As we came to approach the poetry of Ted Hughes for this month’s Culture Club, I wondered what it was that had led me to neglect him. Like a lot of people, I first encountered Hughes at school, but he’s not a poet that I’ve ever felt compelled to go back to since those early encounters. This wasn’t conscious – I don’t remember disliking him – but it’s curious that many of the other poets that I first read at the same time have become writers that I have returned to many times since – Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Manley Hopkins, Hardy – while I’ve avoided Hughes.
Maybe it wasn’t surprising to find that my first response on re-reading The Hawk In The Rain was of a vaguely recalled irritation. It started with Thought Fox, a fine poem, but the following passage just grates:
Coming about its business
That word ‘concentratedly’ doesn’t belong in any context, least of all in a poem. The copy that I have borrowed from the library has a pencilled note, presumably written by a student, next to this passage saying: ‘You have to slow down and concentrate to say it’. It may be the case that Hughes aimed for this effect, but it is such a bad word that the poem implodes into it. I could barely read on after it.
Then there’s Hughes’s tendency to yoke words together, presumably to increase clarity. In the poem The Horses we have the ‘hour-before-dawn dark’ (ugh), the ‘frost-making stillness’, and the horses that are ‘megalith-still’. Egg-Head gives us a ‘blank-stare courtesy’ and a ‘flea-red/Eye-catching fervency’. Once again, I found myself stumbling over words and phrases.
But despite all this, coming back to Hughes much later I have more clearly perceived the elements of his work that made him great. Elements like the wonderful phrase at the conclusion of The Horses:
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place.
‘May I still meet my memory’ suggests a mode of thought that only the poet can attain, although the tone is perhaps too consciously resonant of WB Yeats.
Wind, the best poem from this collection, reaches true clarity and consistency of thought, the imagery being his most controlled and accomplished. Here also his poetic vocabulary is superb. There are two contrasting sets of words: the wind is described with open-mouthed vowel sounds, words like ‘floundering’, ‘flung’, ‘booming’, ‘bang’ and ‘brunt’. These are set against nature’s (and man’s) response, described with thinner, frailer words, such as ‘quivering’, ‘grimace’, ‘grip’, ‘tremble’ and ‘cry’. The last word of the poem brings the two sounds together within an inspired image:
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
Poetry has been described as ‘language that draws attention to itself’ and The Hawk In The Rain has lots of this. There is a thin line drawn between the overly self-conscious, the trying-too-hard, and a more instinctive poetic sensibility. In most of the poems in this selection these two qualities sit side by side. For example, in The Jaguar the following makes one aware of the poet attempting to write memorable poetry:
The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
This is sketch-book stuff, the poet flexing his creative muscles without an eye on the poem’s overall conceptualisation. Whereas later in the same poem the description of the jaguar itself is truly visionary:
But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes
On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom -
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of the blood in the brain deaf the ear -
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world runs under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
This image of an imprisoned force, and the constrained violence of it, encapsulates everything that is great about Hughes. Thom Gunn described it as the ‘concentrated energy’ of his poetry, and this comes across through all of his work, both good and bad. I’m very glad that at last I came back to him.