Ted Hughes and Shamanism
by Michael Baldwin.

©Michael Baldwin

Shamanism is not my word for Ted’s belief system, nor – in my hearing – was it ever Ted’s. It was used as a generic description of Ted’s muse by A. Alvarez in several broadcasts subsequent to Ted’s death. Alvarez and Hughes were friends until 1963. Since then, and certainly since his death, Alvarez has spoken less kindly of Ted, although television and radio producers have included him as a ‘friend‘ in posthumous appraisals of the poet’s work. By using the word, Alvarez has seemed to express disapproval of ideas derived from inferior traditions, a stance in itself not dissimilar to Eliot’s views about Blake. His supporting remarks hinted at rather more, a contempt for thinking that struck him as confused and sub–intellectual. By speaking of Ted’s ‘shamanism’ Alvarez was in fact dismissing much of Ted’s poetry since Lupercal as messy.

Long before Hughes and Alvarez fell out, arguments about poetry had again assumed an almost religious ferocity, and as with religious controversy the debate was often emotionalized and instinctive. Critics, reviewers at least, shot from the hip without much identification of points of aim. The poets themselves, as one who knew them and read with them, played little part in the brawl, but many of them had noisy acolytes. It was the sort of argument Ted tended to smile at and rise above. It certainly gave the lie to any fear that poetry was dead arid draped on the altars of first the novel, then film, then television.

Alvarez himself had been an energetic infuser of this new vitality, just as he had proved himself to be an urgent campaigner in the quarrel. He was, of course, pre-eminent for a decade as critic, reviewer, editor and anthologist; and he certainly managed to write verse that exemplified his own criteria. His poems (they were not many, another negative requirement of the time) were pithy and clever and went a pace or two beyond the Movement poets. They were ‘tough’, a very mid-century word. ‘Tough’ was the blood-group of Alvarez’s anthology, The New Poetry published in 1962. He thought Ted’s poetry was tough too, tough enough for the anthology. Ted’s poetry stayed tough, for a time it grew tougher and rougher, but it continued to flow and grow and swarm; and it went off in a narrative and mythological direction that many of his earlier admirers, including Alvarez, were not prepared to consider. Hence the need for a suitably belittling description once Alvarez and Ted fell out. They fell out for other and more personal reasons, of course, and the personal ones probably triggered the conflict in belief. A divorce in affections so often presages a change in faith.

Alvarez was smart to seize upon a term like shamanism. One can never deny the rigor of Ted’s work, but it can be presented as a piecemeal rigour, akin to the psalms or a collection of folk utterances – both acknowledged starting points for Ted’s thinking. An obvious trigger for such a critical viewpoint was Ted’s obsession – not too loaded a word – with animal life. What did it amount to? He wasn’t constructing an ongoing fable, nor even a bestiary. From time to time, and perhaps all the time, and not only in ‘Thought Fox’, there was a magical glitter to his writing, a sense of evocation, as in some of Yeats’ poetry, of occult tokens or at least of symbols of the arcane. Yet as I write this, and in thinking of Ted, I have before me a list of magical beasts supposedly drawn up by Albertus Magus as published in one of many books that Ted led me to very early in our acquaintance. There is scarcely any resemblance between that list and anything Ted has written about before or since. Still, Alvarez had a keen nose to track mischief. Ted’s work increasingly came with its own aura. Its postures were not accidental. They needed to be accounted for. ‘Shamanism’ would do very nicely.

I don’t know how well Alvarez knew Ted domestically. Anyone who knew him at the time (I first had dealings with him in 1962, but wasn’t a frequent house-guest until 1968) would have been aware of his interest in wild and unusual events, stories with preposterous, surreal or supernatural endings. It was well known that he had rejected his Literature course at Cambridge in favour of Anthropology, so it was all too easy to cite his wilder flights of fancy, his enthusiasm for primitivism and the oral tradition, as a rejection not merely of the literary but of the literal as well. Easy but shallow. Ted’s approach to wild stories, whether they were found in the writings of Lethbridge, Daniken and, later, Carlos Castaneda, was very similar to Karen Armstrong’s account of the Hebrew creation myths. He felt they represented a truth but was clear they weren’t based on fact. Lethbridge caused him to pause longer than some, because Lethbridge conducted experiments, much as Ted did himself. But he spoke about them all with what can best be described as enthusiastic amusement. They enlivened a day’s chat while pacing from pool to pool on a trout river or searching a wood for fox or badger sets, but they could as easily be rejected as trivial. They were bedtime books. Lethbridge aside, they weren’t for the shelf. The same could be said for the myriad publications on the Kabala (I’m speaking of it as it was in the sixties and seventies, not as it has reemerged today as an overblown cult for pop-stars).

