North England’s (Iron) Giant of poetry…and it isn’t Roald Dahl!

Image above: A view of York, home of Ted Hughes. More about York below.

The Mermaid’s Purse

The Mermaid’s shriek
Made Ocean shake.

She’d opened her purse
For an Aspirin-
What a shock!
Out came a shark
With a great black fin
Hissing: “Here’s Nurse
And Surgeon in one
Great flashing grin!”

Now headache
And head have gone
Or she’d feel worse.

Ted Hughes Collected Poems for Children page 10

Originally published in The Mermaid’s Purse

You figured out how the shark is a nurse and surgeon in one, right? No one said the natural world is gentle.

My Sister Jane

And I say nothing—no, not a word

About our Jane. Haven’t you heard?

She’s a bird, a bird, a bird, a bird.

Oh it never would do to let folks know

My sister’s nothing bu a great big crow.

Each day (we daren’t send her to school)

She pulls on stocking of thick blue wool

To make her pin crow legs look right,

Then fits a wig of curls on tight,

And dark spectacles—a huge pair

To cover her very crowy stare.

Oh it never would do to let folks know

My sister’s nothing but a great big crow.

When visitors come she sits upright

(With her wing and her tail tucked out of sight).

They think her queer but extremely polite.

Then when the visitors have gone

She whips out her wings and with her wig on

Whirls through the house at the height of your head—

Duck, duck, or she’ll knock you dead.

Oh it never would do to let folks know

My sister’s nothing but a great big crow.

At meals whatever she sees she’ll stab it—

Because she’s a crow and that’s a crow habit.

My mother says “Jane! Your manners! Please!”

Then she’ll sit quietly on the cheese,

Or play the piano nicely by dancing on the keys—

Oh it never would do to let folks know

My sister’s nothing but a great big crow.

Ted Hughes Collected Poems for Children, page 39

Originally published in Meet My Folks!

In British English, “bird” can be a slang term for a girl.

Think about why a brother might call “our Jane” a crow. Lol.

But you notice they are keeping it all in the family: “Oh it would never do to let folks know/My sister’s nothing but a crow.”

Even though Jane is annoying, she’s still one of the family. 😉

I grew up with two brothers myself, so I get the sentiment. I’m sure my brothers do!

The Lois Level on Children’s Poetry in North America and the United Kingdom

After doing some research into children’s poetry in order to develop an elementary school poetry curriculum: British literature seems to have a much stronger tradition of children’s poetry than American literature.  Perhaps it’s because British literature in general has a much longer history.  There is no question that British children’s literature does, probably because when it started to develop in the UK in the 19th century, the US was still trying to get itself sorted out as a nation, and we certainly had other things to do.  As far as our educational system, even now you can see the vestiges of a program that was designed to assimilate a lot of people from a lot of countries.  The US had to worry about providing some kind of formal education in its remote areas and teaching basic English and literacy to its large non-native population in the cities. 

 British education developed differently, over a longer period of time, and for a more stable population. In short, the UK had more time to develop children’s literature. 

Even now, I prefer much of the work done in the UK to that in the United States when it comes to poetry for children.  Generally speaking, I find British children’s poetry more honest.  The Brits seem to be willing to be more forthright with children and address issues I sometimes find shocking, but that doesn’t make it any less real for children.  It seems to me that British poetry, in particular, addresses a reader that is intelligent and is trying to make sense of the world as it really is.

American children’s poetry, in contrast, seems to me to be either be kind of preachy or assumes that the child reader has little wit and sinks to gross-out humor.   

Good poetry, no what who the intended audience, helps the reader to join in with the poet’s sense of wonder about the world, and certainly when the poet has something humorous or biting to say, does it with some wit.  I want that shock of recognition, not a titter and a sense of a “guilty pleasure.”

Free Read

Quick Read

I don’t normally list Wikipedia articles, because I assume my readers can find them, but Wikipedia does have the most detailed information on Ted Hughes that I found, including his own foundation.

The Ted Hughes Society biography.

More background on Ted Hughes and some sample poems from the Poetry Foundation. It is much better to get poetry collections and read them as they were intended, but these will get you started.

Free Listen

If you must…the Sylvia Plath connection.

I said that I wasn’t getting into the Sylvia Plath thing, but here is the poetry Hughes wrote late in his life to try to unpack his feelings about everything that happened. He was silent on the subject for most of his life.

Yes, yes, I admit that I read it sometime in high school or college just like all the other English majors.



“Ted Hughes”. Sounds familiar, but I just can’t place it.


Not the most original name you ever heard, right? One you might just skim over? When I think Ted Hughes, I think of the doctor have had for nearly 30 years, but you can’t all have doctors named Ted Hughes, but still???

This Ted Hughes was a significant British poet in the second half of the 20th century.  He was poet laureate in the UK from 1984 until his death, but in the United States, he isn’t especially well known, and if he is, he mostly gets demoted to Sylvia Plath’s husband and left at that, especially because their relationship may have contributed to her decision to commit suicide. 

If you’re American, you may know Sylvia Plath because of her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, even if you don’t read poetry much and didn’t pay attention in high school. 

Yes, Sylvia Plath was a great poet, and it is sad that she died so young and by her own hand.  But I don’t think we can pretend to understand mental illness without also accepting that when people die from it, it is the same as dying from any other disease and not the fault of the people in that person’s life.  So I’m not going to discuss Ted Hughes in terms of Sylvia Plath.  It’s not fair to his career. 

I’m not even going to discuss Ted Hughes’ most significant work because we’re focusing on poetry we can read and enjoy while still leading live that are also fulfilled by other things. 

