Ted Hughes: Interview and Poetry Reading. Melbourne, Australia. March 1976. (Unedited tape)

Interviewer: Claudia Wright

Producer: Julie Copeland

Transcript © Ann Skea. Made and reproduced here with the permission of J. Copeland, who owns the tape.


Note: This interview and poetry reading was made for a broadcast by Radio 3AW (Adelaide) at the time of the Adelaide Festival (South Australia, March 1976). Towards the end of the tape, sections of the interview are repeated and some additional questions and responses were recorded. I have included only those parts of these sections which differ from the earlier sections.

Claudia Wright: [Omitted from tape: When you meet the man, Ted Hughes, he’s] very tall and very strong looking. And, when you put ‘poet’ beside his name and when you see ‘farmer’, the whole thing ties itself together. At any rate, I was wondering how often you felt while you were in Adelaide, the number of undiscovered poets we have in our society? Because they were all around you. All the young poets were lying around your feet.

Ted Hughes: I got the impression that there are a great number. I met, maybe, what? A dozen, and among this dozen there were – must have been five – nearly 50% of my sampling – all in their twenties – who seemed to me really outstanding. Very exciting. Quite unexpected.

CW: Well, how many people can work out who’s a good poet and who isn’t a good poet?

TH: Well, other poets do it first of all. And then other people eavesdrop slowly. And then after about… if it doesn’t happen immediately, then after about fifty years it gets far enough around for him to have a reputation. Takes a long time. Slow process.

CW: When people say that poets are just ordinary people… what is the mechanism, and what have they got that makes them use words the way they use words?

TH: Well that’s the mystery. It’s just some particular faculty that specimens here and there in any society are given, and it’s as though the society decided that they needed somebody to do this job, and so, subconsciously, they chose one, and this faculty develops in him. But this doesn’t alter… this doesn’t set him outside the society. It includes him into it more widely and more deeply. He just becomes the spokesman for the deepest thoughts and feelings – maybe suppressed thought and feelings – in that society. There’s no such thing as a poet without a tribe.

CW: OK. So when that tribe recognizes you, doing that…

TH: Then you have a following. Then people recognize your poetry. Because in your poetry, they recognize their own inner life.

CW: Now, do they treat you, say in England, any different than they would treat you in Ireland, or Russia, or Hungary?

TH: In Ireland, I’d be much more respected, because ‘poet’ in Ireland is still a sort of sacred role. Poets were second only to kings in Ancient Ireland. And in Russia, I would have, if I managed to balance every other difficulty, I would have a readership of maybe a million or two.

CW: What do you think your readership is here?

TH: I don’t know in Australia. In England, I don’t know either. Maybe thirty thousand.

CW: Well, for instance, the book Crow, how many people would use that as a sort of handbook, in schools in England?

TH: I don’t know that anybody would use it as a hand book in schools. But it seems to have quite a strong tribal following among people of a certain imaginative bent. But because it’s such exclusive material, it’s rather childish material, it’s mythological material, there’s a whole mass of the more intellectual or traditional part of society that would find a lot in it to take exception to. So it has a rather ambiguous reputation. I don’t follow it a great deal too closely. I just hear reactions from the odd individual, from which I make my (sort of) calculations.

CW: Well how do you live in England? Do you live with a reputation of being a writer or do you live as someone…

TH: I lived first of all as a writer. And that became too exhausting, so I took up farming, to get away from just the dependence on writing – or the feeling of dependence on writing. I’m still completely dependent on writing.

CW: Dependent for what?

TH: Dependent for sanity. But having another occupation means that you’re not turned toward writing for your livelihood, for your absolute basic subsistence. You know that at the last crunch, you can eat a sheep, or you can kill a bullock, or… And besides, these beautiful animals occupy your whole time, or your thoughts. And the literary world fades away.

CW: We are talking with the British Poet Ted Hughes. Do you think you could read one of those poems from your book, please?

TH: Yes. This is a very early one. This is from long ago. One of the first pieces I wrote. It’s about a… it’s just a poem about a photograph of six youths taken just before the outbreak of the First World War. In West Yorkshire. A little valley in West Yorkshire. And the war came. These six youths all joined up – went over to Rochdale and joined the Lancashire Fusiliers. And they all trained together. They all worked in the same company, so they all fought together. And, so, they were all killed together. And these were friends of my father’s. So I heard these various stories when I was a child. Anyway, here’s the poem. Just meditation on this photograph.

READS: 'Six Young Men' (THCP 45)

MUSIC: ‘Gaudete’

CW: I’m looking here at an interview with another Englishman called Jonathan Miller1, who also came out to the Adelaide Festival. And Jonathan Miller was criticizing… “frivolous vulgarities that pass for good theatre”, and he was saying, the – you know, the universe is intelligible but confusing. And the best way to understand it is to take advice, to read, to figure out what a man like Shakespeare meant. Now how do I figure out what a man like you means through your poetry? Do I have to listen to your explanations or can I determine and read anything … that I want out of your poems? But how do I find out about you?

