Sophie Harrison, Online Books Editor, attended the flagship event of this year’s Bath Literary Festival…
20 years since Ted Hughes spoke at the festival’s inaugural year, poetry lovers united in the same venue, The Forum, to celebrate the work of one of Britain’s most celebrated writers. Among the speakers at the event were author Bel Mooney, actor David Robb, poet-of-the-moment Kate Tempest and Hughes’ daughter Freida.
Having been devastated to miss Kate at Exeter Poetry Festival last year, seeing her on the guest list was enough to win me over.
Kate’s performance was possibly the stand-out of the event. Unassuming in demeanour, once the performance starts it is enough to stop even the most cynical in their tracks. It is a testament to her that, after the event, a multi-generational audience could not stop talking about her performance. Infusing the worlds of poetry, music and rap, she has been billed as the 21st Century Hughes; a voice that has the power to bring poetry into our culture, and people take notice. My mum was as much taken by her as I was, if not more.
Tempest performed her most recognisable poem “Icarus”, from her collection Brand New Ancients, which infuses classical imagery into modern day society. Tempest’s captivating voice, which won her the 2013 Ted Hughes prize, is a rousing call to arms. Calling for “more empathy, less greed”, it was her final poem in her reading, Ballad of a Hero, which made you want to go out yourself and take action.
We need more people like Tempest in society; I think it would do parliament the world of good, to attend one of her performances. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of the Arts in our culture; the strength of language to incite a will for change.
“when the view is so bleak it starts affecting the seer… that’s when you know the devils are here”
Nonetheless, it was the concluding speaker, Freida Hughes, who made the event for me. The daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, her literary heritage is enough to scare even the boldest of writers away from following suit. Nonetheless, when she read out her poems, written as “little life rafts” to help her grieve her father, I was mesmerised.
Her writing captures the intensity of her mother, with the linguistic tightness and turns of her father, but after hearing her read, I was left in no doubt that she can stand on her own feet as a writer, Poems such as ‘Things My Father Taught Me’ and ‘Poet with Thesaurus, delicately balanced poignancy with humour.
One thing that was clear to emerge was Freida’s love for her father. There has been much academic and cultural debate over the relationship between Plath and Hughes, with many vindicating the “monstrous” Hughes for his role in both Plath’s death, and the subsequent editing of her poetry. For me, Freida’s clear devotion to her father, and respect for her mother, carried far more truth than all public speculation in the world. I felt very privileged to be able to hear her speak.
My only criticism of the event would be that did chop and change a bit. The speakers’ topics and tones varied so greatly, there were definitely moments (Kate and Freida) which noticeably outshone others.
David Robb – more popularly known by his Downton alter-ego Dr. Clarkson – was engaging in his readings of Hughes’ poems. His scottish accent also had a lilting quality that was welcomingly reminiscent of Hughes’ own Yorkshire dialect.
“And the hills float
Light as bubble glass
On the smoke-blue evening”
Ted Hughes – “April Birthday”
Tom Paulin’s readings of letters by the poet, exploring his travels to Alaska and fishing trips, were fittingly nostalgic; however, I felt he could have refined it to specific excerpts, rather than whole letters, to make this section more stimulating. Kate Tempest is a tough act for even the most enthused of speakers to follow, so it was notably anti-climatic in contrast.
Nonetheless, the event was a worthy celebration for one of my favourite poets, and a reminder of how poetry can still be so relevant today. If Hughes was a voice for the 20th century, The Forum might have been in the presence of our one for today…
By Sophie Harrison
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