|‘The Thought Fox’(NSP 3)||‘Six Young Men’ (NSP 17)||‘View of a Pig’ (NSP 34)|
|‘Hawk Roosting’ (NSP 29)||‘Theology’ (NSP 70)||‘Out’ (NSP 72)|
|‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ (NSP 87)||‘Examination at the Womb Door’ (NSP 90)||‘A Childish Prank’ (NSP 91)|
|‘The Black Beast’ (NSP 94)||‘A Horrible Religious Error’ (NSP 101)||‘Song for a Phallus’ (NSP 91)|
|‘Notes for a Little Play’ (NSP 116)||‘Lovesong’ (NSP 114)||‘How Water Began to Play’ (NSP 118)|
Ted Hughes Speaks:
I’ll read steadily through poems written over about twenty years. First of all, the first poem in the book, which is just a poem about a fox. Which began as a poem about meeting a fox on the top of a bank, and face-to-face. A very impressive moment which I thought I would like to write a poem about, and so I tried and this is… anyway, this is a poem about quite a different fox which I call a ‘thought fox’ – that is not an actual fox:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest
(‘The Thought Fox’)
This is a meditation of a kind - on a photograph of six youths. And it's taken in a valley just below where I lived in Yorkshire and just before the outbreak of the First World War. These six youths were all friends of my father’s. And the war came, and this photograph is just one among family photographs - so I've been hearing stories about these characters on this photograph for as long as I've been picking up the photograph and looking at it. There were anecdotes about them. When the war came, they all went off together, and my father went, off together. Apparently the whole – everybody eligible just went into Lancashire, into Rochdale. All these Yorkshiremen joined the Lancashire Fusiliers – they were all in the same company. They all trained together. They all went out together. They all fought together and so they tended to get killed together. So this was sort of the fairy-tale – my early stories – just a poem about these early anecdotes that I heard about these men. This is just a poem about this photograph:
The celluloid of a photograph holds them well
(‘Six Young Men’)
For a while, I lived in America, and started a long series of poems that was to be — well, they're all poems about England and my memories of England… They're all poems about animals and birds, and I had a long scheme planned out, and it was also just to be an exercise in style. This was one of the first of them, where I sort of got into it. I never wrote most of them, I just wrote a few of them. So this is just about a pig – a very flat view of a pig:
The pig lay on the barrow dead
(‘View of a Pig’)
It went through various phases, that manner, and this was one of the later ones. This is just a dramatic monologue, spoken by a hawk sitting in a wood. So he just sits there and speaks and thinks to himself:
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
I wrote a series of lectures for an ideal college, where the whole lecture course would last about half a page. So the whole university went into about twenty pages. This is the theology:
No, the serpent did not
seduce Eve to the apple.
When I first started writing, I wrote again and again and again about the First World War. I suppose because my father’s stories made that very near to me, and living in West Yorkshire, where everybody seemed to have lost everybody that went to the war, was a very impressive experience to grow up in. And through Wilfred Owen, probably, whose poems I was greatly infatuated by Ó over long years. I finally decided that really it had nothing to do with me. So this was sort of a ritual poem to rid myself of any further concern with that in an imaginative way – as far as my writing was concerned. It's just three parts. The first one I called, ‘The Dream Time’, and the last one is ‘Remembrance Day’, which is the November day when they sell poppies for the Armistice. I’ll just read the three parts straight through. The poem is called ‘Out’, and the idea is to get rid of the entire body of preoccupation.
The father sat in his chair recovering
From the four-year mastication by gunfire and mud.
This is just a description of a little girl – a two-year-old girl – looking at a full moon. And ‘moon’ being one of her first words – so she being very excited to use this word:
A cool small evening stirring to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket
(‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’)
I'll read some poems from a long children’s story that I wrote which concerns a character who I called ‘Crow’. These are just poems from along the way of the story.
