Sunday, 24 February 2008

Ted Hughes' Letters

I had three good English teachers. The rest were awful, as were perhaps half of the teachers at that posh grammar school. One thing the best did was read the latest stuff, bring it in, read bits to us and make sure it was in the library. I remember being introduced by Neville Newhouse and Dr Oxley to Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. Iris Murdoch too, I think.

If I was that sort of teacher now – which I'd want to be -- I'd be going to town on Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid, Faber, 756pp, £30 and worth every penny. For those who mainly associate Hughes with Sylvia Plath’s suicide, you get his side of the story, very convincingly, but for me that was a minor interest. (If you’re teaching Plath you’ll need to read the relevant letters.) If you know and like his poetry there’s a mass of stuff about his writing of it; if you don’t know his poetry, you’ll want to after reading the letters.

The stuff about his wild boyhood is fascinating (these are letters that include long, long chunks of what could have gone into his autobiography): having vast stretches of fields and woods completely to himself and his brother, apart from the farmers who adopted him, round first Mytholmroyd, then Mexborough, shooting, trapping and fishing.
Gerald, Olwen and Ted Hughes, late 1940s

There’s lots about his relationships with wild animals: they stood for anything that was untouched by culture, which he experienced as restrictive; he tackles head-on the fact that he killed so many of them. Hughes comes across as sympathetic and, unexpectedly for me, funny and playful – some letters are hilarious. He’s also strange: serious believer in astrology and Robert Graves’ theories about the Muse (key book, The White Goddess). Terrific stuff about Shakespeare; Hughes knew several plays by heart (and Yeats’ collected poems).

What would I do with the book as an English teacher?

(1) I'd read passages with the whole class and get them to talk about them. (Older groups, that is: Y10 upwards. I might give entire long letters to sixth formers to read for homework. But there are also lovely passages about animals, and fishing, that younger students would enjoy.)

(One particular long letter is that to Anne-Lorraine Bujon, starting p621, an account of his development as a poem. It would go better with students who have read a fair bit of Hughes’s poetry, but even without it’s interesting as a poet describing what he had felt he had to do and why at different stages.)

(2) Copy different chunks and give to groups: read this & prepare a presentation that will get the class talking.

Through what I got them to read I would want to convey a sense of what it’s like to be a poet (or at any rate one sort of poet); what poetry is (one version); and what it’s like to be swept away by literature and poetry as an adolescent. For the more academic students, you can track in the letters the stages of Hughes’ poetic development: when he achieved take-off, when he was stuck, false turnings, sterile periods and re-emergences, his own overall sense of his achievements and failures.

Many adolescents will sympathise with Hughes’ determination not to get a proper job and not to waste his life (as he saw it) performing conventional duties. (In the end he had to waste great tracks of time making a living – teaching, readings etc; other time he saw afterwards as a waste – writing prose, working on dramatic productions, farming.)

Hughes is interesting on the teaching of English. (He had a go in a secondary modern school and found the experience ‘salutary’.) He writes to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education who introduced the National Curriculum, advocating the practice of memorising poetry and even prose (p546).

Here are a few selections:

University English Departments – the enemies of English

This is a great rant against English academics, 1950s to 1990s, and how they kill any creativity that students bring with them from school -- of which there is plenty, he knows.

The question is: Are university English departments any better now? Has the rot of spurious academicisation and denial of creativity in fact spread downwards, right through the secondary school? Seems to me school is now too often a hostile environment for young people who are seriously drawn to either reading or writing; if they pursue those needs, it's against the grain of English, not with it. Am I right?

Note: Hughes knew all about children's writing from his work as judge of the annual Daily Mirror Children's Writing Competition. Brian Cox wrote the Cox Report on the proposed National Curriculum for English.

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