Ted Hughes: From Cambridge to "Collected": An International Conference on Ted Hughes, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 15–18 Sept. 2010

A Short Summary

Note: If you would like to have your thoughts on the conference and/or photos published here, please contact me!

Looking back, the four days produced many highlights and exciting moments. Having just returned, several things still stand out. I found the large number of younger scholars and papers particularly noteworthy and refreshing. So was the attendance of representatives from major Hughes archives who are currently working on concepts that will make research across archives and continents much easier. Also noteworthy was the fact that several younger delegates attending had gone to great lengths and expenses of their own to attend the conference without funding.

Carol Hughes and Hughes’s Cambridge contemporaries Dan Huws, Daniel Weissbort and Richard Hollis also attended the conference (Weissbort had, along with Lucas Myers, already participated in the conference at Emory University in 2005.) One of the most memorable events was the conversation that took place between Daniel Huws and Richard Hollis followed by Daniel Huws’s singing of several of their old songs.

Thinking back, many participants will also immediately remember Simon Bate’s very well-received keynote on his work on a biography of Ted Hughes including the difficulties encountered in the process; the two exhibitions presenting limited editions, rare photos and manuscripts or the poetry reading with Simon Armitage, and the reading of works, poetry and songs by participants on Thursday, including Daniel Weissbort and Daniel Huws.

I also remember being grateful to the organizers for space in the programme which could be used for a walking tour of Ted Hughes-related sites, for punting on the Cam, walks through the city or simply for rest. This was greatly appreciated in view of the sheer number of papers presented.

However, on the down side of things, I was surprised by the scope in which previous findings were restated in papers, and by the unfamiliarity with previous research (most of it readily available).

This brings me to another moment from the conference that still lingers with me: Referring to Hughes’s occasional scathing criticism of literary critics, Daniel Huws said that Ted would probably have called this gathering at Cambridge an “exploitative orgy” or worse. The remark caused much laughter, but perhaps it deserves further and closer consideration.

Most of us will readily embrace and expound on many ideas which Hughes promoted and agree with his notion of pollution prevention, environmental protection and his criticism of humankind’s careless dealing with nature. I would suggest that literary criticism can likewise be careless, polluting and destructive. It can produce something pointless and expendable – throw-away material of no relevance to our contemporaries let alone to future generations. At worst, it can harm or even temporarily destroy the work.

One could easily dismiss Hughes’s stance toward critics as romantic or overly protective – not least because in many respects he was indeed romantic and/or very protective. Yet, I think there is more to it.

To me, Hughes’s notion of critics seems to call for a “responsible” literary criticism. By “responsible” I mean a criticism that does not leave the work empty or deflated but one that enhances it. A criticism that does not work towards its own perpetual justification but which instead receives justification from its importance in relation to the work, and from the enhancement of our understanding of that work. This would be a criticism that is aware of its own social context and of its danger of becoming redundant inside it, one that does not chiefly serve the critic's ego-inflation (which was referred to several times during the conference) or the promotion of their own “cleverness”. In short, it would be a criticism that always aims to give something back rather than chiefly take or use the work for its own end.

The conference concluded with a brief discussion of the possibility and/or necessity of a Ted Hughes society. In addition, it was suggested to break the five year cycle of Hughes conferences and hold the next conference at Exeter University in the nearer future.

Last but not least a great many thanks are due to the many people who visibly and invisibly worked on and behind the scenes to make this conference possible, including the many friendly staff of Pembroke College!

View towards the Old Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010; Ted Hughes once lived just above the old library, looking out to the other side (Trumpington Street and Pembroke Street)
ArrayView towards the Old Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010; Ted Hughes once lived just above the old library, looking out to the other side (Trumpington Street and Pembroke Street)
Detail door to Old Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
ArrayDetail door to Old Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
View of Church, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
ArrayView of Church, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
View towards the Old Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
ArrayView towards the Old Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
Gardens, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
ArrayGardens, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
New Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge 2010; The new library has several painted windows commemorating Ted Hughes poems
ArrayNew Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge 2010; The new library has several painted windows commemorating Ted Hughes poems
Wing with Nihon Room, where the conference was held, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010
ArrayWing with Nihon Room, where the conference was held, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 2010