Advice from Ted Hughes

The sweet scent of old books is such a favourite of mine that I actually have a perfume that captures that pulpy note in its formulation (Dzing! by L’Artisan Parfumeur). Another smells like ink (Encre Noire by Lalique). But I needed neither the late December afternoon I spent with my sister Tina in J. W. Doull’s cavernous used bookstore in Dartmouth. The stacks of books piled thigh-high on the floor and wedged tightly into the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves didn’t need any artificial boosts to their fragrance.

The shelves wind through Doull’s a bit like the corn-stalk walls of a harvest maze. You start out at the door, and eventually find yourself tucked into a dead end filled with worn-out work-out books, and so carefully back up (watching that you don’t catch your heel on a floor stack topped with Jane Fonda’s leotard-clad form) to pick another path to someplace more pleasing. For me, that more pleasing place was a tiny room made tinier by its shelves and stacks of slim volumes of poetry, packed four or more to every inch of spine space.

I’m a recent poetry grazer: until a year or two ago, I probably hadn’t read—really read, closely read—a poem since high school. But I’d come back to poetry at a time when I needed some bite-sized inspiration, short pieces I could read and savour and chew over as I slowly refilled my well after a long period of too much work and not enough creation. And that recent reconnection with poetry had led me to Doull’s tiny poetry cave, searching for a bit of inspiration to take home with me.

The spine of the book I ended up with is what first hooked me: a hit of sans serif type reversed on a blue background marking the publisher’s name at the base (Faber), and above that in italic capitalized serif type the book’s title: POETRY IN THE MAKING by British poet Ted Hughes. Hughes is the much-maligned husband of the poet Sylvia Plath. I don’t know enough about their story to have an opinion on him as a husband or a human being, but knowing the broad strokes of it made me curious, and so I pulled the book down.

As I read the introduction, I laughed out loud: the word-dense pages had suggested to me that it was a university text on how to write poetry. In fact, it was written to accompany a 1960s BBC radio show on writing aimed at 10 to 14 year olds. “Holy shit we’re dumber than we used to be,” I thought as I scanned the pages, trying to imagine if the 10 to 14 year olds I know would be up to the task of reading what was clearly assumed to be just fine for British school kids in the late 1960s.

Fortunately, I am as old as about three-and-three-quarters’ worth of 14 year olds and possibly just about as smart, so I added the book to my finds and took it home. I’m still working my way through, but it is filled with great advice and lovely insights, like this pronouncement:

“Poetry is not made out of thoughts or casual fancies. It is made out of experiences which change our bodies, and spirits, whether momentarily or for good…. The work of most good poets is written out of some especially affecting and individual experience which they have undergone at some time, or perhaps which, because of something in their nature, keeps happening to them again and again.”

(Gulp. “…because of something in their nature, keeps happening to them again and again.”)

And this advice:
“…imagine 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 into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic. … 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.”

I love that: “your worry goes into them and they set about killing each other.” I’m never going to be able to sit struggling with a sentence again without now picturing my words trying to kill each other.

(You can hear a clip from one of Hughes’ lectures on the BBC’s Invisible College site.)