Ted Hughes‘ book ‘Poetry in the Making’, first published in 1967, is a compilation of a series of BBC radio programmes that he wrote and presented for an intended audience of ten to fourteen year olds. It contains the following advice on how to ‘capture’ an animal in poetry which, to my mind, also captures the essence of how to get that first draft written and how to build up writing confidence whatever the writing genre or age of the writer.
Here is what Hughes says: “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 into 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’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ is the first animal poem he wrote, and it is about a fox but it is also about the act of writing.
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
In the coming weeks, starting tomorrow in Brewery Lane Theatre, I will be encouraging writers (and myself) to keep their ‘whole being on the thing’ in my weekly workshops. I can hardly wait to see what we capture. Shocks? Surprises? Pretty much guaranteed.