Dé Máirt 28 Meitheamh 2011

Ted Hughes - “Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it.”

Ted Hughes
I’m currently reading Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making, a collection of the talks that he wrote for and read on the BBC series “Listening and Writing”, which was directed towards an audience of schoolchildren (and no doubt the big children who are writers and poets!).

I LOVE Ted Hughes’ poetry, because he has think knack of capturing the sensuality of the subject in his words, and his images are always striking. He’s on a par with the Old Irish nature poets with his gift for portraying landscapes, animals, birds and the elements. It’s pretty cool of him to intimate his secret to poetlets/poetlings through his talk entitled “Capturing Animals”. I’m going to share a lengthly quote from this chapter in the book:

How can a poem, for instance, about a walk in the rain, be like an animal? Well, perhaps it cannot look much like a giraffe or an emu or an octopus, or anything you might find in a menagerie. It is better to call it an assembly of living parts moved by a single spirit. The living parts are the words, the images, the rhythms. The spirit is the life which inhabits them when they all work together. It is impossible to say which comes first, parts or spirit. But if any of the parts are dead… if any of the words, or images or rhythms do not jump to life as you read them… then the creature is going to be maimed and the spirit sickly. So, as a poet, you have to make sure that all those parts over which you have control, the words and rhythms and images, are alive.

[I]magine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself to it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic. If you do this you do not have to bother about commas or full-stops or that sort of thing. You do not look at the words either. You keep your eyes, your ears, your nose, your taste, your touch, your whole being on the thing you are turning into words. The minute you flinch, and take your mind off this thing, and begin to look at the words and worry about them… then your worry goes into them and they set about killing each other. So you keep going as long as you can, then look back and see what you have written. After a bit of practice, and after telling yourself a few times that you do not care how other people have written about this thing, this is the way you find it; and after telling yourself you are going to use any old word that comes into your head so long as it seems right at the moment of writing it down, you will surprise yourself. You will read back through what you have written and you will get a shock. You will have captured a spirit, a creature.
                                                [Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making (2008), pp. 17-19]
He’s a magician. But here’s a question: is he talking about purely focusing on a subject that you hold in your mind’s eye, your imagination, or does he also mean actually studying a subject in front of your eyes? I would argue for the former, as I believe the imagination is what has the power to create life through words. Yeats would agree. He argued that a poet should meditate on a subject, after a possible true encounter has happened. It needs to burn in your mind for a bit before you can process it. I find personally that the object in front of me make me mute, it steals any words from my mouth. Only when I’m away from its gaze can I string together words. The intensity of experience casts me into silence. However, I did stand on the beach with my notebook and wrote about the waves once…

Another question I have - what if you’re writing in your second language, and you work with dictionaries to hunt for the right word? That sort of kills the focus on the subject doesn’t it? A question to ponder on, I suppose.

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