The nature of poetry

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Heather Neill discovers how Ted Hughes approaches writing for children. One day in March 1981 a young TES sub-editor received a phone call. "Hello. Ted Hughes here. Are you ready to take this down?" Fighting the instinct to leap to attention or genuflect, the sub-editor took dictation of a brand new poem published for the first time in that week's TES.

I was that sub-editor and had, until recently, been an English teacher, sharing Ted Hughes' poetry with teenagers. Another poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland, had suggested I ask Hughes for a poem to publish alongside his review of the collection Under the North Star and, with typical generosity and lack of fuss, he had complied.

Ted Hughes is 65 this summer and has been Poet Laureate for just over a decade. His New Selected Poems 1957-1994 appeared in March, his version of Wedekind's play about adolescent sexual discovery, Spring Awakening, opens at the Young Vic Theatre in August and his collected animal poems will be published in four volumes in September. Far from resting on those laurels, Hughes is constantly, vigorously proving his right to them and, most refreshingly, less as the recorder of great events than as a creative force within the community. He has always encouraged young writers and rates his own work for children sufficiently highly to have included two sections, from What is the Truth? and Season Songs, in his New Selected Poems.

He is an unassuming man, even shy with strangers, but there is a strength in his face and presence which finds clear expression in the poems and in his public reading of them. He dislikes interviews, preferring to consider written questions, which he answers with care, no doubt spending much longer on the process than a conventional interview would require. There are still journalists and biographers who are more interested in his marriage to his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, and her suicide, than in any discussion of the work, so perhaps a distancing is inevitable. Yet he will appear unannounced at poetry courses run by the Arvon Foundation (of which he was a prime mover and in which he retains a close interest), giving advice and encouragement to inexperienced poets. And he does read his work - in powerful, mesmerising Yorkshire tones - at festivals and still sometimes visits schools. (He was himself a teacher for a short time in his twenties in a Cambridge Secondary Modern.) Sandy Brownjohn, a teacher who was encouraged by Hughes to share her ideas about getting children to write by publishing a book on the subject, describes a visit by him to the London primary school where she was then teaching. "Reading, talking, answering questions, he held them in the palm of his hand as the magic came. He dealt with questions in the best way I've seen anybody do it, not at all patronising, but as one writer to another."

When asked to define what exactly a poem for a young person is , Hughes replies at length: "Writing for children, I depend on my feeling of what it was like to be the age of my imagined reader. At least, that's what I think I do. 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. So it has to obey those criteria set by my imagined younger self. And it has to meet the quality controls that I apply to my other verse. That's how I see it."

He goes on to give details about specific titles.

"In my first book of children's verse, Meet My Folks, I imagined myself about seven . . . When I added a few more pieces to that book, about 15 years later, the task was to find again the right degree of warmth and intimate simplicity - for that seven year old. To re-locate his particular innocence then transmit on that wavelength only.

"In my next book of verse for children, The Earth Owl, I imagined a slightly older self. I remember these selves very roughly by the different classrooms I was in at school, year by year. This one was about 13."

Season Songs began, writes Hughes "as four songs of the seasons, to be sung by children, commissioned by the Little Missenden Festival. For the Autumn Song, I adapted 'Who Killed Cock Robin' . . . I then expanded the series to a book-length collection. For the new pieces, my tuning fork was a couplet from Gower's doggerel in Shakespeare's Pericles: 'And crickets sing in the oven's mouth, Aye the blither for their drouth'.

As I wrote, I strayed off into more fine-drawn effects, for variety, but I always kept that homely, rough, plain-as-a-fence-post-of-split-oak model in mind. For the same audience that enjoys, and invents, folk-rhymes. Not for children only, that is - but staying within the easy hearing of children . . ."

What is the Truth? was written specifically for nine- and ten-year-old visitors to a farm in Devon under the Farms for City Children scheme run by Hughes' friends Clare and Michael Morpurgo. Here, he says, "I obeyed only one criterion - my feeling for keeping in touch with ten year olds genuinely interested in what I was writing about, the creatures they were meeting for perhaps the first time ever. I tried to transmit my own affection for these creatures and some first-hand knowledge - as if we had them right there in front of us . . ."

Animals, the countryside, nature and conservation are constant themes (pollution is the central concern of the prose fable, The Iron Woman, published in 1993, a sequel to the perennially popular The Iron Man). Here is the beginning of "A March Calf", one of the Season Songs included in the New Selected Poems: Right from the start he is dressed in his best - his blacks and his whites Little Fauntleroy - quiffed and glossy, A Sunday suit, a wedding natty get-up, Standing in dunged straw Under cobwebby beams, near the mud wall, Half of him legs, Shining-eyed, required nothing more But that mother's milk come back often.

