Teachers’ words should not be ‘How to write’ but ‘How to try to say what you really mean’ – which is part of the search for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, grace.
Poetry in the Making, p.12
The first poems I read by a poet who was not dead or a writer of hymns were by Ted Hughes. Aged 13, in a stuffy classroom, with other boys much like myself. I did not have a conception of ‘poems’ or ‘poetry’ at all, least of all ‘poet’. I did not know if he was alive or dead or de rigueur or hopelessly unfashionable. But I did know that the words in front of me were alive. They were like cries from another world. There was something tremendously tough about them, as though the person writing them had scraped away at the words he wanted to leave behind, almost to the point of wounding them, leaving them weirdly exposed yet sturdy in the daylight. That scraping noise has never left me: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn/ More coiled steel than living -‘; ‘Pike, three inches long, perfect’; ‘The pig lay on a barrow dead’. I could not get them out of my head. I have not been able to get them out of my head. I cannot get them out of my head.
But the poem I loved first was not ‘Thistles’ or ‘The Thought-Fox’, it was ‘The Retired Colonel’. Which showed me that somewhere in the middle of the wreckage there could be people, the possibility of tenderness: ‘Wife dead, daughters gone, lived on/ Honouring his own caricature.’ I knew that colonel. I had been taught by enough of them. Men scraping a living in the last of their days conjugating Latin verbs through cigarette smoke before nodding off till the bell. That was where I met Ted Hughes, or rather, where he met me. He came into my classroom, sat down next to me and whispered ‘I know all about you.’
I would meet him again often after that. Sometimes in class, sometimes out of it. The school was set in a beautiful valley, with steep hillsides. There wasn’t much to do except be outside, which meant walking, a lot of walking. Partly to get away, partly boredom. The odd thing was it could send you in as well. Suddenly there would be a Ted Hughes poem, jumping out at you from nowhere:
‘I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness’ (The Horses).
The effect was always a bit spooky, but welcome as well, a kind of shared yet private experience where the rules and the prefects and the shouting couldn’t get you. I came back changed, awed, monosyllabic. I have not spoken about this till now.
The event which changed me forever was the day the walks met the classroom, in the most bizarre place of all, in the exam hall. Ted Hughes, ‘Wind’, the paper said. You may turn over and begin. Which is what I did, on my own, in a flurry of writing, discovering and inventing metaphor, and, in the process, me. I met myself there and found for the first time in my life that I could do something, and that I knew I loved it. It remains the only time I have not worried about the outcome of an exam.
And then I lost him. For a long time. He went away from me. It was dreadful.
By now I was following that memory of finding I could do something (writing about poems), but without really loving it, for an English degree. I was still reading him, devouring him actually, but something was no longer there. What was there were sentences like ‘neo-expressionist praxis ratifying the mystery of its own psycho-drama’. Where once there had been a field, and, look, horses, now there was a graffiti-splattered wall between me and the poems. It didn’t even have nice handwriting. I asked my tutor what ‘expressionist’ meant and she just smiled at me. I thought: I still want to do this, but why did it get so hard. How did it get so hard?
And so I left Ted Hughes.
But the thing was he refused to go away. Someone said (or I read. Most likely I read. There wasn’t a group, or a course. What there was was outer space.) that I should read Poetry in the Making. Because by now I was writing, not so much about, as just, well, writing, that floundering, excited, nervous and wholly committed stage of not knowing what I was doing except I was not going to turn back. I was teaching, too. No turning back there either. Even when they hated it. Especially when they hated it. I was in search of what I would now call ‘models’, ‘frameworks’, ‘templates’. Read it, the thing said. ‘It will change your life.’ I did and it did.
A tutor told me to read Sandy Brownjohn. ‘You’ll love it’, she said, ‘right up your street.’ And I did and it was. But not before I had read this, from the ‘Foreword’ by Ted Hughes: ‘The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system which tells him what is permissible, what is possible, what is ‘him’’ (in What Rhymes With ‘Secret’? Sandy Brownjohn, 1982, p.7). I thought Yes! and YES and Yes. And then burst out laughing. To boot, Wendy Cope had just published her satire ‘A Policeman’s Lot’. Which made me laugh out loud as well, before I threw it across the room, guiltily. Years later I spent an entire PhD wondering aloud (allowed?) what he meant by ‘progress’, what ‘permission’ was, and who gave it. And I realised he was not just talking about poems, or writing, or teaching poems, but an entire theory of education, of learning, thinking and being.
I wonder what Ted Hughes would have made of our current system of education.
