‘Writing for children is a curious occupation and the most curious thing about it is that we think children need a special kind of poetry.’ Ted Hughes
Faber have at last brought together the poems for children that Hughes wrote throughout his life. Collected Poems for Children is an important and timely publication, not only because we now have the poems under one cover but also because this collection is even more relevant to readers in our present reading climate. In the light of recent discussions, articles and lectures by prominent children’s authors around the school curriculum and the narrowness of the National Literacy Strategy, here is a stunning example of writing as discovery, beauty and truth by a writer who believed in creating an ‘inner universe of experience’, to provide the tools for making sense of ourselves and our experience in the real world. Helen Taylor explains.
Throughout his life Ted Hughes was passionate about the development of a child’s imagination. He believed that children ‘are more fluid and alert’ than adults and was often troubled by his teaching experiences where pupils had been ‘stupefied by mechanical entertainment, distraction’. Educating a child’s imagination became a major consideration in his writing. He believed that stories and poems could be an antidote to the effects of modern life. As Morag Styles says in her history of children’s poetry, From the Garden to the Street , Hughes’ perception of his audience was ‘a revolution’ in children’s poetry. For the first time a poet respected his young readers enough to write the truth. His poems do not underestimate a child’s ability to understand the complexities of life and death, to grasp the sometimes disturbing elements of the natural world. Hughes’ poems also give the reader a taste of what he called the ‘wilfulness of words’ and the joy of wordplay. Philip Pullman describes it as ‘fooling about with the stuff the world is made of’ – that wonderment which leads to valuable discoveries, profound truths and – enjoyment.
The full breadth of Hughes’ writing
This collection encompasses the full breadth of Hughes’ writing for children. The poems are arranged by volume beginning with those for younger readers and progressing to the more challenging poems of What is the Truth? and Season Songs . We begin with The Mermaid’s Purse (1993), poems about the sea and the seashore. From starfish and seagulls to mermaids and monsters, the beauty, mystery and drama of the ocean is all before us: ‘What yanks upward your line of sight –/ Is it a clifftop, soaring kite?/ Only a Blackback Gull/ Giving your eye a pull.’ The Heron – ‘I am nothing/ But a prayer/ To catch a fish./ A hush of air –/ A bloom of cloud/ On a tilting stalk.’ From the very first page Raymond Briggs’ illustrations begin to create the landscape through which the poems move. His pencil drawings capture the creatures, the figures and forms with an instinctive feel for both the natural world and the child’s immediate world. The Cat and the Cuckoo (1987) follows accompanied by some glorious studies by Briggs of birds, insects and animals. Hughes loved and worked with animals for most of his life and sees them without sentimentality as a farmer does. From the rough reality of Crow: ‘The crow lifts a claw –/ A crucifix/ of burnt matchsticks./ “I am the Priest./ For my daily bread/ I nurse the dead.”’ (extract from Crow) to the simple delight and dazzling metaphor of Thrush: ‘The speckled Thrush/ With a cheerful shout/ Dips his beak in the dark/ And lifts the sun out.’
Later on in the collection the older reader will meet these creatures again in What is the Truth? and Season Songs . Hughes’ gift for intense particularity based on his observations of the natural world led him to revisit an animal or a bird many times over many years, from many different perspectives.