The story begins in heaven, where God is having a nightmare. The nightmare appears to God as a hand. And this hand, in his nightmare, is also a voice – so it is a voice-hand or a hand-voice. And this thing comes the moment he falls asleep. This thing arrives and grabs him round the throat, and throttles him and lifts him out of his heaven and rushes him through his universe and pushes him beyond his stars and then ploughs up the Earth with his face and throws him back into heaven. Andæ whenever he drowses off and falls asleep, this hand arrives and the whole thing happens again.
God cannot understand what there can be in his creation which – (after all he is responsible for every atom in it) – he can’t understand what there can be that… is so strange to him and can be so hostile to him. So there’s a long, long episode in heaven where he tries to get this nightmare to divulge its secret. Eventually, the voice which is the hand speaks. And the speech of the voice which is the hand is a terrible mockery of God’s creation, particularly of the crown of his creation, which is Man.
So this begins a great debate in heaven between God and his nightmare – about Man. And God is very defensive of Man. Man is a very good invention and a successful invention and, given the materials and the situation, he’s quite adequate. The voice just continues with its mocking that Man is absolutely hopeless.
It so happens, that while the debate has been going on, and even before, while God was continually absorbed in his nightmare, Man, on the Earth, had sent up a representative to the Gates of Heaven. This representative had been knocking on the marble gates and God had been so preoccupied with his nightmare that he hadn’t heard him. So this little figure was sitting in the Gate of Heaven waiting for God to hear him. And now the voice which is a hand, as the absolute last, triumphant point of his argument, asks this little figure to speak – this little representative of Man. And it so happens that Man has sent this little figure up to ask God to take life back because men are fed up with it. God is enraged that Man has let him down in this way infront of the demon, so he challenges the voice to do better – given the materials and the whole set up – just to do better – produce something better than Man.
This is what the voice has been negotiating for. So, with a great howl of delight, he plunges down into matter and God turns Man round and pushes him back down into the World. Then God is very curious to see what the production will be when this voice has produced whatever it is he wants to produce. Anyway, the voice begins to ferment and gestate in matter, and the little thing begins to develop – a little nucleus of something or other – a little embryo begins. But before it can get born, it has to go through all manner of adventures, which it goes through and, finally, it gets to the point of being born. Then, just before it can get born, there’s an examination.
This is his examination at the womb door - and it's a sort of vocal examination. So, I give you the question and the answer. And because of all the adventures he's been through, he's a very canny embryo - little figure now. So his answers are circumspect. And the first question in the examination is, “Who owns these scrawny little feet?”. And he thinks - and thinks he's going to be outflanked in some way – so he thinks long thoughts, short thoughts, and he answers – “Death”:
Who owns this bristly, scorched-looking face? Death.
(‘Examination at the Womb Door’)
But this world he appears into is a world where everything is happening simultaneously, so the beginning and end are present, and all the episodes of all history are present, as in all the different rooms of a gigantic hotel. And God, having come down into the world to see how this creature is going to size up – he, first of all, seeing what a wretched, black, horrible little nothing it is – he’s rather indulgent toward it and tends to show it the beauties of the creation, and let it look on whilst he shows the marvels of the beginning.
So this is an episode from the beginning, where God has created Man’s and Woman’s bodies and he’s trying to get souls into them. The Talmudic legend is that, when God created Adam and Eve, he took soil from the four corners of the Earth, so that Man shouldn’t feel lost whenever he wandered on the Earth. He moulded these two beautiful people but then he couldn’t get the souls into them, because the souls out in the gulf – being just souls – were completely clairvoyant and knew everything that was going to happen to them. They didn’t want to go into the bodies. So the great problem, before anything can happen at all in Talmudic literature, is how is the soul to be got into the body? God has this problem – a permanent problem – and Crow sees a short–cut (a very obvious short–cut) which has great consequences in the story later on. So this is what happened:
Man’s and Woman’s bodies lay without souls,
(‘A Childish Prank’)
As he goes along and has many adventures, everything that he meets tells a different story about what he does or what happens to him. So these are just various little episodes from it. This one is about the Black Beast:
Where is the Black Beast?
