Claas Kazzer: "What is the Truth? Ted Hughes, Childhood, Memories and Stories"

"Well, as far as my writing is concerned, maybe the crucial thing was that I spent my first years in a valley in West Yorkshire in the north of England …"
Ted Hughes[1]

A few years ago, on one of my first trips to Yorkshire researching Ted Hughes' childhood, I talked to Keith Sagar, the renowned Hughes scholar, who told me about the pond that appears in the poem "Pike." He had heard that apparently it wasn't very big – and had I seen it, and did I know of any hints of a monastery there? The pond is, in fact, fifteen to twenty yards across and quite shallow, certainly not "as deep as England," as the poem states.[2] Sure enough, there are some old stones by its side, a few sandstone pillars from fences and the like, but no sign of a monastery. Yet, as I would learn later, Ted and his friend John once caught a sizeable pike there. I was intrigued. Here were what I thought were Ted's memories, stories of monasteries, frighteningly deep ponds, huge pike – there were the places I saw and experienced, and soon I would hear the stories people told me who had been there with him at the time. Some converged, others never quite did.

I remembered, that several years earlier as I was reading Ted Hughes' Creation Tales I had already wondered about consistency in his stories.[3] I had wondered why, for example, he would abandon the opportunity of building a consistent 'early world' in favour of presenting conflicting narratives, such as the three tales of the creation of Woman. There were two contradictory stories of the creation of Man, and at least two contradictory accounts of the creation of human offspring in the stories, depending on how you count. It also bothered me that there seemed to be factual error as in one of my favourite stories, where bee was male and had a sting (male bees, called drones, can't sting simply because they don't have stingers – at least where I come from). And I could go on. There was so much care in the construction of these stories, then how could he suddenly become so careless? Were accuracy and consistency secondary to the pure joy of storytelling, to the drama of the narrative? Or was he making a point in presenting a rather unstable, vulnerable and multiple 'truth' here – not the kind of veracity I had somehow expected from his origin myths?

Then I read What is the Truth?, in which God's son wants to visit the earth to learn something from humankind. After much ado, God takes his son to earth and summons sleeping villagers who tell them what they know about certain animals – and each villager tells a different story. There is no single, universal 'truth' in their tales but many different ones, each valuable and accurate and beautiful in its own right, reflecting a particular slant or mindset. Something clicked in my mind.

Soon after, I read Crow and because of my previous reading I began to enjoy the different accounts of Crow – such as those describing his birth/creation. It was fascinating, and I began to sense there was a method behind this, even though I could not yet quite grasp it.

So, back in Yorkshire, as I was again puzzling over the inconsistencies I was running into, researching Ted's childhood, I remembered the Creation Tales, Crow and What is the Truth?. I realised my problem was that I had read Ted's more or less biographical pieces in search of a single, consistent 'truth,' occasionally to the point of losing sight of the beauty of the actual story told. In order to really get somewhere, to make interpretive sense, I had to rediscover them: His 'autobiographical' pieces were stories, and they demanded to be read as such. Once I accepted this, biographical truths shone up behind them.

Ted's stories were evading a reading for 'truth' as a simple one-to-one correspondence. They contained historical and emotional truths, or 'inner' and 'outer' truths, if you will, to which he added the intrinsic truth of a good story. The collection Remains of Elmet and its later revision Elmet show this quite beautifully. There is the poem "Mount Zion," for example, in which Ted describes the colossal chapel which stood opposite his childhood home. His description is apparently from the perspective of a child: a looming black mass "above the kitchen window," "blocking the moon" and "darkening the sun of every day."[4] In the story which the poem tells, the child is marched into the chapel to experience impressions of terror, death and conviction. Ted juxtaposes these images with that of a cricket chirping in the chapel wall, which an unnamed group of people try to drive and dig out of the "religious stonework."[5] Quite clearly, however, this is not Ted the boy writing, but Ted in the 1970s, his concepts colouring, or even overwriting the biographical experience of the child who, as we will see later, apparently liked going to the Chapel, which was an important social centre of the neighbourhood and a meeting place for the children.

Mostreaders, however, will not know such details, and if, as I had done, they give to reading stories that come clothed in the guise of autobiography as 'truth,' they will end up with a very different picture of author and setting.

As if this weren't complicated enough, there is yet another vital aspect to the inconsistencies in Ted's storytelling. This, I discovered when I studied his interviews and biographical essays. It all began with the fact that it seemed impossible to get an exact date from these for the family's move south in the 1930s – even though Ted frequently portrayed that move as traumatic. Sometimes he says he was seven, sometimes eight. But it was only when Ted's best friend of that time, Derek, told me that he must have been almost nine that I finally noticed. It was something so obvious that its importance had never occurred to me. I was dealing with memories! And memories are notoriously unreliable. They change as we change, and, like stories, they grow as we grow. We adapt them to what and where we are at the time of telling or remembering. And we adapt them to our audience, if we have one.

Memory is key to identity, though it wasn't until I understood that crucial hint from children's book critic Peter Hollindale, that I realized the links I could make between the different truths in Ted's storytelling. Hollindale argues that "we depend for our identity on our sense of personal continuity in time, and that we express this to ourselves by storying our lives."[6] We arrive at our sense of identity, says Hollindale, "through constant dialogue between experience and memory in which both elements are unstable. We construct our personal continuities, but we do not remain the same people: we evolve." And he continues: "Only by memory can we cope with our own personal evolution, but memories are not constants: we revise or alter them to fit our present needs."[7] That seemed as true to me of my own life, as it was of what I found regarding Ted's childhood. Surely, Ted used landscape and experiences of his childhood and youth quite freely to tell a good story – but he was also 'storying' his life through memory, as we all do.

Equipped with my findings, I wandered deeper into Ted's childhood landscape – or what was left of it – several times visiting the valley where he was born as well as the place where he spent his youth. And all the time, I kept trying to match his accounts with what I saw, experienced and heard, to see what I would find.

I met many fascinating people along the way, who told their stories with great affection, and as they did, the beauty of the experience remembered became palpable. There were many very moving moments, and more than once I was deeply touched by what the narrators unfolded before me – "as if it were yesterday." There were many funny little anecdotes and much laughter, too, and all stories were told with honesty and directness.

[»Click here to read Part II]

Notes:

This essay was written as a contribution to a book Lucas Myers and others had been planning in 2008, which sadly came to nothing.

[1] Ted Hughes and Drue Heinz, "The Art of Poetry: LXXI," The Paris Review 37:134 [Spring 1995]: 58.

[2] Ted Hughes, "Pike," in Lupercal (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 58.

[3] By "Creation Tales," I am referring to the stories from How the Whale Became (1963), Tales of the Early World (1988) and The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales as well as a story published separately in Michael Morpurgo's Muck and Magic (both 1995), which are set at the beginning of the world and in which God plays a central role.

[4] Ted Hughes, "Mount Zion," in Elmet (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 73.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter Hollindale, Signs of Childness in Children's Books (Thimble Press, Stroud, 1997), 69.

[7] Ibid., 71.

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About the Author

Claas Kazzer is a German independent scholar formerly associated with the University of Leipzig, Germany. He lives in Leipzig, where he works chiefly as translator and webworker.

His work on Ted Hughes includes "'Earth-Moon': Ted Hughes's Books For Children (And Adults)" (in Moulin (ed.) Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons) and several essays published on this site. Website: www.claas-kazzer.de.

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