Meet My Folks! (1961) is the next volume and was Hughes’ first children’s collection. It’s full of fun, rhyme and characters like My Sister Jane – who’s ‘nothing but a great big crow’ and My Father – chief inspector of holes. Nessie the Mannerless Monster, a long poem first commissioned by Vogue in 1964 follows. This poem is a delight, jam-packed full of metaphors and similes, a rollicking journey from Lochness to London which Nessie makes to prove her existence. Moon Whales and other Moon Poems (1976) takes the reader to the moon and into the realms of moon madness and monsters. This is an extraordinary collection of poems, both frightening and fantastic, which delves deep into the imagination with echoes of Edward Lear, Mervyn Peake, Salvador Dali, in the images, wordplay, tricks and games in the poems. A difficult section to illustrate but Briggs’ illustrations capture the signs, symbols and images of moon craziness from The Burrow Wolf who ‘lives in the moon’s holes/ waiting for meteorites to score goals’ to the Moon-Wind which is no wind yet things get blown about ‘In utter utter stillness/ While you stand agog/ A tearing twisting sheet of pond/ Clouts you with a frog.’ Interestingly, as the poems become more challenging, the illustrations stop and Briggs quite rightly leaves it to our imagination. Under the North Star (1981) collects poems on animals that live north of the 49th parallel. The illustrations keep pace with the poems on a wide variety of creatures – bear, seal, moose, wendigo, skunk and an astonishing illustration of a wolf, reminiscent of Leonard Baskin’s illustrations for Hughes’ adult collection Crow . The Wolf is heavily pencilled and hatched into existence capturing the essence of the iron wolf that ‘stands on the world with jagged fur… Licks the world clean as a plate/ And leaves his own bones.’ Which brings the reader to the last two volumes in this collection What is the Truth? (1984) and Season Songs (1975). What is the Truth? was closely connected to Hughes’ involvement in Clare and Michael Morpurgo’s Farms for City Children and written at their suggestion. It is a farmyard fable where God asks the villagers to describe certain animals to his son. The descriptions are conflicting – hence what is the truth? This collection was hailed as a masterpiece when it first came out and although the connecting prose has been omitted from this collection, the poems stand on their own, enchanting, enthralling and demanding, the potent language bringing to life each character study of an animal. Hare: ‘I’ve seen her,/ A lank, lean hare, with her long thin feet/ And her long hollow thighs,/ And her ears like ribbons/ Careering by moonlight/ In her Flamenco, her heels flinging the dust/ On the drum of the hill.’
The last volume is Season Songs (1975) which began as five Autumn songs written for children’s voices. These are probably the most challenging of Hughes’ poems and trace the seasonal cycle of the year celebrating nature and the natural forces of destruction and renewal. The Seven Sorrows (of Autumn) is almost biblical in its tone and pace and yet could also be a nursery rhyme, ending with the seventh sorrow: ‘Is the slow goodbye/ Of the face with its wrinkles that looks through the window/ As the year packs up/ like a tatty fairground/ That came for the children.’
Four decades of Hughes’ poems, 200 illustrations – reading this collection cover to cover has been totally absorbing and inspiring. One grumble: it would have been helpful and informative to have the dates for each collection. I have included them in this review but they do not appear in the book. And an observation about the choice of illustrator. The overall tone and perceived age range of this book is partly defined by Raymond Briggs’ illustrations – particularly the dust jacket, front and end papers which are in gentle coloured crayons which Briggs describes as ‘the colour growing into the picture’. The cover says for children – but this is not just a collection for children. Hughes often included children’s poems in adult collections. He wanted his style of writing to be ‘a style of communication for which children are the specific audience, but which adults can overhear… and listen in a way secretly – as children.’ Past illustrators of Hughes’ poems have included Leonard Baskin, Reg Lloyd, Lisa Flather, Flora McDonnell and Chris Riddell, each artist interpreting the poems differently. Raymond Briggs will capture a new audience and a younger one, but I would emphasise that this is a collection for all ages to be read and overheard by everyone.
A natural companion to the Collected Poems is Hughes’ book, Poetry in the Making (1967). This classic text taken from BBC schools programmes about reading and writing poetry was addressed to children but many teachers use it as their bible of approaches to reading and writing in the classroom. There are many references to Hughes’ children’s poems and extended sections on Meet My Folks! and Moon Creatures . The last chapter is Hughes at his most inspired, almost touched by fire, expressing why writing and poetry are so important. ‘All this is our experience… And to live removed from this inner universe of experience is also to live removed from ourself… It is occasionally possible, to find the words which will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something… of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are.’
Go read the poems.
Helen Taylor teaches at Homerton College, Cambridge and is the director of The Voices Project – a literature in the community project and festival in Cambridgeshire.
Ted Hughes: Collected Poems for Children (0 571 21501 7, £16.99) and Poetry in the Making (0 571 09076 1, £9.99) are published by Faber. From the Garden to the Street by Morag Styles is published by Cassell.