At which point I went back to the poems again. Season Songs. What Is the Truth? River. And, best of all, Moortown. Out loud. On my own, and sometimes with others. I discovered (he never went away, not really), rediscovered, the force of ‘There Came a Day’, ‘February 17th’ and ‘Tractor’. A tape had made its way into my life. Paul Muldoon on the B-side. (Do they make these still? They should.) Now that’s learning. My own programme this time, not because someone had told me to (even though they never told me what ‘expressionist’ meant). Those growly vowels. Punched consonants. At other times I thought it might be that he was crying, or about to be. I was sure of it. I have read ‘There Came a Day’ a thousand times, to children, to people with dementia, people with cancer, to students, to teachers. What I notice every time is that they tell it right back to you, on first hearing, in minute detail. With feeling. Not always with liking, but always with feeling and with force. Right back at you, as we say. Something about those rhythms, those rhymes, the taking of the nursery rhyme and twisting it into something far more sinister and beautiful.
For my sins I agreed to write an essay -not homework, though it felt like it, briefly- called Ted Hughes’s Poetry for Children. I found that while he had come back he was also far away. Not out of spite, or malice, or ‘honouring his own caricature’, but because I think to get to that place of putting down the words then scraping them clean was costly to him. I loved him dearly, dearly wanting him not to be the person that he had come to represent. Which brings me to
A Dream Mistaking a Person for What He Has Come to Represent
When Ted Hughes stayed at our house
he fried himself a full English breakfast
in a pan the size of a dustbin lid.
The pan had a case, like a guitar; and a strap
to strap it to his back like a busker.
But at that moment it was sizzling and roaring.
As was he, a strenuous chef, and too big
if truth be told for our galley-kitchen.
We were too shy to ask if any of those
sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, fried bread and tomatoes
were for us. We are not vegetarian,
and we were hungry, and the larder and fridge
now empty. It is a wise man, he said at last,
settling himself at our breakfast bar
and making free with the brown sauce,
who owns his own frying pan.
from January (Carcanet, 1994)
The story goes it was Ann’s dream, not Peter’s. Apocryphal? Does it matter? I can swear blind Ann told me this. I still don’t know. Does it matter?
And like ‘There Came a Day’ I have read it a thousand times, to children, to poets, to students. And each time I read it I see something more, something I missed, something more funny, more dark, more mythological.
I was in a room with people I did not know the other day. Most of them did not know who Ted Hughes was. Most of them did not speak English as their first language.
‘Sausages!’ they said. ‘In a poem!’
‘It’s the dustbin lid,’ said another. ‘That’s the key to it all.’
And so we went on. Talking about Ted Hughes, who is or might be or perhaps isn’t in the poem but was definitely in the room with us, his theories of education and dream and language and myth swirling in the eddies of our laughter, our sharing, that moment of our being together and which will not come again.
‘Read the title again,’ I said. ‘What is it directing us to question, and to assume?’
I heard him once on the radio talking about the hidden effects of pollution. ‘It is as though the government has come along and asked you to hand over one of your testicles,’ he said. I particularly remember the emphasis he placed on ‘testicles’. It was like he had spat the word. There was a long silence.
I wonder what Ted Hughes would have made of the internet.
I wrote to Ted Hughes once. I was asking if he might write the foreword to a book I was editing about teaching poetry to children. I was certain he wouldn’t do it, and even more certain he wouldn’t write back. But he did write back, a tiny note, in scrawly back ink, on a card, saying sorry but he was not able to help. I didn’t know he was gravely ill, a fact his note made no mention of. It is one of my most treasured possessions.
Imagine that, writing to the Poet Laureate, and the Poet Laureate writing back.
I do wonder what he would have made of the internet.
I still don’t know what progress in a writer is. But I do know when I see it. And I don’t know how to teach ‘grace’ or ‘finding grace’, though I have spent my whole career trying to persuade others of their brilliance, if they would but trust it or allow it into their lives (Heaney). I know when I see that, too.
So did he.
So do you.
We all do.
I began writing this blog post during the first real storm of the winter. The windows did indeed tremble to come in, little pools of water blowing under the sashes and resting like tiny lakes of mercury on the sills. Weather he knew inside out. Weather he was born in, died in, farmed in. Out there somewhere, stampeding the ramparts of our broken world and crying what he saw. Weather like this, like today. I am still waiting for the miracle of blade-light to appear and prove my doubting self wrong.
Let’s leave the last word to Ted Hughes himself, from Poetry in the Making:
Because it is occasionally possible,
just for brief moments,
to find the words that will unlock the doors
of all those many mansions inside the head
and express something —perhaps not much,
of the crush of information
that presses in on us
from the way a crow flies over
and the way a man walks
and the look of a street
and from what we did one day a dozen years ago.
Words that will express something
of the deep complexity
that makes us precisely the way we are,
from the momentary effect of the barometer
to the force that created men distinct from trees.
Something of the inaudible music
that moves us along in our bodies
from moment to moment like water in a river.
Something of the spirit of the snowflake
in the water of the river.
Something of the duplicity and the relativity
and the merely fleeting quality of all this.
Something of the almighty importance of it
and something of the utter meaninglessness.
And when words can manage something of this,
and manage it in a moment of time,
and in that same moment make out of it
the vital signature of a human being
—not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram,
or of a heap of lenses—
but a human being,
we call it poetry.
(Poetry in the Making, p.124)
With thanks to Peter Sansom for permission to use his poem.