Collected Poems of Ted Hughes

by Ted Hughes
ISBN: 0571217192

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A Review of: Ted Hughes
by Christopher Wiseman

When I arrived as a freshman at Cambridge, Ted Hughes and his first wife had been married eight months and were living there. I saw nothing of either of them that year. However, Hughes was already a legend in Cambridge, talked about with awe and admiration, not for his as yet unknown poetry, but for the Rag Week caper he was reputed to have pulled off a couple of years earlier. Seeing a crew digging up the road, he called the police and reported that, for Rag Week, a group of students, pretending to be road workers, were digging up the road. He then went to the workers and told them that a group of students, dressed as police, were going to arrive and give them grief. There was, it seems, a rather tasty and lengthy Donnybrook when the police arrived. As most Rag Week jokes were of the panties-on-lamp-posts type, this episode, urban myth or not, was regarded as huge, imaginative, unique, brash, larger than life and aggressive. Words, in fact, often used later to describe Hughes's poetry.
My relationship with Hughes, since buying his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, at the start of my second year, after he and his wife had left for the U.S.A., has been a strange one. I have been both a close reader and teacher of his poetry, and looking at this Collected Poems-its whole kerplonking 1333 pages, and, to boot, not even a Complete Poems as it collects only those poems which were published in books, chapbooks and journals, some of which will be new to all but the most obsessive collector of the poet's work, including juvenilia-I find myself curiously ambivalent about his poetic achievement.
When Hughes died, at 68, in 1998, The Guardian ran three broadsheet pages on him and the public response was enormous. "There is no question that he is one of the great poets of this century and one of the greatest of all time," claimed Andrew Motion, Hughes's successor as Poet Laureate. A. Alvarez suggested that "He will be remembered alongside the likes of Milton and Keats." Heady stuff indeed. However, Philip Larkin, whose refusal of the honour allowed Hughes the Laureateship, had a rather different take on the poet he called, in various letters of the 1960s and 70s, "The Incredible Hulk," and "Terrible Ted Hughes": "At Ilkley Literature Festival a woman shrieked and vomited during a Ted Hughes reading. I must say I have never felt like shrieking." Hughes, whom Larkin likened to "a Christmas present from Easter Island," would, he thought, "do the [Laureate's] job all right except for writing anything readable," and he wrote to Amis that "No, of course Ted's no good at all . . . .. Old Ted isn't even extraordinary." So what are we to think? Derek Walcott enthuses on the back of this huge book that "The poetry of Ted Hughes has brought us closer to nature . . . than any English poet we can think of, including Clare and Hardy." Keith Sagar likens Hughes to "Homer, the Greek tragic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Whitman, Hopkins, Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot and the post-war East European poets," claims he has "changed the way we read all these writers." But Larkin, musing about what he and Hughes might write for a commissioned Silver Jubilee poem to be carved in a London Square, offers not only his own quatrain but Hughes's too:

The sky split apart in malice
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf
Crow shat on Buckingham Palace
God pissed Himself -

Cruel, but, as Hughes readers will admit, close to the mark.
I do not subscribe to either of these extremes, though, as my copies of The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal grew more and more tattered with constant, exhilarated readings. I have to say that my excitement of discovering Hughes's first books returns when I read this massive Collected Poems. I was an immediate fan. I carried those books-with Larkin's The Less Deceived and Lowell's Life Studies-across the Atlantic and everywhere else I went, and I owe Hughes a great debt for the effect his books had on me. If he spoke to me in a direct way it was partly, I suppose, because my life (apart, thank the Lord, from his personal relationships) followed the same pattern of Yorkshire countryside, northern industrial town, two enforced years in the RAF, Cambridge, then the States. His early poetry transformed many of my own experiences through the tough, exciting, sinewy imagery and diction; his acknowledgement of natural forces as central touched me deeply. I knew pike, horses, foxes, doves, tomcats, pigs, bulls, thrushes, water lilies, snowdrops, and, in zoos, macaws and jaguars. I knew First War veterans, too-the war-damaged. His poems seemed to validate my life with a curious familiarity yet also to enlarge it by the punchy, non-Latinate linguistic shock of the poems.
There are many exciting and excellent poems in those two early books, however well known and oft-taught they have become. Take "The Jaguar":