Then there was Idries Shah on Sufism, or rather Idries Shah on everything save Sufism. Ted did not reject the myths of Sufism itself. They were facts insofar as they represented the belief system of an ethnic group: as an anthropologist he treated them seriously. He also respected the use that Peter Brook could make of them in theatrical production, though he repeated with raised eyebrows some of Peter’s stories about his encounters with Sufi rituals in the desert. There was another dimension here. Ted loved telling stories. He regarded a good story as a form that possessed a force of its own, something that existed quite apart from the elegance or vulgarity of its language or its connection to truth or relationship with probability. I have heard him repeat anecdotes from books he otherwise rubbished – treatises on topics as various as the Bermuda triangle, Einstein’s involvement with invisible warships, out–of–the–body experiences, the conversion of astral to physical flight – repeat them and say as he said frequently in public and private, and more than once wrote, that there was magic in a good story.

I don’t know to what extent Alvarez and some of the later denigrators gained an insight into Ted’s family life as distinct from his social milieu. His sister Olwyn’s enthusiasm for I’Chin, together with Ted’s own amusement with and later disdain for Ouija, would have suggested a considerable interest in the occult, as would his group experiments in psychokinesis or telepathy.

Experiments were precisely what they were, though. I have several times joined an Ouija circle with Ted, Olwyn and others. He never suggested the exercise and often did his best to avoid it as being trivial or open to corruption. The last time I sat with him over an Ouija board was during the Christmas or year’s end of 1977. I fancy Olwyn was the prime mover and perhaps the only enthusiast for the adventure. Ted only agreed to participate if (1) the letters were scrambled and (2) placed face down on the board with a neutral – i.e. non–participating – reader appointed. In the end we took turns to read and record the results. Ted still thought the messages were corrupt. He insisted the players wore blindfolds, though later conceded the impossibility of blindfolding a woman. “They see with their ears, and if you muffle their ears they can still see with the tips of their tongues”. He was in a bad mood by then and probably invoking Keats’ Lamia if not snakes direct. Still convinced that the readings were corrupt, he scrambled the letters between each round, again laying them face down.

A powerful message continued to emerge, possibly menacing him, certainly threatening me. Malign supernatural forces at work? Not according to Ted. He was certain one of us was rigging the board, and I suppose it is possible to accept that someone squinting down their nose from beneath a displaced blindfold might have been able to recognise marks on the backs of pieces of card or identify different shapes in scraps of torn paper. He certainly did not accept that our fingers were being guided by anyone or anything but ourselves.

But these stories get out. This one has taken a quarter of a century, but the disaffected are less sparing of their tongues. There has been plenty of chat about spells to slow up or retard the burning of candles, and other gossipy exaggerations of experiments in psychokinesis, water–divining with sticks, and Lethbridge–style divining with pendula when none of the occasions amounted to much more than most people explore at some time or other. Most of them arose from someone – not always Ted – suggesting, “If the supper table must have a party game, let’s try this.”

So what do I know about Ted the shaman? Nothing, save that he might have rejoiced in the title before going on to question what exactly Alvarez meant by it. About Ted the occultist in the western tradition I came to know quite a lot, but doubt whether it has much bearing on the substance of his poetry. As noticed earlier, we can detect occultist mannerisms in his earlier work, but only in the means, rarely the matter. When it threatens to emerge fully in a poem like ‘Gog’ or other manifestations in Wodwo it can be quite startling, yet its appearance owes much more to literary influences and superlative poetic invention than to any ancient grimoire. And when it comes fully to birth in Gaudete, what exactly is it? What one discovers in the Reverend Lumb is an erudite Ted Cornish, the Okehampton mystic and healer, kidnapped by Ted and carried off in a poem, even down to his habits of worship, like cuddling trees. Cornish was an impressive man, of course, and several of the West country hospitals would send him terminal cancer cases when they could hold out no more hope for them, and he did achieve some sensational and well-documented acts of healing. Even he went wrong, though, and fell short of expectation in the end. As Ted told me some twenty years after we had all contributed to a television series together: “He used to be impressive, at least in person. Now he’s no more than a third rate spiritualist.” There were probably no first rate spiritualists for Ted, other than spiritual healers, because I fancy he would have regarded spiritualism – man entranced and adrift in some ill–defined etheric sea – as messy, even as a concept.

