“Ted Hughes got me out of the egg. I was dormant before him, just incubating.”
Ahead of his discussion on the poems of Ted Hughes at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, another of Yorkshire’s most admired poets, Simon Armitage, talks to Rosie Driffill about what Yorkshire means to him, and how Ted Hughes helped him see the area in a new light…
You’ve been trekking round Cornwall and Devon in an effort to pay your way with poetry. Where in the world are you at the moment?
I’m at home in Huddersfield, slowly emerging from a pile of dirty washing.
Would you say you were well received on your travels?
It was great, a really wonderful trip. As well as the landscape and the beautiful walk, a great deal of it was about meeting people and hearing people’s stories about their patch of the world.
What was your most unusual experience along the way?
Well I saw dolphins, and you don’t see many of them in Huddersfield, so that was pretty wonderful. I have seen them before but there’s something kind of triumphant about it when they just pop out of the water and start leaping. It was one morning in Watergate Bay and it was actually someone who I was walking with who spotted them. I saw quite a lot of – you know – creatures, creatures that you don’t usually see around here. So that was all very exciting.
You weren’t alone then?
No – most days somebody joined me, in fact one day there were eleven people with me. Most of them were people I’d just met. They’d come along to one of my readings at night, and had said they wanted to walk with me the next day. Some of them were people who’d seen what I was doing on my website, too. A guy from Germany who was doing a PhD on my work turned up one day!
How did that feel?
He was very good company! He wanted to talk about linguistics.
I’m wondering what made you choose that area, because there is a bit of a cultural gulf between Yorkshire and that part of England – what was it about Cornwall and Devon that drew you?
Well I walked the Pennine Way a few years ago and I wrote a book about it called Walking Home, the idea there being to set off from a distant point and walk back towards West Yorkshire. Even though I swore to never do that again, I started getting itchy feet and thought that there was probably another walk to make. This time I thought I’d head in the opposite direction, somewhere further afield where I wasn’t altogether confident about my reputation, and was curious about whether people would be interested in poetry in a part of the world that I didn’t know very well.
You’re back at home now, in an area where you were born and raised. What is about Yorkshire that’s enabled it to have such an impact on your poetry? Is it by warrant of the fact that you were born here, or is there something peculiar to the region that goes beyond its just being ‘home?’
I think it’s very difficult to know the answer to that question, because it’s all I know really. Originally when I’d finished my degree, I came back here I think out of a kind of complacency – it was easy. But the longer that I stayed, the more intrigued I became about the area. I think I live on all kinds of borders here; I live not far from a town, but also right on the lap of the moors. It’s very rural where I live, but then in an hour you can be in either Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield, or in two hours you can be in the middle of London. So it’s definitely like a borderland for me, and there are so many good places to write where there’s movement and there’s friction. You’ve got the opportunity of being and doing the other thing; if you’re feeling too urbanised you can get out onto the moors in ten minutes, or vice versa. It’s like leading double life.
You’ve written extensively about Ted Hughes – a fellow Yorkshire poet. If it wasn’t for his poems, would your career trajectory have taken a slightly different turn? What would your poems look like if it hadn’t been for Hughes?
I don’t think there would be any poems. His work got me out of the egg: I was just dormant before that, just incubating. When we started reading his poems in school – I remember being 15 or 16 – they sort of jolted me awake, and I think I knew right from that point maybe not that I wanted to write, but that I wanted to read. His poems were also very sustaining for me when I was away at college. I was down on the south coast and possibly quite homesick at the time, and I remember using his poems as a kind of communication in that I managed to take some of this area away with me. I don’t think I was really conscious of this area until I was away from it.
Do you think that’s something you tried to recreate with your poems, a bit of Yorkshire that people can carry with them?
Yes, probably; subconsciously perhaps. I’ve always tried to avoid becoming professionally regional, in that I’ve never wanted to set myself up as someone who represents the area. The poems are undoubtedly full of Yorkshire, full of the landscape and its dialects, I mean it’s always been natural for me to write about the things in front of me. I know from travelling abroad, especially in Australia and New Zealand, that people often want to come and talk about where they lived in Yorkshire, in the ‘old world.’ I was doing a reading in Sydney years ago, and a woman came up to me and said that she wanted to meet me because she was conceived in Doncaster! I think I said congratulations.
I feel that you do offer a part of Yorkshire to people, albeit implicitly.
Yes and I’ve sought to redefine areas as well in the poems. Ted redefined areas of Yorkshire for me in terms of his mythology and his take on nature. It made me able to see Yorkshire, and particularly West Yorkshire, in a different light. I think when I started writing, I did feel a pressure to do that again; I can’t bear all the old clichés about Yorkshire, particularly when they’re pushed towards you by people outside the region. I’ve always thought it dangerous to fall into that ‘flat cap gap,’ even if people here do wear flat caps occasionally! That’s just not the way to write about it anymore.
You’ve said in the past that Yorkshire took on a different significance for you and Hughes. What can readers understand by that significance, and indeed by that difference?
I think Ted had a very historical view, and a mythological view of the region. He was also an incredible writer of natural history in poetry; he is a nature poet. I don’t think I am. I think my strengths and interests have to do with a more contemporary, sociological interest in Yorkshire, in terms of what people say, how they interact, and quite often, in where the old ways bump against the new.
You’re an incredibly modest person, and I think I know the answer to this before I ask it, but do you see yourself as being on a par with Hughes, and if not what does a poet have to do to take on that status?
I certainly don’t see myself on a par with Ted. Ted was, in my view, one of those great big beasts of poetry, only a couple of whom come along every so often. They are magnetic and almost planetary in their gravity. Everybody who met Ted tended to say the same thing: that they fell under his spell. And I fell under the spell of his poems; for me he was a shaman figure. However, I don’t think that role really exists in poetry anymore. There’s no call for that kind of person. Ted was such an incredibly special and talented and rare species.
By virtue of his era, perhaps?
Yes. And certainly in terms of the way his voice differed from that of a lot of poets of that period. Ted got back into the blood and guts of it all.
How have things changed, in your view?
I think we live in a more cynical society. We’ve come round to the idea that poets of the contemporary age can’t really tell us anything about the world that we don’t already know, or that we couldn’t find out somewhere else. Poetry is more of a stylistic project these days. It’s about finding new and memorable ways of saying the same old thing.
The role of a 21st century poet must surely go beyond saying the same old thing?
I’m not underplaying that idea of saying the same old thing; it is a very difficult thing to do. The same questions that puzzle us puzzled the Ancient Greeks, such as why people fall in love, why people fall out of love, and the fact that we’re going to die. These are riddles that we haven’t resolved, and that we’re endlessly curious about. It seems to me to be a case of reactivating the same questions for a new audience, with a new language, because language changes every day. The number of words going into the Oxford English Dictionary is accelerating, so part of the task is not to let poetry become moribund and archaic, and to keep it alert to the way that we speak and we write. But you can’t sit in front of your notebook and think, ‘how do I match that poet?’ You’ve really just to write your own thing and if you’re lucky enough that people want to read it, then you feel legitimised and you want to write more.
Simon will discuss the work of Ted Hughes at Kings Hall, Ilkley, as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival, on Saturday 5 October, between 7.30-8.45pm.