The Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture given this year by out-going
Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion in the grand setting of the Great Hall
at Dartington once more and to a packed audience. It's virtually
impossible to do justice to the scale and scope of this lecture from the back row
of the balcony whilst I'm scribbling but concentrating too, because I
wanted to learn as well as get the gist for all of you.
I grew to love the poetry of Ted Hughes whilst studying it for that OU degree mostly acquired through the 2am writing of essays after a long day's work.
Literature in the Modern World (A319) and an essay was required.
for an imperial past may be mediated in a very oblique way in
literature, oblique not only in subject matter but in the form and
style of its embodiment"
Discuss this statement with reference to the work of any two writers.
I had chosen Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes and waited for the muse to strike which it hadn't really.
I'd read and gathered in a copious notes about Larkin's 'parochialism and unfulfillment', recognisable poetic form, some end of empire/ loss of face quotes, continuity of the pre-modernist poetic voice of Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas and had opted to use his poem At Grass and Going Going to back it all up. I was edging towards something about an England of traditions, customs and institutions being threatened and throwing in something about potent anxiety, and nostalgia as an antidote to a fear of the future.
For Hughes I had come a bit unstuck and was sitting staring out into the night probably having one of those 'why on earth am I doing this' moments and worrying about having to get up for work in the morning.
In desperation I listened, for the first time, to a tape of Ted Hughes reading his poetry and listened in a state of shock and awe as he read The Thought Fox and Horses and that was me smitten with the poetry of Ted Hughes for life.
Thoughts flew in thick and fast as all that background reading fell into place, I suddenly felt I knew what Ted Hughes was about, that denial of history and his need to alert me (and only me at 2am on that May night in 2000) to other dimensions. Ted was breaking the mould and re-shaping the poetic form and I used Horses and that feeling of the dawn of time and something lost to create the atmosphere and then waded fearlessly into Wodwo, which looking back seems quite courageous, but I remember being truly excited about what I was discovering. Tapping into that lost world of instinctual responses, nature over nurture as the main determinant of the shape of human life.
The price might have been me walking around half asleep through a baby clinic the next day, for which I can only apologise.
How Ted Hughes Became was the given title for the memorial lecture but, as Andrew Motion explained, these things can gain a life of their own and mutate with thought and writing into something slightly estranged from the source.
There was a 'bad language' warning, with the blame laid fairly and squarely at the typewriter of Philip Larkin, as Andrew Motion proceeded to offer a nicely defined comparison between Hughes and Larkin which as you can imagine I bought into instantly.
Larkin the heir to Edward Thomas, disparaging of modernism in all its guises.
Hughes the heir to Blake and Lawrence and welcoming and embracing modernism a sort of 'yes to life'.
There followed an interesting analysis of Ted Hughes's poetry from the early and more orthodox form of Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal through to Wodwo where the conflicts and separate voices begin to be revealed.
I was interested in Andrew Motion's reflections on what these two poets may have thought of each other. Largely evidenced from correspondence, it would seem that Hughes genuinely admired Larkin, whilst Larkin saw 'terribleTed' and created a toxic compound of actual dislike based on a genuine feeling of threat from a new and up-coming poet.
Ted Hughes's opinions on Larkin shifted with time as he broke away from the safety of Larkin's world with the publication of Wodwo, a pursuit of simplicity and a marking of time downwards to that dreamtime before history and Andrew Motion made interesting points about the red in tooth and claw aspects of Hughes's writing reading Pike to demonstrate.
By this time, I'm really sorry but I'm enjoying it so much the notes are a bit disjointed so you might have to place them within the whole for yourselves, things like
'The health of everything depends on experiment which is often harder to enjoy.'
'Full gaze on a visible world.'
'Continual sense of contact with forces that challenge and control.'
'When these two voices meet witness Ted Hughes @ his most extraordinary.'
time for one question asking whether the poetry of Hughes carried any
coherent responses to environmental crises, to which Andrew Motion
replied that poetry carries its message most effectively when it doesn't
wag its finger at us, by allowing us to celebrate where beauty remains and
express sorrow when it is damaged. An answer which I liked very much and will remember because it fits neatly
alongside my own feeling that poetry teaches, consoles and warns in
For some reason I've then written,
'Gift of afterthought to those who have listened.'
Which I think Andrew Motion added and I've certainly used that gift since this excellent lecture to revisit the poetry of Ted Hughes yet again.
I ended my 2am (by now 3am) essay with a quote by Ted Hughes (from Erica Wagner's book Ariel's Gift according to my footnotes) which must have impressed my tutor too because I winged an 88% for these 2am meanderings. I tell you that for one reason only and that is to encourage anyone out there who might be thinking about an OU degree, but is wondering whether they can do it.
Well this thing can be done because I thought that too, get on and do it and surprise yourself as much I did about the doors that it will open in your mind.
That quote from Ted Hughes seems to fit this moment too,
'May be all poetry...is a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate. to be delivered of. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies.'