I was first introduced to certain aspects of the occult by Ted during the Summer of 1968. He supposed I would be receptive to them, though his reasoning was slightly wide of the mark. Still, it was thoughtful and sensitive enough, as always with him when it came to friendship. He knew that I did quite a lot of hypnotism in clubs and at parties (it was then banned from public performance), and we had discussed various experiments we might conduct into the supposed phenomenon of prenatal and even pre–personal memory (the former being very much a clinical talking point of the time and the latter a good topic for after-dinner chat) if only either of us could come up with a suitable and willing volunteer. He knew my poetry: he and Anthony Thwaite had made my Death on a Live Wire the Christmas choice of the Poetry Book Society in 1962. More recently he had detected, wrongly as it happened, or wrongly insofar as I was then ignorant of them, certain magical influences from the oral mythology of the North American Plains Indians in the title poem of my 1967 collection How Chas Egget Lost his Way in a Creation Myth.

What happened was we came out of a Daily Mirror committee meeting together with me in a very raw state. My private life was in total disarray, and later that evening I was to be faced with some very difficult decisions. Ted picked this up at once and led me towards the Salisbury in St Martin’s Lane for a drink – I thought for a drink, but it was only to stow his gear. The principal destination was to be the place in the adjacent alleyway he always referred to since as ‘Watkins’ bookshop.’

We were there a long time. He couldn’t find what he was looking for; ‘old Mr Watkins’ wasn’t there and he didn’t want to ask the assistant, Anna Madge, whom incidentally I already knew from an earlier Daily Mirror committee. (Anna was Kathleen Raine’s daughter, and Ted always struck me as being very private about his occult research). Once he realised I was acquainted with her he wouldn’t ask her for help. In the end he bought me a very handsome copy, after skim–reading it, of W. E. Butler’s The Magician: his Training and Work. “This is harmless,” he said. “Solid, and harmless but very, very good. Keep it to yourself, read it critically and take from it what you will.” Those who know it will agree with Ted’s judgment. Butler endorses Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, finds much to commend in formal church worship (though he deplores the average priest’s ignorance of the hugeness of the psychic charge it can engender) and only goes beyond the normal confines of prayer by making much of the Banishing Ritual of the Lesser Pentagram. I will certainly endorse it this far. If a man or woman completes the Banishing Ritual (notice the capitalization and deduce of me what you will) he or she will certainly be spared the compulsion to let down the tires of his neighbors’ cars or strangle his cats.

I visited Watkins’ on a number of occasions after that, not always with Ted. We did not ever perform occultist ritual conjurations together, or join Peter Redgrove and Penelope, who had lain in a circle feet to the moon in order to conceive Zoe. Ted – opening the letter in my presence – said in horror, “The child will be mad!” He then reflected and said, “Should have been head to the moon anyway. You always rope the heifer head to the moon so the usual tides draw the bull’s semen deep.” Zoe wasn’t mad, thank God. We awarded her the top Mirror prize for poetry some sixteen years later. Hardly nepotism, but Ted and I thought it proper to declare an interest before abstaining from the vote.

I still have Butler’s The Magician. Inside, in Ted’s hand, one word is written: Bardoin. It is not a corruption of my name, but the misspelled name of the author Ted was searching for but couldn’t find in Watkins’ bookshop. Those who know it will recognize a very sinister twentieth century grimoire. A twin grimoire, as it happens. Printed abroad – I think my copies, always scurrying about the library shelves and otherwise elusive, were assembled in India after being translated through several languages without decent copy–editing – the text book itself is full of dark instructions for all manner of lethal conjurations. Its companion volume itemizes a guardian spirit and counterbalancing demon for every degree of the azimuth, It’s a bold magician who plays with the instructions in this book – Eliphas Levi once embarked on a similar line of conjuration and nearly lost his mind.

Did Ted ever cut the rod and sprinkle the salt? You would not expect me to know or him to say. It is not a game two people can play together, and all I can reveal as his palimpsest is that I once found the Banishing Ritual of the Lesser Pentagram and so–called Magic Mirror very helpful in life. That was a long time ago. Ted and I rarely discussed it before or after, though for a few years Olwyn referred to us as ‘you magicians’.

When things were going badly for either of us, Ted would remind me to light a candle before taking up my pen; but if challenged he would have a scientific as well as a psychic reason: candle–flame is a good ioniser. Later he and Carol bought electric ionisers for their house, as do many other people and most dairymen. Ionisers keep cattle and humans calm. Afterwards Ted and Carol could tell many a story about stormy guests breezing towards gentler relationships. “Are people getting to you?” he would sometimes ask on the phone. “Me too, till yesterday. Then I gave myself time to refashion my astral cloak. Spend some time on yourself.”

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