Byline: Simon Armitage
UNASSUMING isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, but that's how he struck me the first time I set eyes on him. I was 15 or 16, studying his poems for O-level, and had gone to hear him read in an old cinema in Hebden Bridge, just a couple of miles from where he was born. Looking back, it represented a kind of initiation that would lead to a life-long conversion.
Hughes -- subject of a new campaign to be honoured at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey -- wandered on stage, fiddled with the microphone, shuffled his poems. Then he began reading. Immediately, his voice seemed to demand the attention of everyone in the auditorium, and from that point on, his poetry has inhabited my thoughts on an almost daily basis. He was unassuming in the sense that all the drama and all the power came entirely from words. As soon as he opened his mouth, a new gravity was at work in the room.
Edward James Hughes was born in the small West Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd, near Halifax, in 1930. The surrounding environment with its valleys and moors became a kind of template for the whole of his mature work, and even though he left when he was six, his poetic imprint is stamped indelibly into the landscape of the Upper Calder.
At Cambridge University he had two encounters that shaped not only his own life but possibly the course of British poetry. Ground down by the strictures of his English degree, Hughes reported that one night he had fallen asleep over an essay, whereupon a figure with the body of a man and the head of a fox entered the room and put a bloody paw on the papers, saying, "You're killing us." Soon after, Hughes switched from English to archaeology and anthropology, a move that let him gorge on the fables and folk tales that would feed his work, and allowed his own writing to breathe more freely.
The second, now infamous encounter took place when Hughes met American student and fellow poet Sylvia Plath at a magazine launch party. Legend has it that as they kissed, Hughes ripped off Plath's silver earring and Plath bit Hughes on the cheek, drawing blood, a convenient metaphor for their intense and eventually destructive relationship. When Plath committed suicide in 1963, many of her devotees laid the blame at Hughes's feet. Six years later, another lover, Assia Wevill, would take her own life, along with the life of Ted and Assia's four-year-old daughter, Shura. The more recent suicide of Hughes's son Nicholas cast another black shadow across an already dark story.
In the middle of all that maelstrom, Hughes kept his head below the parapet, though the writing never stopped. Then in 1998 he published Birthday Letters, his belated poetic response to the all-toopublic terrors of his personal life. Birthday Letters became that rare thing -- a poetry bestseller, and one in which the potentially explosive subject matter was matched by the measured brilliance of the writing. For me, Birthday Letters was a reminder of what I had felt all along, that Hughes was a genius with an unparalleled gift, a once-in-a-generation poet whose work was a major contribution to English literature. …