He spins from the bar, but there's no cage to him

More than the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

The poem has a couple of weakish lines but power a-plenty, and I was, and am, impressed by the size of this final image of the beast's stride turning the world.
Hughes's early poetry is explosively unique. "The Thought-Fox" remains a superb poem about both fox and the act of writing, the syntax brilliantly anticipatory, the pacing dramatic, perfectly weighted and achieved:

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

I'd read Dylan Thomas and Hopkins by the time I read these poems, but even as a poetic neophyte I felt that only one poet could have written that last stanza. The cleverly cadenced lyricism of "Song", though I did not then think of how literary the "lady" is, delighted me:

O lady, when the tipped cup of the moon
blessed you
You became soft fire with a cloud's grace;
The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face;
You stood, and your shadow was my place:
You turned, your shadow turned to ice
O my lady.

"The Dove Breeder" remains a classic example of extended metaphor; "Wind" is wonderful early Hughes in its threat, power, its whiff of cataclysm:

The wind threw a magpie away and a black
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Nothing in Hughes's work seems to blow, rain, move ordinarily or slowly. All seems climactic-an orgy of storm and noise and shout and verb. In such settings, "Dick Straightup", a descendant of Hopkins' Felix Randall, survives like a Hardy rustic:

His upright walk,
His strong back, I commemorate now,
And his white blown head going out between a sky
and an earth
hat were bundled into placeless blackness, the one
Company of his mind.

"Esther's Tomcat" exudes nature's power, dominates our protecting defences:

A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain's there

On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom . . . .

The "Hawk Roosting", speaking with all the power of nature, kills where he pleases. His world is perfect. "I am going to keep things like this." "To Paint a Water Lily" explores the act of creation, existing both above and below the surface, in air, but also where "Prehistoric bedragonned times/Crawl that darkness with Latin names." A dead pig, an otter ("Re-enters the water by melting"), thrushes killing worms ("Nothing but bounce and stab/And a ravening second") are celebrated for energies far beyond human self-consciousness. A bullfrog ("you pump out/Whole fogs full of horn-a threat/As of a liner looming"), and the superb "Pike", which ends with the human fishing the monastery pond at night-"with hair frozen on my head/For what might move," terrified of the unloosened dream rising through the water, "slowly towards me, watching"-celebrate natural power in different ways. Tiny flowers, thistles, wolves, horses-all these, and more, form a deeply known world and are rightly part of a highly valued body of early work by an extraordinary poet, dealing quite distinctively with both language, image and subject. Re-reading these early poems now, I still recall the passionate, blazing response I gave back to them.
However, Keith Sagar, Hughes's most prominent critic, claims that the poet's reputation should stand on the later collections-among them Wodwo (1967), Crow (1970), Cave Birds (1975), Gaudete (1977), Remains of Elmet (1979) and River (1983). I confess to being deeply uneasy with this view of the poet, as I have always found these works to be pretentious, preposterous and almost unreadable, and this conviction-this massive difficulty I have with the lofty, mythic, prophetic Hughes-has been more than confirmed by my weeks with this Collected Poems.
So where did it go wrong? I'd start to answer that by going back to Hughes's early life, which might give the necessary signposts. As a schoolboy he came face to face with a fox and "felt the fox had leapt into his head, supplanting his own provisional human nature with its own definitive foxhood" (Sagar). Then, after two years of English at Cambridge, Hughes, "exhausted" by the effort of trying to write an essay on Dr. Johnson, dreamed that a figure came into his room, "at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect . . . . Every inch was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding . . . .It spoke and said Stop this-you are destroying us.'" The next night it was a leopard he dreamed coming into his room. Following these dreams, Hughes switched from English to Archeology and Anthropology, subjects which introduced him to the "international study of theriomorphic images" as well as the role of poetry in primitive societies, animism of early cultures, a tracing of spirits immanent in the natural world, etc. His extensive studies in folklore were reinforced by his voracious readings in Zen, Sufism, Tamil and Taoist writings, Eastern European poetry, Shamanism, trickster mythology, Claude Levi-Strauss, the Cabbalah, various Goddess mythologies, Lacan and Jung. He dabbled with Tarot, astrology, hypnotism, exercises in meditation and invocation. More reading included the Holy Grail literature, the Bible, Shakespeare, Black Elk Speaks, Lorca's "duende" writings, shamanistic dismemberment, ecocriticism, ecofeminism, the Orpheus, Prometheus and Osiris myths, Joseph Campbell, the strange crow-man drawings of Leonard Baskin-whom Hughes met in 1958 and who asked the poet for poems about a crow-and, I must wearily conclude, much more in the same mystical and occult vein.
When Hughes and Plath were first married, they spent hours at the Ouija board, listening for its voice which they called "Pan". (The second section of his poem "An Otter", Hughes claims, was written by "Pan", after he himself had written the first part.) He also believed in possession, and was certain he had a spiritual kinship with the ghost of Emily Bronte. He believed fervently in the "Goddess of Complete Being" and that his job as poet/shaman consisted of healing the lost humanity of the world by the mythic and poetic imagination. Hence the increasingly apocalyptic character of his work, as well as the elimination of the confessional "I" (which, he wrote, can only produce limited poems, equivalent to Shakespeare's sonnets rather than his greater and healing plays). The long sequences-Crow, Gaudete, Cave Birds-all deal with the process of moving from a destructive single vision and loss of spiritual wholeness, through suffering, to some sort of redemptive state, but the vatic, much-researched results lead to poetry the obscurity of which (for this reader) is matched only by its increasingly mannered (lists, liturgies, single word sentences) techniques.
Crow, for instance, contains odd lines of fine writing ("Trembling featherless elbows in the nest's filth") but as an alternative creation myth, an epic tale, though abandoned part way through, is impossible to follow satisfactorily, and descends into often tedious and mockable cartoon much too easily. As Miss Jean Brodie famously admonished: "If you like that sort of thing that is the sort of thing you like." Crow is amusing at times, as are Roadrunner cartoons, but it seems hard to credit C.B. Cox's claim that it is "a most extraordinary work of genius," and I applaud Tony Harrison's reservations that "Hughes's zoomorph also indulges in some gutsy guignol, that . . . illustrates the dangers to the poet of such a liberating persona. This is verging on ASTOUNDING comics."
Gaudete, lacking the verve and occasional grotesque humour of Crow, was the collection, with Cave Birds, which made me give up on Hughes, although I know there are some readers who continued to subscribe to this sort of apocalyptic posturing, this attempt to create healing for the tribe through bizarre utterance. Hughes's belief that "The presence of the great goddess of the primaeval world . . . is precisely what England seems to have lacked," leads his work into extraordinarily bizarre areas and curious techniques. Look at Gaudete. An Anglican clergyman is abducted by spirits and replaced by a duplicate. The original goes to an underworld of mass graves, dead men walking, and other grotesqueries. Lumb, the minister, is flogged unconscious, becomes a tree, the tree is flogged into life and shoots a sacrificial white bull. Lumb is then underneath the bull in a slaughterhouse and is drenched with half a ton of blood and guts from the bull before emerging in a lake and giving a notebook of poems to three girls who take it to their priest. I could continue. But why bother?
We have to wait until Remains of Elmet and Moortown to find the poet becoming approachable again. At times. After the deaths of his first two partners in 1963 and 1969, Hughes married the daughter of a Devon farmer and moved to Moortown farm where he stayed for the rest of his life, doing some farming and reacting positively to the work. The Yorkshire he left behind, becomes, together with marvellous photographs (omitted in this book, as are Baskin's drawings) Remains of Elmet, part of the mythic story Hughes keeps telling, paints a community that is now redundant, displaced, deracinated as the town has become obsolete, its purpose over. As a farmer-"Hughes, E. Moortown Farm, N. Tawton" it said in the yellow pages I looked up once in Devon-he became a much more settled man, going to visit Alaska and British Columbia for fishing, and Australia, where his daughter was living for a time, as well as performing his duties as Laureate.
Some of his later farm and nature poems were intended for children but certainly read better than the prophetic stuff. He is particularly good on the birthing of calves and lambs, and the Moortown poems suffer only, as a non-literary farmer wrote in The Farmer's Weekly, from a tendency to concentrate only on the more negative and dramatic aspects of farming and not its quieter satisfaction. His voice, however, has quietened, and he recovers, in Moortown, some of the humanity so dismayingly absent in his vatic work.
River celebrates light and life, though it is still imaged as a god washing away death and full of "the strange evil/Of unknown fish-minds." He is not yet free of the mythologies and the healing of the tribe, but we take from this sequence his innate ability to make strange, to see and translate for us, to dazzle. The damselfly, for instance,

with offstage, inaudible shriek,
Reappears weightless.

