Ted Hughes

I spent yesterday at the Ted Hughes conference in the smart Heritage Quay suite at Huddersfield University. I gave a paper titled ‘Ted Hughes and Gallipoli’, about his representations of his father’s war (William Hughes was on the peninsula with the 1st/5th Lancashire Fusiliers and, Hughes wrote, remained ‘undemobbed’, still troubled by his experiences for years after.
Hughes was born in 1930, but his father’s war shadowed his childhood. He wrote:

[T]hose born after the First World War but before the late thirties – that slightly different species who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.

He described inter-war England as ‘ a kind of mental hospital of the survivors’.
In the sixties, round about the fiftieth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, Hughes wanted to write a major poem on the subject, but nothing came of this (unless you consider how the strength of his feelings about the horror may have enriched Crow).
Later in life, though, he drafted a major work: ‘Black Coat: Opus 131’. This interleaved poems about his father’s war with poems about his own life, especially his relationship with Sylvia Plath. Eventually the more personal material took over; and many of the poems found their way into Birthday Letters, but without the Great War material.
I can see why he made the choice; the Sylvia poems are richer, and have the authority of personal experience. But there are striking war poems in the collection, notably those about William Hughes’s attempt to rescue a wounded friend from No-Man’s-Land. And there is the poem that starts like this, which raises questions for all of us in the memory business:

I agree it would be altogether
Good to forget the dead. Good how good
To forget that First World War.
That fly-paper
Fouled with the survivors
That did us for school. Good also
To forget the Second World War…

The other papers yesterday dealt with much less military topics. I’m a bit out of my usual comfort zone when asked to consider topics like the role of the poet as Shamanic healer, but it’s fascinating to hear about. Ted Hughes was a man of many dimensions – often a bit daft, as in his enthusiasm for astrology and Ouija boards, but with a vision that makes him worth reading. It’s good to see the devotion that his work obviously inspires in so many of the conference attendees.
The conference continues today. I’m looking forward to the papers linking Hughes to  various Yorkshire (and other) localities.

The conference is organised by the Ted Hughes Network – a lively organisation.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 19, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this. What I find strange with the passing of the years is the growth of generations who really don’t understand the term “before the war”. For the immediate post war generation like myself, the war (as in WW2) was ever present, both in terms of survivors, stories, and the physical evidence in ruins and air raid shelters. However the First War was still there as well, because it was so immediate to our parents’ generation. My grandfather and many other relatives were killed in the First War, and this impacted in the way Hughes describes on their immediate descendants. My Mother never got to know her father because of it, although he saw her as a small baby, and the war’s shadow was long and psychologically devastating.


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