If you are seeing to include more poetry in your life, is that Ted Hughes’ poetry for children is a good place to start. While this is true of all literature, I think it’s even more true about children’s poetry: if it’s good, adults will enjoy it as much as children.

Ted Hughes children’s poetry is largely concerned with the natural world and some of the people in the reader’s life. My favorite collection of his is The Mermaid’s Purse, but that’s probably largely because I am generally most interested in marine life.  I also enjoy the juxtaposition of the read animals and the fantastical in this collection

Another favorite of mine is Meet My Folks.  For most little kids, the immediate family is the most important. While these poems are at times fantastical, they also show true character analysis and a gentle affection for the various people in the speaker’s world. 

Finally, I enjoy Nessie, the Mannerless Monster, who travels all over England trying to figure out where he fits in…and understand England (Hughes has a few biting things to say about his countrymen), until the Queen gets it all sorted out.

I much prefer collections of poetry in their original format, small, individual books, but not many of them are available in the US.  Certainly if you are traveling to the UK, pick some up (books are not taxed in the UK, so they are reasonably priced), or if you want to take the trouble, order them directly from Amazon.co.uk or try the Canadian site.   

There is a very nice volume with all of Ted Hughes’ children’s poetry collected in one volume.  Fortunately, the editor retained the groupings of their poems in the original collections, so you can experience them somewhat similarly to the original.  A nice added bonus is that generally the poems run from the simplest to the most complex, so the youngest child would enjoy the poems at the beginning rather than getting put off by more difficult poetry before reaching the more accessible material, if that makes sense.  The volume of Collected Poetry is available new in paperback in the US or quite cheaply in a used volume.

Click here to read The Lois Level on Poetry

Ted Hughes: Who is he and what should I know about him? 

Surprise, you might actually know who Ted Hughes is without knowing who he is.  Although he was mainly a poet, he wrote a lot of different things, and he is well known for one of his children’t novels, The Iron Man, in the United States, except in the US, the book is called The Iron Giant.  Not sure why, but at least now you know.

The editions below are both available in the United States.

Ever wonder what a Poet Laureate is?

Ted Hughes was the Poet Laureate of the UK from 1984 until his death. Now, to an American, that sounds really big, and it is, but I’ve found out it means something a little different in the US and the UK.

In the UK, the Poet Laureate is kind of a descendent of a “court poet”, someone a monarch might keep around to keep the court entertained. In the US, however, the Poet Laureate is appointed annually by the Library of Congress, which is really the US’s national library (not just for Congress). Until I looked it up, I thought the Poet Laureate was appointed by the President of the Unites States, but it turns out that we sensibly leave that job to the professional readers at the Library of Congress.

I also thought the US Poet Laureate always reads a poem at the presidential inauguration, but that’s wrong too. Here is the correct information with a list of poem and poets.

So that’s why the US gets new Poet Laureates all the time, and it seems like a big deal that the British ones keep their posts for so long. But that part isn’t so big.

What the poets in both roles are supposed to do is promote poetry and sort of be the representative poetic voice for the nation, which is cool.

Nature in Ted Hughes’ Poetry: The Lois Level on understanding the geography of the UK and Ireland

Ted Hughes is from Yorkshire, which is one of the most northern parts of England.  If you continue to go north on the Island of Great Britain, you will cross over into Scotland.  To most Americans, there is little difference, but to British people, this is a big deal.

The relationship between England and Scotland is complicated, but basically, the U.K. is called the U.K. because the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Wales are combined along with Northern Ireland (on a different island). 

The rest of Ireland is the Republic of Ireland: totally different country and don’t mess it up or there will be trouble.  Seriously, there has been for a long time. Ireland has a long, nasty history with the UK , and also there are issues between Catholic and Protestant Irish.

It’s important to remember that there are AT LEAST four main nationalities in the UK: English, Welsh, Scots (not Scotch, that’s a drink), and Northern Irish. All of these people are British. Note that three of these four nationalities have at least one language other than English.

Again, Irish is not the same as Northern Irish. They share an island and a culture but they don’t share a religion, currency, or state. Got it?

To Americans, England/Island of Great Britain doesn’t look that big, so we get easily confused by the British perception of things, but the British actually think their island is quite large, and to them York is remote and kind of wild.  I imagine they sort of see it as a safe barrier that protects them from Scotland, which is REALLY wild, but that’s just my impression.  I think this because historically, the English were so disturbed by the wild Scots (think Mel Gibson/Braveheart). There is even a wall there, which I thought was meant to protect the ancient English from the Scots, but according to Wikipedia, Hadrian’s Wall was built to protect the Roman Empire from the barbarians. Totally different, obviously.

 We understand York because we have this place called New York, but American New York really has nothing else to do with British York.  Or Virginian Yorktown/York County, except that the British surrendered to their own colonists there. Just saying. But like many place names in the US, I’m sure they all had to do with homesick colonists. Or colonists who thought they were going to do it all better in North America. Hard to tell.  

What I do know is that my friends from Wales go on about North Wales and South Wales.  A lot. According to them, the distance is huge and the culture is totally different. Take a moment to look at the size of Wales…the little thumb hanging off the west side of the island to protect the English from the wild Irish, and you will understand my attitude and have a good laugh, especially if you are from the American Carolinas or Dakotas.

But that gives you an idea of distances in the UK as compared to distances in the US. Sometimes I’m amazed my ancestors ever got to the “New World”. 

Being from the far north/remote county of York, I suppose that Ted Hughes would be considered uniquely qualified to comment on the natural world, so that’s the implication when you read a British summary of Hughes’ life. 

Screenshot from Google Maps. The marker is on York.

Screenshot from Google Maps. The marker is on York.