A rock in the literary landscape

6th November 1998 at 00:00
The death of the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, last week at the age of 68, will have shocked many teachers. He was a favourite with both young children and syllabus-makers and had been the epitome of nature poets in classrooms for the best part of 40 years.

He seemed himself to be something of a force of Nature. Shy, almost reclusive, he could nevertheless dominate a room with no more than a hesitant smile. Broad-shouldered and strong-featured, with the air of the farmer he once was, he had no hint of intellectual arrogance: adults often reported that fishing was his favourite conversational topic, while children responded easily to him.

Sandy Brownjohn, who became well-known as a teacher of poetry in a primary school in north London and was encouraged in her work by Hughes, describes him talking to children as "not at all patronising, but as one writer to another".

In an interview for The TES in 1995, Hughes said that, "writing for children I depend on my feeling of what it was like to be the age of my imagined reader. I find a common wavelength - of subject matter, style, attitude, tone - between the self I was then and the self I am now. Then I write what amuses and interests and satisfies both."

Born in Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, he attended Mexborough Grammar School and won an exhibition to read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where, as his contemporary Professor Brian Cox puts it, he found the limitations of the course "debilitating''. In The Burnt Fox, Hughes described a vivid dream in which a fox spread a bloody human hand on a half-finished essay and said: "Stop this - you are destroying us''. He switched to archaeology and anthropology and subsequently worked as, among other things, a zookeeper and a teacher in a Cambridge secondary modern school.

Hughes married the American poet, Sylvia Plath, in 1956 and her suicide in 1963 coloured the rest of his life. His last book, Birthday Letters, brilliantly chronicles the erotic passion, the grief and the shared intellectual currency of that relationship.

Less well-known is Hughes's determination to "empower'' their son and daughter by telling them stories about children solving tough problems, of which The Iron Man, published in 1968 and now a classic, is a famous example. A sequel, The Iron Woman, dealing with a life-long concern, the pollution of the environment, was published in 1993.

His early collections, The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal, with their characteristically minute observation of animal life, their unblinking confrontation with violence in nature and their exact, granite-hewn language, are still popular with teachers, and there have subsequently been several collections specifically for children, including Meet My Folks and Season Songs. Always there is the same clarity, honesty and lack of sentimentality.

When Hughes read his work with measured, intense, Yorkshire earthiness, he made the words live. It is fitting that his last reading, with Seamus Heaney, was from their anthology for young readers published last year, The School Bag, a sequel to the popular Rattle-Bag. He advocated learning poems by heart and gave hints for turning poetry into a "gymnasium'' of the mind in By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember.

Hughes's last year saw unprecedented success: his Tales from Ovid was the Whitbread Book of the Year and Birthday Letters became a bestseller and won the Forward Prize; his translation of Racine's Ph dre was successfully presented in the West End and he was awarded the Order of Merit.

But beside the grand, establishment legacy, there is another: Ted Hughes generously encouraged and honoured young writers and their teachers. His early book, Poetry in the Making, is as inspiring as ever.

Most significantly, he helped in 1970 to set up the Arvon Foundation to run courses for would-be writers. He would sometimes turn up unannounced at Totleigh Barton, the Devon centre near the home which he shared happily with his second wife, Carol, for 28 years. Such was his unfussy kindness that he even, once, dictated a new poem over the phone to The TES.

There happened to be a teacher in The TES office when we heard the news of Ted Hughes's death. "It's as if part of the landscape's gone,'' he said.And it has.

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