This year Modern Poetry in Translation celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. Ted Hughes conceived MPT in the early sixties and in Daniel Weissbort he found a very willing accomplice. Hughes later wrote to Weissbort that he remembered ‘walking up North Tawton Main Street with you saying the only people who would ever get anything out of the Mag would be you and me’, Daniel Weissbort replied that his memory was of Hughes cornering him at a New Year’s party and saying, ‘Why don’t you start a magazine of poetry in translation?’ Weissbort was immediately ‘fired at the idea’ and they began planning a first issue.
The issue came together quickly. The work they received for the issue was urgent, ‘insistent’ and ‘universal’. Apart from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, all the poets published in the first MPT in 1965 were from Communist Eastern Europe and in the editorial the co-editors described this region as being ‘at the centre of cataclysm’, as indeed it must have seemed during the darkest decade of the Cold War.
Hughes wanted the magazine to be on airmail paper so it could be sent out cheaply and even handed out to all poets for free. He favoured a functional, current and disposable look: the first issue was a broadsheet with the poems printed in columns like broadside ballads on delicate thin paper, reminiscent of Bible paper. It was designed by Richard Hollis, who went on to design John Berger’s groundbreaking Ways of Seeing. It sold for 2s 6d, the same price as a Ladybird book in 1965, but the utopian dream of giving it out free to all poets was never realized.
To prepare for this anniversary year David Constantine, former co-editor of MPT, and I spent hours in the King’s College archive where the MPT correspondence is kept. We read the letters which flew back and forth between Weissbort and Hughes during the sixties, when Hughes was engaged with the magazine: a mixture of bravado, ideals, business anxieties and the usual magazine correspondence: subscriptions, submissions and advertising rates. It was clear just how much time and energy both men devoted to the magazine – you can feel it in the long typed letters and handwritten notes they exchanged, week after week.
Ted Hughes in time moved on from the magazine, but Daniel Weissbort sustained it for many decades and in many different forms. Both men gave their different gifts to MPT: Hughes gave it his passion, his sense of the moment and his poetic compass; Weissbort gave the magazine his loyalty, perseverance and fine understanding of translation.
To celebrate the two men’s achievement we are publishing next spring, together with Bloodaxe, an anthology of work from the fifty years of MPT, called Centres of Cataclysm. On Saturday 30 April and Saturday 14 May 2016 we will be holding study days in Cambridge and Oxford on translation and the fifty years of MPT with many discussions, readings and translation workshops. Please see our website for more information on these days – and save these dates. We would be glad to see as many of MPT’s friends as possible.
In a recent Guardian article I argued that Hughes’s internationalism, which gave life to MPT and to the Poetry International Festival and the translations of a number of European writers, may be his greatest legacy. Fifty years after Hughes and Weissbort founded the magazine it thrives and supports a renewed and far more diverse interest in poetry translation. The poetry we publish in 2015 comes from all around the world, for right now every region of the globe seems a centre of cataclysm, and poetry in translation, with its potential to express the universality of human experience and sentiment, has never been as necessary.