Mytholmroyd-born poet Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998) is one of the most important figures in modern English literature. His literary achievements put him on a par with that other great South Pennine writer, Emily Bronte, who, in some ways, bears direct comparison with him. Of English-born poets from the last hundred years, only Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill can claim equivalent vision and panache.
However, his life remains deeply controversial and this can obscure his real significance, not just as an author of international standing, but as a pivotal figure in the development of the upper Calder Valley.
In Hughes’s case, the cliché is true: he is a figure of extraordinary contradictions.
He was a poet who wrote about specific places, often places in the Calder Valley, yet his visceral and immediate style owes more to Eastern European poetry than to English traditions. He was both a stylistic radical and a political conservative, an expressionist poet of myth and nature whose work ponders his own social and political context: mills, Methodism and the first world war. In his shamanic beliefs, he is in some ways a precursor of the hippy culture, which helped shaped Hebden Bridge in particular; yet, he was disdainful of hippies, believing that local people were the human expression of the geology and harsh natural forces of the valley. And no outsider in search of authentic experience could ever truly get their drift.
A powerfully handsome man, he is the only poet to have been played on film by James Bond (aka Daniel Craig, whose mispronunciation of Mytholmroyd in the movie Sylvia remains an abiding memory). In popular culture, he is confused with the frustrated and brutish working class men in the novels of one of his cultural heroes, D H Lawrence. In fact, Hughes was an accomplished Cambridge graduate, who never lost a sense of where he came from, a deeply private man, a devoted father, loyal friend and keen fly-fisher.
He is often remembered as the husband of the great American poet, Sylvia Plath, who is buried in nearby Heptonstall: the macho man who forced a great poet into powerless domesticity and whose subsequent infidelity drove her to suicide. Whatever went on between them, this is just a stereotype.
Above all else, poetry was Ted Hughes’s life. It was not a performance he worked up to, he lived and breathed it. For him, life could be trapped in words, like a net.
It is not the sort of poetry that can easily be turned into slogans for the ‘visitor economy’. In fact, he once had a go at the whole concept, by summing up 30,000 years of Calder Valley history in fifteen lines, partly to demonstrate the emptiness of tourism, which he clearly held in contempt : –
Death-struggle of the glacier
Enlarged the long gullet of Calder
Down which its corpse vanished.
Farms came, stony masticators
Of generations that ate each other
To nothing inside them…
Now, coil behind coil,
A wind-parched ache,
An absence, famished and staring,
To pick among crumbling, loose molars
And empty sockets.
(Remains of Elmet)
Hughes published many volumes of poetry, beginning with The Hawk in the Rain in 1957, and ending with Birthday Letters, which concerned his intense and unfinished relationship with Sylvia Plath, in 1998. Inbetween, his main collection were Lupercal , (1960,) which contains archetypal Hughes poems like Pike ; Wodwo (1967), in which his style became freer and more spontaneous; the gruesome and darkly funny From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970); Moortown, a verse diary of his experiences as a sheep farmer; Remains of Elmet (1980), a series of often terse and powerful poems about the Calder Valley (with Faye Godwin, the photographer); River (1983), another volume of poems and photographs, often more ecstatic in tone than Elmet and mainly set in other parts of the UK and Ireland; and Wolfwatching, which contains his most remarkable poems about the effect of the first world war on his family and the Calder valley (1989).
Hughes was also a very good short story writer and his children’s story, The Iron Man (1968), is a classic. An occasional playwright and translator, his version of Euripedes’s Alcestis (1999) is a gripping read, as is his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1997).
Last, but not least, he was also poet laureate from 1984 until his death. Arguably, Rain Charm for the Duchy (1992) is one of the best laureate poems ever written. It celebrates the birth of Prince Harry. The main issue with the poem is whether its subject merits the descriptive power of the verse.
Hughes was also an unforgettable reader of his own work. Many of his readings were broadcast on the radio, and recorded for posterity. The best of these is Ted Hughes: Poems and Short Stories (2008), published by the British library, which includes his radio broadcast of Remains of Elmet, full of trenchant personal asides about ‘the muddy ditch of the Calder Valley’ and affectionate memories of its people.
You can hear Ted read his own work on the Poetry Archive. For instance, his famous poem Pike.
The US website, Poetry Foundation, also has a useful section on Ted Hughes
We are a small enthusiastic group of volunteers who love Ted’s work and are determined that his literary legacy will live on through events such as exhibitions, festivals and walks in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire. If you would like to get involved we would love to hear from you.