Saturday, 25 February 2017

Painters and poets and their subject matter

'The Thought-Fox' by Ted Hughes: a close reading
Article by:
Neil Roberts

Literature 1950–2000

Published in Ted Hughes’s first collection, ‘The Thought Fox’ is a poem as much about poetic inspiration as it is a vivid impression of the animal. Here, Professor Neil Roberts explores the poem’s use of allusion, imagery and rhyme.

‘The Thought-Fox’ has a special place among Ted Hughes’s early poems. Although it wasn’t the first poem in The Hawk in the Rain (Hughes’s first collection, published in 1957) he later moved it to first place in his Selected Poems. It is at least partly a poem about writing poetry – one might say about poetic inspiration. In his collection of radio talks, Poetry in the Making, he wrote that he composed it after writing nothing for a year. So we might see the fox as representing the renewal of the poet’s imaginative powers. We should be cautious about accepting everything Hughes writes about his own poetry. In Poetry in the Making he also writes that ‘The Thought-Fox’ was ‘the first “animal” poem I ever wrote’.[1] It wasn’t: he had written and published ‘The Jaguar’ the previous year. But this does show us that he thought the poem was especially important. When he read it in public he used to introduce it by telling the audience about a dream he had had two years before writing it, when studying English at Cambridge. He believed that academic study of literature stifled his creativity, and in the dream a burnt and bloody fox, the size of a man with human hands, entered his room, put a bloody hand on the essay he was writing and said, ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’[2] When he wrote ‘The Thought-Fox’, he may not have been thinking about this dream at all, but it is significant that he later made the connection.

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For me at least, poets describe their angst so much more easily in words than a painter can ..this conversation above about Ted Hughes Thought Fox is an example of that. How we take the initial words as a descriptor of the Fox but in reality we are really reading about Ted's angst and ultimate joy at creating...despite the turgidity of academic study...mmm does an art degree liberate you into creativity or stifle it...Many years ago now maybe 20 or so I did a sequence of paintings based around Ted Hughes work and its something that I am keen to return to....not so much as an illustration more as a commentary on my own work as it takes place.

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