This is a joyous, fresh celebration, but children are not sheltered from the truth of country life. A few pages further on, in "Sheep", a new-born lamb gives up the struggle to survive: Death was more interesting to him.

Life could not get his attention.

So he died, with the yellow birth-mucus Still in his cardigan And sometimes the meaning does not leap off the page without some commitment from the reader.

More recently, Hughes has written for very young children, four and five year olds. In The Cat and the Cuckoo and The Mermaid's Purse "my plan was to compress each subject into a very brief but intensely musical form that would be above all easy to memorise . . . Writing those verses taught me a great deal - about writing verse."

Despite his obvious expertise in speaking directly to young readers, Hughes concludes that, in the end, there is no easy distinction to be made between pieces for adults and children: "Throughout the writing of these books I was well aware that some children - often quite young - respond strongly to certain poems I had written at full stretch with no thought of a child reader. So - what is a poem for a young reader? If they can recognise and be excited by some vital piece of experience within a poem, very young children can swallow the most sophisticated verbal technique. They will accept plastic toys, if that's all they're given, but their true driving passion is to get possession of the codes of adult reality - of the real world. I remember when I taught secondary school 14-year-olds, their favourite poem, among all I read them, was The Waste Land."

Hughes' work has been studied in schools for 30 years. He sets great store by the learning of poems by heart: "Poetry could be used as a gymnasium for the most useful thing a child can learn in school - the art (the games, the tricks) of memory . . . I would be content, as an English teacher, if I could get my students (a) to learn a new poem or good prose passage every two or three days . . . and (b) to write a great deal, to cover several pages a day. With (a) the brain absorbs all the data it needs for a good acquaintance with the developed precisions and possibilities of the language. With (b) the access to these resources, and the familiar command of them, becomes automatic and integrated with the student's own particular temperament . . . It is a mistake, I think, to suppose that language comes naturally. Like ballet-dancing, or any other physical skill, it has to be practised incessantly."

He has great faith in the ability of teachers to "nurture a creative mood within a school" and is generally optimistic about the standard and volume of poetry written in schools.

As to children's chosen subject matter, Hughes observes that "the predicament" of Northern Ireland has led to a "breadth and depth of awareness" and a maturity which has resulted in a "high level of good writing". He adds that, given the subject of water in an Observer competition some years ago "about 60 per cent of entries . . . were laments for the poisoning of ponds, rivers, ditches, seas. The level of writing varied a lot, but the level of despair was consistently high. Very shocking, coming from young children."

Teachers in urban schools may choose to avoid "nature" as a topic for creative writing. Hughes regrets this: "To confine a child's attention to a sociologist's idea of 'the urban life' is like confining the child inside a computer game, and denying them any knowledge of, say, the child's own family, let alone the child's own biology - largely shared by every creature on earth, and intimately created by and still affected by the minute to minute global conditions of the natural world."

For Jill Pirrie, of Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk, whose pupils have become well-known as winners of poetry competitions, and for whose book, On Common Ground, Ted Hughes provided a Foreword, reality is rural. As a judge of the WH Smith Poetry competition he had encountered her pupils' work. Hughes' "completely unsentimental approach" to country life inspires her pupils to "rise above the deadening familiarity of everyday." Pirrie still uses Hughes' book Poetry in the Making, published in 1967. "It was such an exciting find. I remember feeling it expressed what I had dimly apprehended, but it was clearly articulated for me in such a wise, clear way. Although addressed to children, it is profound. He respects their seriousness - there is no keeping them in the playground - and they respond to that."

Professor Brian Cox, a contemporary of Hughes at Cambridge and now chairman of the Arvon Foundation, testifies to Hughes' generosity, his honesty and integrity. "He does so much more than people know about. I've always found him immensely helpful at sixth form conferences I've organised, for instance. He's one of the few people I've met I could truly call a genius."

After two years at Pembroke College, Hughes switched from English to archaeology and anthropology. Cox says that he had found the limitations of his course "debilitating", an experience expressed by Hughes himself in "The Burnt Fox". He describes a vivid dream, in which a fox "smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding" spreads its bloody, human, hand on a blank space below a half-written student essay and says "Stop this - you are destroying us. "

Ted Hughes' future was clear. The advice he gave to other aspirant writers at the beginning of his career still stands: See it and live it.

Ted Hughes' books are published by Faber and Faber.

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