Dear Ted Hughes
You probably won’t remember me. I wrote to you before, in the summer of 1998. I did not know it then (I don’t think any of us did) that you were already seriously ill with cancer. I have always been grateful, not to say amazed, that you took the time to write a reply (a request for a note of introduction to a book about teaching poetry to children). From memory (I still have it somewhere) you wrote in black ink, a tiny note, not much bigger than a post-it.
I hope you don’t mind me writing again. With all that is going on currently, you have been on my mind rather a lot recently. I can’t help wondering what you would make of it all.
But that isn’t really my reason for writing. I have been having some clear-outs recently. What that process has taught me is how many books of poetry I own -have owned- and never look at. And am now blissfully free from. When it came to your own acreage I felt a mixture of emotions. Gratitude to you, for being the first poet whose work I recognised as poetry, that is to say, something alive and strange that was not prose; awe, to see so many square feet (I am not making this up to impress you) occupied by the same person; finally a kind of misplaced feeling of regret, a kind of homesickness, for not having looked you up in a while.
Later, walking home, I sensed the same thing again looking at an oak tree in the breeze. And then without thinking one of your lines came to me. It’s from Season Songs (how I adore that book), the one about an oak tree in April looking completely different and exactly the same as an oak tree in December. I may not have got it right, but you’ll know the one I mean. Another line followed: the one about ‘blade-light’, from ‘Wind.’ I have always loved this line, the fact that you had to make a new coinage, something Anglo-Saxon, to get across the force of it. (I have always loved the word ‘brunt’ in that poem as well, more for the sound of it than the meaning if I am honest. I am sure you will understand.)
Other lines quickly followed. I am not sure exactly why. The one about whiteness walking the river at dawn. I first heard that on a cassette tape (no one has these any more, by the way -I wish I knew of a way to make it digital), with Paul Muldoon on the other side. I used to listen to it in the car.
The line that always used to stop me in my tracks was the single-word-line, ‘Cease’, in the middle of ‘Go Fishing’. I sensed that you packed into that lone imperative-syllable a whole world of pain, and stumbling, and mumbling, and yet sudden, raw clarity about what you had wanted and managed to achieve with your life, a kind of wild, not-yet-final-reckoning of the majesty and imperfection and glory of your project. It wasn’t just the word itself, ‘cease’, it was the way you said it, your voice trembling a bit, as though suddenly aware that it might actually mean more than what you had originally intended. A kind of introvert’s manifesto, packed into a solitary word.
All of this went through me while I glanced up at that oak tree. And then, as you go on to say in ‘Go Fishing’, I healed into time and other people and got on with whatever my life was saying to me at that moment, which it turned out was more of you than I had bargained for or remembered I even possessed, try as I might to be rid of you, all of it without opening a page.
I wanted to say thank you. I hoped you wouldn’t mind.
With best regards as ever