TH: Well, first of all you have to feel that you’re going to like it before you actually look at it.(Laughs). You have to have that bow-wave, coming ahead, of instinct about it. Then you read it and it has to interest you in some way or other. And get hold of your imagination in some way. And maybe that’s as far as you get. That sort of stirs you and you see a world in it that opens a world for you – that you’d like to go into. But following Jonathan Miller’s lecture… then you’ve got to find out what’s behind it. In other words, what material I was drawing on when I used it; what particular pressure and balance of things I was managing in the temper of the work; and in the balance of lights and darks and heavies, and so on, within the work.

CW: Well, I’ve been drawn immediately to that book, because it’s called Crow. And I…

TH: That’s right!

CW: … love crows, and I like the noise of crows. But most people hate crows, they’re frightened of them, and don’t like the sound of them.

TH: Yes. Well the most successful thing about this book is the title. Because everybody reacts about crows in one way or the other. But anyway, it’s an interesting bird. The most intelligent bird in the world, of course.

CW: Have you had much to do with our birds here?

TH: I’ve seen your Australian magpies, which are more crow than our crows, actually. More crow-ey. And they’re even black-and-white, you see, and the whole adventure of this bird in my book is, first of all, to be not just black but black-and-white, and then completely white, and then human, and then, even get married. It’s a process.

CW: Well, where are you going to start in the Crow book?

TH: Well, opening the programme, I was reading one, just before Crow gets born. ‘An Examination at the Womb Door’ [not on this tape]. So Crow comes into the world – he gets born – and he comes into a world that’s just been created. It’s also a world that’s just on the point of ending. But anyway, there is God creating the world and creating the six days. And so, God takes Crow in hand. Here’s a poem about one of these early episodes.

READS: ‘Crow’s First Lesson’ (THCP 211)

MUSIC.

TH: Well, as he goes along, he sees all these early legends are written one way, and then written the other way, and he realizes that the entire theological history of the world is everyman’s game. And so he sees that his own version, the real truth of the matter, still hasn’t been stated. So here‘s his version of the figures that figure on the Tree. The Serpent in the Tree, the Garden of Eden, and so on.

READING: ‘Apple Tragedy’ (THCP 250)

CW: Oh, that’s a beaut’ version of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

TH: Well, the early versions were just a different arrangement of all the same props.

CW: Do you think that…

TH: Just a matter of how you arrange the props.

CW: Do you think that’s… Is that more honest, your version, do you think? More real?

TH: It’s as real.

CW: What’s the next one you’re going to read?

TH: That’s a pocket epic. A pocket religious epic that he wrote. But he also wrote many little plays. This is when, late in his days… when he was getting intelligent and culturized. But he never took plays beyond notes, because he realized that, in fact, dialogue, and so on, are a terrible trap for both drama and actor. He never took the act … dramatis personae beyond two, because he realized the moment you get three, you’ve got complications. And anyway, he couldn’t somehow get more than two to do the job. This is one of his plays. Just the notes. Just as he’d write them for somebody to write the play or at least… to put the play together. Just the bare outline of what was to happen, through this play of his two characters, his two regular characters, one male, one female. So, first of all, there’s a sort of… gives you the setting:

READS: ‘Notes for a Little Play’ (THCP 212)

MUSIC: ‘Mother, mother, make my bed’, sung by Maddy Prior.

CW: When we’re looking at Crow, there’s a sequence of poems that seem to go together and there’s one particularly beautiful one call ‘Lovesong’. I was saying to you before, you know, half the beauty of listening to your poetry is watching you, your body and your hands and your face move with all the rhythms of the words.

TH: (Amused) You sound as though I’m a puppet at this side of the table, leaping around. The ‘Lovesong’ is one of seven. During his long tribulations, he gradually develops some purpose in his life, which becomes a quest to find who created him. And he’s no means of knowing who it could possibly have been, but this great need anyway strengthens. And so he’s forever, through one clue and another, approaching his creator. And when he gets there, it always turns out that it’s some female or other. And so throughout his tribulations he’s involved with all sorts of females. Most of them not very human. (Laughs) I mean snakes and that sort of thing. And, anyway, towards the end, he passes over, through big trials, and comes to a great river, finally. And on the other side of the river is a happy land with all sorts of promises. But at the edge of the river sits this gigantic woman who’s just like the accumulation of every… everything horrible in the natural world. And this woman forces him to carry her over the river. So he wades out into the current and gets into the deep water, and her weight begins to increase, and he has to stop. And her weight goes on increasing and drives him down into the river bed ‘til the current’s flowing past his mouth. And then she asks him a question. And he has to answer the question immediately. He has to sing the answer. And the answer has to be right. And so he begins to sing, desperately trying to get the right, right, right, right answer to this difficult, difficult question. And he keeps hitting bits of rightness, and whenever he does her weight lightens and lightens. So he keeps at it, until finally she’s back at her original weight and that’s the end of the answer. And then he’s able to go on. Then her weight increases again, and the whole thing happens again. And so on, seven times. But these questions are dilemma questions, and they’re all questions referring to his encounters with this – these females. So, they’re all questions about a man and woman. They’re all questions about love. And, as I say, they’re all dilemma questions. They’re all questions without an answer. For instance, this is his attempt to answer the question “Who paid most, him or her?”. “Who paid most?” And so he begins to sing very, very desperately, with the water flowing past his mouth:

