Ted Hughes and the competition for young poets in his name


Mytholmroyd (Ted Hughes’ birthplace) by Tim Green.

“Poetry is the voice of spirit and imagination and all that is potential, as well as of the healing benevolence that used to be the privilege of the gods.” (Ted Hughes) Conor O’Loughlin explores one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated poets, and introduces the Ted Hughes Young Poets Award.

No other contemporary writer has succeeded in capturing their surroundings in quite the same way as the late poet laureate Ted Hughes. He was born in 1930 in the small country village of Mytholmroyd, nestled in the serene surroundings of Calderdale, West Yorkshire, which served as untapped inspiration for Ted’s pastoral, rustic and natural writings.

Ted wrote his first book, The Hawk In The Rain, in 1957; it focused on the themes and conventions of Anglo-Saxon poetry interlaced with more contemporary poetic conventions, incorporating onomatopoeia, alliteration and hyperbole, a combination of lyrical stylistics that hadn’t seen much use within modern poetry since the 14th century. The Hawk in the Rain also included a lot of subject matter drawn from Ted’s young life as a Cambridge graduate, where he became very interested in the folklore and the myths of England. Ted published it a year after he met the legendary poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who would later become his wife. The story of her demise is truly tragic and would later become a source of difficult inspiration for Ted, exemplified in one of his final poems, ‘Last Letter’, written explicitly about his heartbreak concerning Plath:

What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.

However, even though the death of his wife caused Ted extreme despair and sadness, there are poems he wrote in his lifetime that reflect a sense of freedom and beauty, a lot of which was inspired by his surroundings. One can observe this in ‘The Horses’, in which Hughes attempts to describe the wonder of nature in all its foreboding, yet untamed glory:

A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood
where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness till the
mooring—blackening dregs of the brightening grey—
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:
Huge in the dense grey—ten together—
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,
with draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.

We can observe here the pastoral sense of wonderment that Ted Hughes was so famous for; we truly get a sense that we are there on the moors before sunrise, where the sky is a dark, black shape and the horses are almost like sentinels of their territory, paying him no heed as he passes by. The poem is a kind of internal monologue of his thoughts as he’s thinking them and taking in all of the famous Yorkshire surroundings, a place he came to represent in the literary world.

He also flourished with the use of characterisation and personification within his poems; for example his famous collection Crow symbolises the obscurity, irrationality and instinct within both the individual and society, and that life isn’t always serene and calm. As he writes in ‘Crow Blacker Than Ever’:

Then heaven and earth creaked at the joint
Which became gangrenous and stank –
A horror beyond redemption

Here we can once again see the anguish of the late poet laureate over the loss of his wife, and the crow in question being presented as symbolic of death and misery, causing devastation to the heavens.

Even though Ted’s life was frequently intercut with tragedy, namely the death of his wife, suicide of his lover, and the death of his son, he nevertheless succeeded in cementing himself as one of the finest poets the world of literature has ever seen, incorporating the use of pastoral metaphor and harnessing the aesthetics of his surroundings to accurately convey the inner turmoil of the human mind.

Read more poems by Ted Hughes at the Poetry Foundation.

The Elmet Trust promotes and celebrates the life, work and birthplace of Ted Hughes. They run festivals, exhibitions and walks, and are working to open Ted Hughes’ birthplace – 1 Aspinall Street – to the public.

The Trust also runs an annual poetry competition, The Ted Hughes Young Poets Award, with categories for 6-10, 11-14 and 15-18 year olds. It’s totally free to enter and there are cash prizes to be won. Find out how to enter!

Published June, 2104

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