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Although Feinstein avers from time to time that Hughes was indeed a great poet, much admired for his verse and his contribution to the literary world of the past century generally, one comes away from the book with a lingering whiff of the tabloid, though dressed in the popular literary biographer's lingo, neither archly highbrow nor unbecomingly sensationalistic, but exhibiting withal an acceptable middlebrow melange of gossip and a good graduate-student 'crit' of the work that is, neither salivatingly salacious nor impenetrably academic. All told, if one is not particularly well-read in Hughes, The Life of a Poet is a benign enough introduction to Hughes the man, and a juicily interesting take on the internecine British literary social scene.

For the 'real news,' I'd recommend The Paris Review's interview with Hughes in their Art of Poetry series, Keith Sagar's The Art of Ted Hughes, editor Sandie Byrnes' term-paper cribfest The Poetry of Ted Hughes ("a reader's guide to essential criticism") or, best of all, Winter Pollen, Hughes' collection of essays on a range of subjects. One might, of course, begin at the beginning, with his plays, fiction, children's books, critical prose, and poetry.  Read him (and Feinstein) by all means, and then put the books back on the shelf. I offer the following few notes not just on reading, but on collecting Ted Hughes as, I think, a kind of cautionary tale.

* * *

The second edition of Keith Sagar and Stephen Tabor's Ted Hughes: A Bibliography (1946-1995) is close to 500 pages long. The first section of the book alone, entitled "Books, Pamphlets and Broadsides," is 180 pages long. This section is what bibliographers call the A-list: it is the book collector's must-have list of the author's original works. In Hughes' A-list, there are 113 major items; many of these have variant editions in paperback or have otherwise been reissued in different formats. And that 180-page collation is already seven years out of date. Even at this writing, it would be challenging to track down all the variations and different printings of the A-list items.
Contributions to books and periodicals (the B-list) take up 152 pages. Then come the translations, interviews, recordings, broadcasts, scripts and "miscellaneous": 40 pages of that material. Towards the end of the bibliography, 24 pages list the books and articles about him. In 1997 or thereabouts, the bulk of Hughes' manuscripts went to Emory University in Atlanta, some two-and-a-half tonnes of material, according to a newspaper article I read at the time of Hughes' death (28 October, 1998). That article mentioned that Emory University is funded, in part, by Coca-Cola. And I, Michael Harris de la Mancha, have begun to collect Ted Hughes.

In the years to come, doubtless there will be a Collected Works, a Collected Letters and a definitive biography of some sort. I would like to live long enough to get a copy of each, go to "my" table at the Taverna Tropicana in Molivos, Lesvos, Greece, and read them until I am done with Ted Hughes. At that point, I will have become what I started out as: a reader. Somewhere along the line, miserabile dictu, I became a collector.

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"Treasure Hunt" by Mary Soderstrom, Quill & Quire, November 2005

“It was really clever of me to think it was time to get rid of my books, because now I’ve got about four times as many,” says Montreal poet, editor, and, of late, online used bookseller Michael Harris ruefully.  His house in Westmount is filled with nearly 10,000 volumes, with an emphasis on literary titles, particularly hard-to-get editions of Canadian writers, which he and his partner Carolyn O’Neill are selling through a website they started.

Seven years ago, when Harris decided to take early retirement from his post teaching English at Montreal’s Dawson College, his intention had been to unload some of his books, not to get more. “I’d been teaching for 30 years; I had acquired several thousand books, including many first editions and a fine collection of Canadian poetry,” he says.  “But I knew I couldn’t take them with me - after all, I’d picked up many of them at estate sales.”  So he began thinking of ways to sell them.

At the same time, three of his four children were starting out on their own, and he had begun to visit garage sales around Montreal, looking for sets of dishes and cutlery and the like their apartments.  “There’d often be a pile of books in the corner, which I’d go through.  Sometimes there’d be real treasures.” He couldn’t resist buying them.  “After all, if I didn’t they’d be literally left there on the sidewalk, waiting to be recycled.”

MontrealBooks.com seemed a way to reconcile the need to clear out with the impulse to acquire, he says.  The website has been up for more than two years, and orders come in from all around the world.  Harris’s stock now includes some 5000 fiction offerings and around 2500 poetry books, plus literature in several languages as well as some history titles and other non-fiction work.  Books are sold nearly exclusively online through MontrealBooks.com or Abebooks.com - “Visitors welcome by appointment only,” reads the site.

