Prose by Ted Hughes

Poetry in the Making (London: Faber and Faber, 1967)

Andy Armitage writes about Hughes's 'anthology' of creative writing.

Poetry in the Making (1967) began as a series of ‘talks’ that Hughes wrote, and read, for the BBC Schools Broadcasting radio series Listening and Writing [1].  He expanded upon these talks and supplemented them with ‘teacher notes’ and ‘exercises’ so that the printed book could be used as a classroom resource; as a teacher’s handbook and an anthology of poems. 

Poetry in the Making is not a fusty pedagogical treatise on prosody but an attempt to inspire and guide the young “to more purposeful efforts in their own writing” [2].  Hughes insists that a course of creative writing should not teach “How to write” but “How to try to say what you really mean” [3].  His emphasis in Poetry in the Making is not on learning the formal “manners” of poetry but on developing the writer’s imagination and his discipline and courage to engage with and capture his own thoughts and feelings.  For Hughes, the most important artists are the inspired visionaries not the craftsmen.

Hughes draws on his own writing experiences throughout Poetry in the Making, describing, for example, the evolution of ‘Thought Fox’, and so the book offers an overview of the author’s poetics, his preoccupations, and his ideas about the creative imagination and the function of art.  He believed that all true art was the unmediated expression of the artist’s hidden, inner self which is “the voice of what is neglected or forbidden” [4].  He warned that “to live removed from this inner universe of experience is also to live removed from ourself, banished from ourself and our real life”[5]  So, for Hughes, the purpose of art is revelatory and therapeutic; in allowing the inner-life to speak, in articulating its demands, the writer heals himself. 

The visionary poet heals not only himself but also his readers, indeed his entire ‘tribe’, because he speaks for what is neglected or forbidden in his culture and his society.  The purpose of art, for Hughes, then, is to heal oneself and one’s tribe by uncovering the neglected, forbidden thing and, in allowing it to speak, restoring the balance between the inner and outer worlds.  Like the shaman, the poet must take an imaginative journey into the depths of the psyche in order to recover what Hughes elsewhere called the “healing energy” [6].  This Jungian principle that underlies Hughes’s ideas in these talks directs his readings of other poets such as Plath, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Eliot and Plath in his other prose works [7].

In Poetry in the Making, Hughes uses the metaphor of ‘fishing’ to describe the artist’s search for creative inspiration, his own poem ‘Pike’ featuring by way of example.  Like the fisherman in this poem, the artist must concentrate patiently on the float, escaping his conscious ego-driven concerns, as though on the float, until he catches a tremor of excitement and then, must quickly drag his subject out of the deep darkness, past the censors, and into the light.  To do so the artist must learn to concentrate his imagination until he captures a thought, a feeling, an intuition, or a subject that excites him in order to discover its truth: 

"That process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish." [8]

Thoughts and feelings are prior to words, we are thinking and feeling even before we are consciously aware of this, and we only seem to become aware that we are thinking or feeling when we articulate these thoughts and feelings into words.  Once the poet has caught a glimpse of his subject, he then needs to snare it in words, without maiming or killing it.  Hughes describes a poem as being a kind of animal, that has a vigorous yet fragile life of its own:

"[A poem is] 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" [9]. 

Words, like paint and music, are simply tools that we use to describe our thoughts and feelings, to “give some part of our experience a more or less permanent shape outside ourselves” [10].  The difficulty of translating experience into words is mainly a result of the life within the words themselves.  Words are rich in their sensual associations, or, as Hughes puts it, they have eyes and ears and noses, and therefore they affect us both mentally and physically:

"The sight of a certain word can so affect you that delicate instruments can easily detect the changes in your skin perspiration, the rate of your pulse and so on, just as surely as when the sight of an apple makes your mouth water or your sudden fear in an empty house makes you chill." [11]

The poet must learn to control the words and their various associated excitements, to stop the words from maiming and killing each other, to stop the words from displacing the experience that is the animating spirit of the poem. 

In an interview Hughes once said “what you find in the outside world is what’s escaped from your own inner world” [12] and, in Poetry in the Making he argues that reading (or writing) a poem about a beautiful landscape can affect us more strongly than a view of the landscape itself because a poem not only describes the view, like a map or a photograph, but articulates the poet’s inner response to the landscape as well.  For Hughes, this is the fundamental purpose of art, and, he points out, whenever an artist manages to capture the spirit of human experience in this way, we call it poetry.

Andy Armitage is from West Yorkshire and completed his PhD ('Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: The Birthday Letters Myth') at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand in 2010. His research interests include 20th Century Poetry, literary theory and myth and mythology. His poetry has been published widely in New Zealand periodicals such as the New Zealand Listener, Poetry New Zealand, Just Another Art Movement (JAAM), and Turbine.  


[1] The five surviving programmes, ‘Capturing Animals’, ‘Moon Creatures’, ‘Learning to Think’, ‘Writing about Landscape’ and ‘Meet my Folks!’ are available on the BBC British Library CD: ‘Ted Hughes: Poetry in the Making’. The Spoken Word. British Library. 2008.  ISBN: 978-0-7123-0554-9.

[2] Hughes, Ted. Poetry in the Making. London: Faber, 1967. 11.

[3] Poetry in the Making. 12.

[4] Poetry in the Making. 51

[5] Poetry in the Making. 124.

[6] Hughes, Ted. ‘Keats on the Difference between the Dreamer and the Poet’ [1986]. Winter Pollen. London: Faber, 1994. 250.

[7] For Hughes’s readings of these poets see his books Winter PollenShakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, A Dancer to God, A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse and A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which are all published by Faber.

[8] Poetry in the Making. 57-8.

[9] Poetry in the Making. 17.

[10] Poetry in the Making. 119.

[11] Poetry in the Making. 32.

[12] Sagar, Keith. The Laughter of Foxes.  Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006. 45.