Just about everyone I know who reads and writes poetry seriously owes a debt of one kind or another to Ted Hughes, directly or indirectly. Even though I never met him (the nearest I came was receipt of a hand-written note in the summer before he died) I still think of him as the single biggest influence on my poetry-writing (and therefore reading) life. As Peter Sansom said when he died, his death was the first of a public figure that moved me personally.
These are grand claims, but they are true. It was the poetry of Ted Hughes which first alerted me to the concept of poetry which was not a hymn or a nursery rhyme. It was the poetry of Ted Hughes which I first understood as belonging to and coming from ‘a poet’, a living one at that, and not just a name in an anthology. And finally it was in Ted Hughes’s poems which I found for the first time, aged thirteen, a sense of excitement in the act of reading.
Specifically, this was the first time I remember experiencing that vertiginous yet intimate sensation of reading poems which were not about me whilst sensing that they knew absolutely everything about me at the same time. In the English lessons we looked at ‘Retired Colonel’, ‘Thistles’, ‘Pike’ and (of course) ‘The Thought-Fox’. Later I remember being given the poem ‘Wind’ to write about in an exam, and found that I could. I can still remember the weird and not altogether comforting sense of self-awareness that interpreting the poem’s images gave me. I particularly enjoyed the ‘black-/back gull bent like an iron bar slowly’.
In the week that Ted Hughes died I was staying at the house he had owned and lived in, Lumb Bank, now owned by the Arvon Foundation, near Heptonstall in Yorkshire. My colleague and friend Siân Hughes (no relation) and I were acting ‘in loco parentis’ for a group of young poets who were being tutored by Jo Shapcott and Roger McGough, as part of their prize in the first ever Foyle Young Poets Award (then called the Simon Elvin Young Poets Award).
In the way of the old joke, it only rained twice that week, once for three days, and once for four. In the brief hiatus between these downpours, the sun did shine with what the poem ‘Wind’ calls ‘blade-light’. It filled the dining room where we sat writing, the only time we saw it that week. After setting us our morning exercise, I noticed left the room. Five minutes later she silently beckoned Siân and me to follow her into the kitchen, where she whispered to us the news. At that exact moment telephones began ringing in the house, which Jo wisely told us to ignore.
From then on we had two main concerns: to protect the young poets from the gaze of the outside world (there were sightings of film crews near the grave of Sylvia Plath in Heptonstall); and to honour the memory of this great man whose life had touched all of ours so deeply. The first we achieved quickly. Jo broke the news to the group around the table, and we held an impromptu minute’s silence. We got them to agree to a self-imposed curfew, also immaculately observed. As Seamus Heaney says in one of his sonnets of grief for his mother ‘we all knew one thing by being there’.
Later that night, around the hearth of the house, Jo read ‘Wind’ in his honour, and we toasted his memory. The windows did indeed tremble to come in and we all felt the roots of the house move below us. Every one of us saw that the very house Hughes wrote about in the poem had now become as tangible inside our heads as the elements outside.
Jo closed by saying that her lasting memory of Ted Hughes would be one of personal encouragement, particularly in letters and in personal conversations. ‘It is the side of him the world will never see,’ she said, ‘because kindness does not sell papers. Let that be your legacy to each other.’
Like reading one of Hughes’s poems, it was not a comfy experience to live at the centre of the storm of interest in his life that week. But I was pleased to have been there because the experience reminded me what made me want to write poems in the first place.
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.