Hover-poised, in her snake skin leotards
Her violet-dark elegance.

The several poems about salmon here, are, Sagar says, "all hymns to the goddess, tributes to the mythic heroism of the salmon, dying in the cause of the goddess." Well, yes-that nonsense does still intrude in River, and we are reminded of Hughes own justification of his obsession with fishing: "Any kind of fishing provides that connection with the whole living world." Oh dear.
The Laureate poems are all included in this collection but perhaps are better left undiscussed. On the death of Princess Diana, Hughes's complete poem is:

Mankind is many rivers
That only want to run
Holy Tragedy and Loss
Make the many One.

As some might say, these days, whatever.

The publication of Birthday Letters-88 poems to Sylvia Plath-startled the literary world in 1998. Their daughter Frieda, now a poet herself, fiercely defends Hughes from the decades of personal attacks, and reports that her father told her, concerning Plath, that "he should have said something, that he regretted remaining silent." Birthday Letters may well, as has unsurprisingly been suggested, have been massaged to make Hughes look better, but the poems do challenge certain received assumptions, and, although the quality sways from the mawkish to the fine, it is a collection mercifully down to earth, to the "I" and "you", and away from the frenzied over-wrought stuff which preceded it. After rejecting "confessional" poetry, Hughes's Collected Poems ends with it; after bellowing about goddesses and bull-guts, he finally allows tenderness, candid expression of human love, loss and grief; insights into a complex relationship. These are the quietest poems Hughes ever wrote, bringing dignity, resignation, and recognition of the magnitude of the loss. They attempt to understand and shed light. Best of all, they elicit no baffled fury from the reader, need no notation nor the many boxes of research materials Hughes relied upon for Crow and the other prophetic sequences. Lacking the spiky passion of those startling, exciting early poems from The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal, or the return to some fruitful new engagement with nature as in Moortown, they show Hughes as never before-bareheaded, penitent, content to jettison the mythical claptrap to reveal his human side and to confront that thing he felt rising towards him from the black water he fished as a schoolboy.
What of all this? I miss the fiery magnificence of the young Hughes, which changed, in certain ways, my own life. I feel more justified than ever in leaving Hughes to it when he became victim of the prophet-motive, and removed his work from the sensible. He was certainly no Milton or Blake, but he left poems, and a voice, of genuine strength and originality-not the ones the theorists write about in their prolific and sad papers like "Ted Hughes' Quest for a Hierophany: A Reading of Crow" -and I only hope that Paul Keegan, the excellent editor of this well-arranged collection, in spite of the difficulties of dealing with long sequences, will one day give us the hundred best Ted Hughes poems. In such a volume we would see neither the stuff that Peter Dale called "a pseudo-profound surrealism and the slide into incoherence," but the poet of energy, Anglo-Saxon vitality, an uncanny knack of observation, and the ability to celebrate with the throttle full-out.
The days of Hughes andLarkin-that odd beast which dominated perception of English poetry from 1957 to the early 1970s-are gone long ago as the two poets' paths diverged so radically. Larkin's four published volumes may look derisory next to Hughes's Collected Poems, but this reviewer would still claim, for all that Hughes has made his blood pump, that Larkin is the more important poet (although it's like comparing "a battleship with a submarine" as Peter Porter puts it) and that both are finer poets than Plath, who is taught and valued so often for extra-poetic reasons.
Both Larkin and Hughes had memorial services in Westminster Abbey. Both have modest graves. What I like is the fact that, for all the goddess/shaman malarkey, Hughes has a memorial on the wilds of Dartmoor, not marked on maps, a rock for people to stumble across and be surprised by. Solid, remote, heavily of earth, it points away from the worst and towards the hard best of Hughes, situated in a world where rocks are rocks, where workmen are workmen and the police really the police.

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