READS: ‘Lovesong’(THCP 255)

MUSIC: ‘O there was an old gouty farmer… ’, sung by Maddy Prior.

CW: That was British poet, Ted Hughes, reading his poem called ‘Lovesong’ from a book called Crow. And listening to Ted Hughes, as you’d understand, the poetry isn’t just birds and bees and gum trees, it’s ferocious and violent and beautiful. Particularly read by the man who writes it. His colleague, Adrian Mitchell2, a British poet, looked at Australia and reflected on Britain and said, “Why do we think poetry is an effeminate lot of nonsense for intellectual people? Poetry is for the people, and it’s written by ordinary men”.

REPEATED SECTION, THEN:

TH: Yes, and there’s also a trap of course. Dylan Thomas was so marvellously good at it that the whole reading became a machinery in itself. Became a sort of tank – a giant armoured, thing, that crushed everything. And finally he was trying to produce poetry to fit this huge armoured thing that lumbered around whenever he gave a reading. And so what his poetry might have been, finally, you just don’t know. But you know it wasn’t what his reading demanded he produce. So the… rather than the reading being a projection of what he really was… could write, the reading became something that demanded he write in a certain way. And so it is dangerous. He was completely hypnotized, himself, by the tremendously powerful thing that he’d created.

CW: Could you read something for me please.

TH: I’ll read you a rural poem. A little poem.

CW: For a country girl. (Laughing).

TH: All right. A bucolic poem. About a pig, a dead pig. Just the body of a dead pig.

READS: ‘View of a Pig’(THCP 75)

TH: Shall I read you another one?

CW: Yes please.

TH: Another bucolic one – about wolves. This is a sort of urban bucolic. This is listening to the wolves howling in Regents Park Zoo, when I used to live just beside the zoo. And once or twice a month all the wolves in the zoo would begin to howl and all the different kinds of dog and foxes…

CW: Once a month?

TH: Two or three times a month. New moon and full moon probably. And this incredible sound for three or four minutes… just go on and on and on. This is called ‘The Howling of Wolves’.

READS: ‘The Howling of Wolves’ (THCP180)

MUSIC: ‘Here’s me bag and me bed… ’ sung by Maddy Prior.

REPEATED SECTION, THEN:

TH: [Part missing ] … side and trick it and make it lose heart, but the more he does the more he sets up against, the more obstacles he brings up against it, the cleverer it becomes, the bigger it becomes, the stronger it becomes, the more able, until finally it’s a battle between the two of them.

CW: How lovely. (Laughing) I’d like a battle with God. Unfortunately, he usually comes in the usual shape of one sort of person. But still… What are you going to read now?

REPEATED SECTION, THEN:

MUSIC: ‘Mother, mother, make my bed… ’ sung by Maddy Prior.

CW: How many books do you have on the market? At the moment?

TH: Not quite sure.

CW: Well, I bought one of yours in Adelaide, which was Crow, but you’re reading from another one there, which is…

TH: That’s New Selected Poems. That’s about it.

CW: Can you make a good living from your poetry and the sales of it?

TH: I do make a living from it, yes. But I do other things as well, which earn more. Other sorts of writing and all sorts of indirect activity connected with it – that earns me much more. But I could live on it at the moment.

CW: I don’t think many people in this country live on poetry. I don’t know of anyone. I think you’ve suggested perhaps this society in Australia is not being examined hard enough by many… from many literary angles, by many literary people.

TH: I think it’s… it seems to me, from my very brief, shallow glimpse, that the last two generations of… in other words, the people who are in our thirties, the people in our twenties, are enormously different. The literary world… the literary outlook is enormously different. Whereas before you just had one or two here and there who were searching and rather lonely figures, now you seem to have a great many who are searching in the same way and very actively examining everything. No doubt they’ll produce completely different literature. Whereas you had one or two who were obviously alert and wide-awake, now you have a great number – whole new generations.

CW: Thank you very much for coming this morning, Ted Hughes.

MUSIC.

END OF RECORDING.


REFERENCES

1. Sir Jonathan Miller (b. 1934) . Well-known English author, theatre and opera director, and television presenter. He is also a qualified physician and neuropsychologist.

2. Adrian Mitchell (b.1932) English poet and dramatist.

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