Bernard Schwartz and Alice Oswald on Ted Hughes at London Review Bookshop 07.03.17

“I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive”

“The Thought-Fox” encapsulates Alice Oswald’s view that Ted Hughes did not perform the poem as he read, but that “the poem performed him.” Hughes, she thought, was being played by his own music.

This event, organised by Peter Howarth of the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University, London, was devised by Bernard Schwartz, director of the Poetry Center at 92Y in New York, which has been known for its recordings of poets for the past seventy years. Schwartz, a visiting fellow at Queen Mary, had wondered if it would work to have a live evening with a current poet listening and commenting on the recording of a past poet, and hence Alice Oswald was asked to speak about Hughes’ recordings from 1971 and 1986.

The first recording was from 1971 with Hughes introducing and reading “The Thought-Fox” as the first poem he felt was worth keeping. He tells us that he wrote it about two years after his infamous “departure from studies in academic English” when he dreamt that a “burnt fox” warned him that his studies were “killing us.” Two other foxes were also described – one from his childhood and another from a Swedish film. Oswald then talked about how she came to Hughes; as an undergraduate she felt she was, “narrow minded about poetry” but like Hughes she stopped her academic studies and looked for a looser style, but one which still meant that, “every brick” would count. Finding this in Hughes she called it his “compulsory inner music.” He was not a Nature poet in her opinion; rather, by fusing the different foxes, from one of which, who had human hands, the poet created a mythic fox, a metaphorical fox, Hughes was a “preternatural poet.”

“Pibroch” came next, Oswald placing it in a Beckettian world, where there were stones and wind and “A tree [that] struggles to make leaves” reminding us of Waiting for Godot. Redeeming us from this nihilism, Hughes’ “upbeat sound”, the colours of red and black and the “nobility of humans” speak of “the gift of life.” We then heard “Littleblood”, one of the Crow poems, given to Crow by an eskimo. Hughes seems to have brought together disturbing images, but finishes with hope, so after, “Sucking death’s mouldy tits”, comes, “Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, O littleblood.” It felt strange therefore that Oswald did not read at all; it would have been uplifting to hear the voice of the dead, speaking in the living. Hughes’ legacy to us is surely, not only what we have from the past, but what it stirs within us for our lives and literature now and in the future.

“How Water Began to Play” followed where water is mineral, a universal element and not a geographical feature. In a fascinating break from Hughes, there came a reading from the actress Irene Worth, who Schwartz told us appealed to Hughes not to read her any more Crow poems as she found them terrifying. Worth played Phèdre speaking to Theseus in a 1999 recording made in memory of Hughes. Other testimonies followed, first from Peter Brook who said that Hughes had the “ability to reach the active language” and then Derek Walcott who remembered that he had been in Lorca’s house when he had heard that Hughes had died.

Finally we reached the 1986 recording of “October Salmon”. Hughes had explained that when his father was dying, he stayed with him and they would walk in and around the village. The customary walk revealed the fish and through this introduction, the poem becomes yet more powerful in its observation of the great laid low; of the closeness of death, even at birth. One cannot but remember, as you listen, Hughes’ own life, the “Aurora Borealis/Of his April power” comes finally back to his October death and that “epic poise.”

Di Beddow is speaking at the Huddersfield University Ted Hughes Network Symposium in June; she is presenting on the Cambridge of Ted Hughes. Anyone interested in either the Ted Hughes Network, or joining the Ted Hughes Society should contact these links:

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Di Beddow

Mother; ex-teacher and senior leader; currently PhD student at Queen Mary University of London researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge; feminist; socialist.