Sunday, 11 October 2015

Ted

It was quite by chance that, last night, I ended up watching most of the BBC2 documentary about Ted Hughes ('Stronger Than Death' available on BBC iPlayer here.)   It wasn't even something I'd considered tuning into, but within seconds of stumbling upon it I was completely drawn in and stayed.  I really love it when that happens.  It's the opposite of disappointment, when something's not even on my radar but then ends up registering quite deeply, it's when I learn things that I didn't even realise I wanted to know, and I didn't even have to try.  So my interest in Ted's life and work was piqued and I spent an hour after the programme had finished avidly reading about him - and Sylvia Plath - topping up what little I knew about him previously.

I have an uneasy, ambivalent relationship with poetry in general... difficult to explain... but I veer between viewing it, on the one hand, as being an indulgence for the pretentious, the over-romantic and the angsty, yet on the other hand, if I just let it in, appreciating what can be moving, inspiring, beautiful, funny.  I suppose some prejudices came from reading crap poetry posing as something else, and from witnessing the sort of protagonists who lack a sense of humour.  Maybe I'm from a generation which finds it easier to accept poetry in the form of a song lyric. But when I was a child, when I had no concept of any kind of pompous approach to it, I loved poetry...  I loved my poetry books: Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden Of Verses, Spike Milligan's Silly Verse For Kids, T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats.  I never had a Ted  Hughes poetry book, although we did read his novel Iron Man at primary school (alongside such classics as Stig of the Dump by Clive King) and I found it quite hard-going... maybe it was just a bit scary for me.  Perhaps I should re-visit it.

At primary school we also read and enjoyed the poetic works of Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Lear, Adrian Mitchell,  Hilaire Belloc and Christina Rossetti (with the added bonus of many of them being illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and Edward Gorey, whose art I still adore).  Then we'd have to write our own poems about Autumn and favourite pets, etc. and we learned that they didn't even have to rhyme, we just stretched our imaginations out to their furthest points, then edited them into short lines.  I loved it.   I loved the way a well-chosen combination of words could convey so much, could change things, like a kind of alchemy - and I thought one day I'd like to be a poet too.

Anyway, I found the documentary fascinating and thought-provoking.  There are some candid and touching insights from Ted and Sylvia's daughter, Frieda, to whom I warmed immediately, and interviews with friends and associates which were enlightening. Plus, it reminded me to keep being true to what I feel deep down, and that is: not to dismiss the poetic just because, sometimes, it might seem a bit poncey.



Excerpt from 'My Brother Bert' (for children) by Ted Hughes

Pets are the hobby of my brother Bert,
He used to go to school with a mouse in his shirt.

His hobby it grew, as some hobbies will,
And grew and grew and GREW until -

Oh don't breathe a word, pretend you haven't heard,
A simply appalling thing has occurred -

The very thought makes me iller and iller
Bert's brought home a gigantic gorilla!

If you think that's really not such a scare,
What if it quarrels with his Grizzly Bear?....

10 comments:

  1. I'm so sorry that it's not possible to watch BBC programs online outside of the U.K. I'm interested in the Hughes-Plath story. Maybe it will be posted on youtube at some point - I'll definitely keep checking for it. Thanks for the info, C!

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    1. That is a shame, Marie - the BBC make some fine documentaries and as you're interested in the personal story here then I'm sure you'd really enjoy it. Fingers crossed it'll turn up somewhere so you can view in the future.

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  2. Had quite a big argument with my two younger daughters the other day re: Hughes and Plath. They are firmly in the 'Ted Hughes killed Sylvia Plath' camp - yawn - (note, they *are* young and finding their feminist feet) and I just had to stand up for the man. This did not go down well at all. I'm not a particular fan of his poetry but I would like to see the programme. With regard to poetry in *general* (if there could ever be such a thing), yes, much of it can be pretentious twaddle but true power and beauty will always shine. I'm rather a traditionalist when it comes down to it and am often disappointed when leafing through collections of contemporary poetry, regularly coming away with a kid of 'So what?' feeling. Give me Blake, give me Donne and anyone else dead by at least a couple of centuries.

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    1. I hope you'll get chance to watch it, SB - and you may also want to recommend to your daughters! I thought it offered a much more sympathetic viewpoint towards him re. Sylvia's and Assia's suicides and, as I didn't know enough to have formed any strong opinions beforehand, I believe this was probably a good place for me to start. I came away from it without that judgement on him.

      You're right - poetry in 'general', how could there be such a thing? - it's like saying "films in general" or "novels in general"...! I could re-phrase that but maybe it reflects something about my ambivalence. There are some associations for me and maybe that's why I've conveniently put 'poetry' into a box. E.g. my Headmaster singled me out at school (to nurture the 'poetry' in me) and I couldn't bear it, then my mum used poetry as therapy during her depressive periods and it was painful... but somehow both good and bad... I'm sure that's behind this uneasy relationship I have with it. In general ;-)

      Anyway I'm so glad I watched the progamme and it's opened up a bit more to me, I'll go and read some Blake now too!

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  3. I listened to Desert Island Discs while washing up last night, which this week featured Lemn Sissay, an extremely engaging guest, who spoke in a very unpretentious way about the role of poetry in life as he sees it. I know little about Ted Hughes (or poetry in general, even though I went through a period of writing tons of the stuff), though I suspect his views and approach to the art form were more intense than Sissay's. Thanks for the heads up C, I look forward to catching up with the documentary on the iPlayer.

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    1. That Desert Islands Discs episode sounds interesting too. I hope you get to watch the Ted Hughes programme and enjoy it in the same way I did - really it's the life story over the poetry itself that is so fascinating. The turn of events around two of the women in his life could have been so different - and so less tragic - if they had not had the intensity and tendency towards depression in their personalities, but then maybe they would not have been with him in the first place. Compelling viewing!

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  4. A fascinating discussion here, and the comments add to the dialogue. We happened upon a BBC show the other night that we enjoyed about three men in Venice. We are looking forward to catching the same historically set show of 1920s Paris and the people who populated the city. I did not realize Sylvia Plath was married or had a child. No assumption here that they were married. I have some reading to do. Thanks C for this interesting post.

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    1. Thanks Gin G, yes there are some great documentaries produced by the BBC and I'm glad you get to see some over there - hopefully this one too one day.
      Yes Sylvia and Ted married in the 1950s and had two children. If you search for Frieda Hughes you may find some interesting interviews with her online, she has only recently spoken out about her parents (mainly her father, as she was so young when Sylvia died). Their life stories are well worth some further reading, I hope you'll agree!

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  5. Great post C. I have just started doing poetry/songs never did it for 64 years before weird. How you described your thoughts are pretty much spot on. It is self indulgence I suppose. Thats it no more. Seriously I will check out that programme.

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    1. Thanks Old Pa and nice to see you! It's great that you're writing songs and poetry - and doesn't matter if you haven't done it in 64 years, never too late is it?!
      I hope you enjoy the programme if you can watch it.

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