrained polarity of the media seemed to reverse overnight, and suddenly it was acceptable for ordinary people to be seen in public places reading a book of poetry – and one written by Ted Hughes at that.