“Ted has said that ‘Song’ (THCP 24) was his first ‘real’ poem, written when he was 18 or 19. Is this true?”

In an interview published in The Paris Review (Vol. 37, No.13, Spring 1995. pp 55-94), Ted said that ‘Song’ was the earliest piece of his own poetry that he ever kept. He described how he wrote it in his “nineteenth year” when he was in the Royal Air Force for National Service, doing night duty, and it came to him “literally a voice in the air at about 3.00 A.M.”. The poem is mentioned in letters to Edna Wholey (LTH Undated , 1950) and Nick Gammage (LTH 21 Oct. 1992). Ted also transcribed it into a notebook belonging to Edna Wholey, and this is now in the Emory University Ted Hughes Archive.

In notes which are also deposited in the Emory University Ted Hughes Archive, Olwyn Hughes has written: “When publication of The Hawk in the Rain was agreed, Marianne Moore wanted three of the MSS poems out. Ted wanted something to replace them. I remembered ‘Song’ (about the muse… and about his school relationship with Jean Findlay [a girl who was in the class ahead of him at grammar school] – as he said at the time). I only recall remembering its existence (it was on reading it that I first realized that Ted was a poet) and a line or two here and there. He worked on it and was able to recapture it”.

Ted’s earliest poems, ‘Wild West’ (THCP 3), ‘Too Bad for Hell’ (THCP 4), ‘The Recluse’ (THCP 6), ‘Initiation’ (THCP 7) and ‘Here in the Green and Glimmering Gloom’ (THCP 7) were all published in Don and Dearn (the school magazine of Mexborough Grammar School) before ‘Song’ was written. However, Ted never republished any of these poems in any of his books. They are included in Ted Hughes: Collected Poems, which was compiled and edited by Paul Keegan and was published two years after Ted’s death.

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“I have heard that Ted Hughes once worked at the London Zoo and that the poem ‘The Jaguar’ (THCP 19) was written there. What sort of work did he do?”

In 1994, Ted worked for two days at Regents Park Zoo in London before moving on to a job in a rose nursery. At the zoo, as he told Ben Sonnenberg (LTH Undated 1990), he “lived in a ‘transit’ cage near the kitchen window” where he stood “for most of the day” doing the washing up for the zoo’s restaurant. The jaguar cage was opposite him and he used to watch the jaguar in the cage going too and fro all day. Later, as he said at a poetry reading in 1996, he tried to write about that jaguar “as you would make a sculpture of him, make a portrait of him” and he had “a curious experience”. Whilst trying to describe the Jaguar’s snarl, Ted remembered a dog he had once seen biting at a fly that had landed on its nose, and he imagined a fly right up inside the jaguar’s nose enraging it. As he imagined this and wrote the phrase – “A jaguar hurrying enraged/ Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes”, a fly flew across the cold room where he was sitting writing and flew right up his own nostril. “That’s the magic of poetry”, Ted said.

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‘The Thought Fox’ (THCP 21). Notes.

Keith Sagar’s interesting and informative paper on this poem can be downloaded from his web page: ‘The Thought Fox'.

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© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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