Harris has authored six books of poetry himself.  He is a two-time winner in the CBC Literary Awards competition for poetry, and founding editor of Signal Editions, which he launched in 1981 as an imprint of Vehicule Press.  Currently, he runs the Signal Editions International Broadside Series, which was launched in 2002 to publish limited editions of selected poets including Matthew Sweeney, Louise Gluck, and Sharon Olds.

But the virtual store is his passion now.  “It’s like a real job, much harder than teaching,” he says.  He hits 20 to 30 garage and estate sales every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, ferreting out interesting material.  “I make house calls, too” he says, adding that learning the commercial value of what he sees has taken some time.  Asa Boxer, who won the CBC Literary Award for poetry in 2004, works for Harris part-time as a cataloguer, but Harris decides what to buy and what to spotlight.

In September, the website’s featured books included a first edition of The Rising Fire by poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, published in 1963 and inscribed by MacEwen to a fellow poet.  It was listed at $350 and categorized as “scarce.”  Yann Martel’s The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios was also listed at $250; a “True first, as no hardcover was issued,” the listing goes.

The collection includes some much pricier items.  Irving Layton’s Here and Now, published in Montreal in 1945 (Statement Press, first edition, signed by author), is for sale at $2600.00, and The Cat and the Cuckoo by Ted Hughes, in 28 loose broadside prints illustrated by R.J.Lloyd, is available for the same price.  At the other end of the scale, a paperback copy of A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman (“Owner’s name, otherwise a nice clean solid copy”)  is only $1.

Montreal’s pioneer Canadian bookstore, The Double Hook, closed last summer, but Harris doesn’t see MontrealBooks.com as filling that gap, since it doesn’t sell new books.  “While we have a good collection of Canadian books, we aren’t really specializing in them.”  Nevertheless he points to a piece of Canadiana he acquired a few weekends ago as one of the most interesting and poignant items he’s found - a copy of G.W.L. Nicholson’s two-volume The Fighting Newfoundlanders: A History of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment signed by Joseph R. Smallwood.

“The book gives the name of practically every person who fell in battle since the founding of Newfoundland,” Harris says.  To read the section about the Somme and Vimy is “tremendously moving,” and to know it was Joey Smallwood’s copy makes it special.  But he won’t keep it.  It’ll be up on the website soon, selling for $750.

“I get the pleasure of acquiring the books,” Harris says, “but then I sort of move into a space beyond that.” The exercise of clearing things away has affected his own writing, too.  He’s begun entering short fiction - which he’d written but now published in the past - in competitions under a pseudonym that is an anagram of his name; he made the shortlist for an annual CBC/Quebec Writers’ Federation short story competition twice, he notes.  But with poetry, it’s different now.  “I still work on my poetry, I’m as serious about it as I ever was, but I no longer feel any compulsion to publish it.” He sighs.  “It’s sort of a Zenlike thing.” Then he’s back to work, getting other people’s books ready to sell.


"Fine Printing: Broadsides and Chapbooks: Signal Editions Broadsides" by Ross Leckie, Fiddlehead, No 221, Autumn 2004. 


"The Lost Letter of Leacock" by Michael Harris, Maisonneuve Magazine, January 16, 2004. 

Ted with Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and Louis McNeice
How Montreal Books got started....
"Field Notes on Four Years of Collecting the Works of Ted Hughes" by Michael Harris
first appeared in Books in Canada, Vol. 31, No. 9, Dec. 2002

Biographies, even the best of them (cf. Richard Holmes' recent two-volume Coleridge), tend to scratch a strange itch on the part of the literarily-bent, metronoming between offerings of intellectual revelation and rank prurience. But what distinguishes any writer, after all, is the long-term usefulness of the work itself. What a relief we know so little about the life of Shakespeare and so endlessly much about what he wrote. Perhaps no writer's work should have to bear the burden of biography, but be left to speak for itself.
Then again, without the soaps and the talk-shows, whatever would we do?
Elaine Feinstein's "Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet" is not an unsuccessful biographical rendering of England's late Poet Laureate. Neither does it not deal engagingly with the birth-to-death minutiae of this one man's life after the fashion of a chronological reportage, but documents in detail where he grew up, whom he married, how many children he had (and with whom), what he ate, and with whom he had sex. (This latter information is gleaned, one is assured, from chats with several of the concerned females, and from books based loosely on the intimate amatory experiences of those citizens.)
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