Thursday, September 27, 2018

Back Into Poetry via Ted Hughes

'Surely some revelation is at hand ...' - W.B. Yeats

Back in late October 1998, I had lunch in Oxford with the novelist and poet Mark Haddon. We discussed the recently published Birthday Letters and Hughes' poetry in general, and considered where he might go from there. A few hours later, like a bolt of Hughesian lightning, the great man's death was announced on the news, and suddenly our lunchtime discussion had become an act of retrospection.

The death of the Poet Laureate was a seismic shock within the poetry world, and a source of great distress for me, as a lifelong fan. I had studied poems from The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal while at school, thanks to a visionary English teacher named Linda Clayton, and went on to write a rather involved essay on The Feminine in Ted Hughes's Gaudete as a mature undergraduate at Oxford. I had constantly reached for his collections to inform my own poetry, happiest under that influence. Yet he had always felt somehow out of reach for me intellectually, my responses to his work instinctual, even visceral.

So when I spotted that the Arvon Foundation was running a Ted Hughes-related writing course to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death, I booked immediately. This, despite the fact that I stopped writing poems about eight years ago, feeling that poetry had run dry in me, and moved on to prose fiction instead. But I knew that if anything was going to stir poetry in me again, it would be my love of Hughes.

The 5-day course was held in South Yorkshire at Lumb Bank - a large, eccentric house on a steep bank of the Calder Valley, long coveted and eventually owned by Hughes, who later donated it to Arvon to help other writers.

The tutors were Christopher Reid, Hughes's editor at Faber and a poet in his own right (I thoroughly recommend his comprehensive edition of Letters of Ted Hughes) and Steve Ely, a Hughesian with three poetry collections from Smokestack and a non-fiction book, Ted Hughes's South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough (2015). The midweek guest was Dr Yvonne Reddick whose recent pamphlet Translating Mountains (2017) won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition and whose scholarship includes Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet (2017). A surprise drop-in guest at the end of the week was star of the Faber New Poets scheme, Zaffar Kunial, whose debut Us is published by Faber (2018).

'Writing with Ted Hughes' - Lumb Bank, Sep 2018

The format of the course was a Ted Hughes fan wet dream, frankly.

Me, on the road to Mytholmroyd, the small Yorkshire town where Hughes was born in 1930

Our mornings were spent reading and dissecting his poetry in a group, alongside writing exercises in response to what we were learning. In the afternoons, we had one-to-one tutorials to discuss our own material, or wrote poetry in the house where Hughes himself had penned some of the very poems we were studying. We tried physical exercises - retracing Hughes's steps through the Calder Valley on long rainy walks, visiting Plath's grave in nearby Heptonstall churchyard, even throwing handfuls of sycamore keys in the air to recreate specific lines in his poems - and wrote ekphrastic responses to powerful woodcuts by Hughes's friend and illustrator, the artist Leonard Baskin.

Sylvia Plath's grave in Heptonstall churchyard: the quotation is from 16th century Chinese poet, Wu Ch'Eng-En

We considered the mythic and elegiac strains in his work, and deconstructed his poems in search of his favourite imagery and poetic techniques, such as assonance, alliteration and visual elements. The midweek guest, Yvonne Reddick, read an unpublished poem by Hughes, 'The Grouse,' which is included in her recent book, and discussed both its fascinating origins and its significance within the canon. For myself, I came across a dead creature in the bee-bole garden at Lumb Bank - I thought this was a young crow, but fellow attendee Abi Matthews says it's a mole!  - whose black, melting corpse was reminiscent of Baskin's sketch that inspired 'The Knight,' one of Hughes's strongest pieces in Cave Birds. Naturally, I then wrote my own poem on the find.

The dead crow-mole I found at Lumb Bank, the position of its limbs uncannily similar to a sketch by Baskin that inspired Hughes' poem 'The Knight'.

Before arriving at Lumb Bank, I had not written any new poems for about eight years, though I'd occasionally picked at extant work. I work as a writer, but in prose. I wasn't even sure that I could write a poem (or not what I would term a poem) and imagining my likely failure was a source of private terror for me. It felt as though somebody else had written my previous poetry, and I had no idea how to get back to that person.

But, as my psyche presumably knew, Ted Hughes was a bridge between those two halves of myself. Reading his work closely, considering his various influences - including visionary poets who have always excited me too, such as Yeats, Eliot, Blake, Hopkins etc. - and allowing his cadences to ring in the dark crevasse that yawned between me and that world, all these fed something inside me that made poetry possible again.

One of the industrial chimneys of the Upper Calder Valley that inspired poems like 'Lumb Chimneys' in TH's Remains of Elmet, clearly visible from Lumb Bank

By the end of the second day, I had begun to sense what Lawrence Lipking refers to in The Life of the Poet (University of Chicago Press, 1981) as a moment of 're-initiation'. Suddenly, I understood again how to write poetry, and in fact felt the most incredible pressure to do so, the pressure of dammed-up poems - not a meagre few, but enormous numbers of the bloody things, unwritten yet already formed and perfectly alive in my lizard-brain, just waiting to be accessed.

The danger is that away from that rarefied air, the sacred ground of poetic initiation, once more earning my daily crust by writing popular fiction, perhaps I'll be unable to tap into that treasure-house of unwritten poems. That's a genuine risk. And it's not one I can avoid. We all have to work and pay our bills somehow, and my day job - a demanding job too - is writing genre fiction.

The view from my bedroom window at Lumb Bank, where I wrote several new poems

But with diligent watchfulness, I hope to build and protect a few spaces within my life as a prose-writer where poetry has a chance to breathe. To that end, I'll be going back to Ted Hughes - reading, studying, dissecting his work on my own, and hoping to recreate at least a little of the magic I felt at Lumb Bank.

I also hope to keep in touch with my fellow Hughesians from the course, whose poems, discussions, and intelligent insights made the week particularly special.