Sunday, 10 August 2014

An interview with Ted Hughes

The Paris Review sends occasional tweets with links to old articles in its archive. A recent tweet brought this interview with Ted Hughes from (I'm guessing) the mid-nineties. It's a  fascinating thirty-minute read for anyone interested in poetry. Hughes talks about his life, how and why he writes, his influences, and about Sylvia Plath.

Here are a few of the many insights.

On why he writes with a pen rather than a typewriter or computer:
In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.
 On the impact of poetry:
[...] the idea occurred to me that art was perhaps this—the psychological component of the autoimmune system. It works on the artist as a healing. But it works on others too, as a medicine. Hence our great, insatiable thirst for it. However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognize that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us. That’s why that aspect of things is so important, and why what we want to preserve in civilizations and societies is their art—because it’s a living medicine that we can still use. It still works. We feel it working. Prose, narratives, etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music, maybe, most intensely of all. 
On why poetry might be more popular in wartime (he was speaking in the context of the Balkan wars in the 90's)
[...] we all live on two levels—a top level where we scramble to respond moment by moment to the bombardment of impressions, demands, opportunities. And a bottom level where our last-ditch human values live—the long-term feelings like instinct, the bedrock facts of our character. Usually, we can live happily on the top level and forget the bottom level. But, all it takes to dump the population on the top level to the lowest pits of the bottom level, with all their values and all their ideas totally changed, is a war. I would suggest that poetry is one of the voices of the bottom level. 

One of my favourite poems by Hughes is Wind. It evokes our awe and our fears when confronted by nature in the raw, we modern humans huddled around our fireplaces. It brings the shadow of a memory to my mind of a dark night in Inch, Co. Kerry, when a wild Atlantic storm brought down our tent in the early pre-dawn hours and my Dad carried my sister and I, two and four years old, through the driven rain to the shelter of a caravan rocking in the wind. And a sleepless night in another tent in Morriscastle, Co. Wexford when we listened to the wind screaming through the guy ropes and the radio presenter solemnly telling of the unfolding disaster in the Fastnet yacht race.

I'd like to hear Hughes read Wind but I haven't yet found a recording. So here instead is a pretty good reading that I found on YouTube.

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