Crow, like an owl, swivelled his head,
(‘The Black Beast’)
As he goes along, a certain question begins to trouble him more and more and more – a fundamental, simple little question, "Who made me?". This turns into a quest for whoever it was that made him and he’s quite successful in this quest. He keeps getting very close to whoever or whatever it is that made him, and whatever it is that made him always appears, or nearly appears, in some female form. So his journeys are a continual adventure or recurrent adventures with the Female in various forms. He has a series of encounters, and his misfortune is that he always bungles the encounter. He never understands that this is what he is actually looking for. This is just an account of one of his bungles.
When the serpent emerged, earth–bowel brown,
From the hatched atom
(‘A Horrible Religious Error’)
As he goes along, God, who was first of all indulgent to him, becomes worried, because he sees that this is an alert little beast. So he begins to try and frustrate him. And the more he frustrates him the more able this creature becomes – the more obstacles infront of him the stronger he gets. So he becomes wiser, cleverer, stronger, and he becomes involved in all the cultures, intrigued by all the possibilities and the interesting tales. And early on, he encounters the literature of Oedipus, since he’s so involved with his own search, and he reads Sophocles, and he reads Seneca, and he reads Freud. He sees, obviously, that this is open to everyone and he makes his own version. And by now he’s begun to produce his own literature but his own literature is very crude. He produces plays and stories but he can never get more than two characters into the plays and stories – always the same two characters. So when he comes to deal with the Oedipus theme, he’s stuck again with these two characters. This is a song from one of his plays – presumably the play is mimed while somebody sings the song – and, as a matter of fact, he steals the entire thing from Seneca:
There was a boy called Oedipus
Stuck in his Mammy’s belly
(‘Song for a Phallus’)
This is another of his little plays. This is just notes for a play, since apart from when he just writes a song about what happens, he just writes notes for a possible director or producer. Just the notes that you might base a play on – no dialogue, no anything else, but the same two characters that he’s stuck with:.
First – the sun coming closer, growing by the minute
(‘Notes for a Little Play’)
He goes through all his trials and eventually he comes to a great river. Beyond this river is the Happy Land but sitting beside this river, on his bank, is a horrendous woman, an enormous, grotesque and gigantic woman, who forces him to carry her across the river. By one means or another, she gets up on his shoulders and he enters the river. And he wades out over the gravel and the current deepens, and as he gets deeper into the water her weight begins to increase until he finally has to stop. But her weight goes on increasing and drives his feet down into the gravel of the bed of the river, and the water rises to his mouth, runs past his mouth, and at that point she asks him a question. He has to sing the answer and he has to have the right answer. He begins, and he sings and, as he sings – as he gets a little bit of rightness here and a little bit of rightness there – her weight lightens. He keeps on trying to chip a bit of her weight off with little rightnesses until, finally, she’s back to the weight she was and he’s able to climb out of the holes and go on across the river. But as he goes on across the river, her weight begins to increase again and the whole thing happens again. She asks him another question.
All the questions relate back to his encounters and his experiences with this being that he’s been looking for. So they are all questions about the relationship between man and women – or Man and Woman. So they’re all really love questions. And they’re all dilemma questions, because they don’t have an answer. So, this is one of his answers. And the question is "who paid most?". So he begins with the river running past his mouth. And he’s only a half creature, so he’s completely unmusical. He begins to try and chip little bits of her weight off him:
He loved her and she loved him
Finally, this is a song taught to him by an eskimo guide that he meets, who teaches him a lot of little stories and songs which become his defence. This eskimo shows him how to adjust himself to the circumstances – in a series of little childish stories. This is one of them. ‘How Water Began to Play’:
Water wanted to live
Transcript © Ann Skea.