Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Forgotten Writer

When a writer is published - to some acclaim - posthumously there is a sense that the writer will then be remembered, with Sylvia Plath probably the most famous case. Yet the dead writer, like other dead artists, musicians, actors etc. is almost always an unfinished work, despite their being nothing more to come - their life's work complete. We see the detritus of a literary afterlife. In Plath's case it wasn't just the book of poetry that made her reputation, "Ariel", but other posthumous works, inevitably pieced together by her varied and various literary executors.

Literary history would be a lot poorer without its "Ariel", so much of Kafka, "A Moveable Feast", "The Last Tycoon", some of Keats poems, the majority of Hopkins work etc. but in most cases these are writers who even when they died young, were already somewhere on the way to literary acclaim, even if only from a small coterie of admirers. When the posthumous work appears it can be elegant, elegaic or embarassing. There's always a question mark over the version of "Ariel" that Ted Hughes gave us, of course, and as is the way of the literature industry, a revised "Ariel" of Plath's own ordering, came out a few years ago - yet this is as "false" a manuscript as any other - for come publication, who knows what Plath would have decided on? Death intervened, and those left behind are left to pick up the pieces.

I am reminded of this reading the fascinating essay in this month's Poetry by Mark Ford on Joan Murray. Chosen by Auden as his inaugural winner to be published in the "Yale Younger Poets" series in 1947, Murray was already dead, at the age of 25. How Auden knew her work was that she'd studied under him, and according to Ford, faced with an uninspiring longlist, Auden had asked if her work could be published in the series as he knew it was "available." An odd choice, an odd decision, given that this was a book for "early career" writers, yet one that was accepted by the organisers. Yet Murray, born in London, but Canadian enough to be included in the recent Swift/Jones anthology, wouldn't receive much more recognition than this posthumous publication. It remains the only book of hers, and as Ford meticulously describes, had to go through a heavy, and occasionally heavy-handed editorial process before it was published. She certainly sounds worth rediscovering (and surely this piece might lead to a reissue?) The poetry of the forties gets deafened out in many ways by the Second World War, but here was a young woman, in America, at the point when it was uncertain whether or not the US would even take part. Her work is part of a different narrative - yet one that has been easy enough to  be ignored.

How strange in many ways, that during those years when other female writers were rediscovered, Murray remained lost. In some ways, the momentum of all literary careers requires some kind of presence. Not necessarily the living, breathing author, but those around him or her as well - peer writers perhaps, friends, family and publishers, and readers. Its a healthy reminder that the cliche of the dead artist doesn't always lead to posthumous acclaim.

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