Friday, December 10, 2010

Hughes as Nature Poet

Selections of Ted Hughes’s poetry usually start with ‘The Thought Fox’. The poem is often read as a parable of the quintessential Hughesian moment of creativity: a violent displacement of the poet through ego-obliterating inspiration. As Collected Poems shows, few early poems originated in this way. ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ offers a more accurate analogy:
I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave…

Rather than a work of inspiration, the poem illustrates a preconceived argument: the struggle to be free of earthbound limitations. Over-mastery is perhaps typical of a young poet with something to prove, and by Lupercal the animals have become more resistant to interpretation. In ‘Otter,’ the creature’s essential slipperiness is the subject: the otter is ‘neither fish nor beast… does not take root like the badger… Gallops along roads he no longer belongs to… Of neither water nor land…’ The creature repeatedly eludes the poet’s grasp, before performing a neat vanishing act: ‘Yanked above hounds, reverts to nothing at all, / To this long pelt over the back of a chair.’
In the uncollected Recklings, Hughes discovered a ‘prose readiness’ in his style could offset his tendency toward hyperbole, whilst allowing it freer rein. ‘Prose readiness’ was coined by Hughes, who praised Keith Douglas for his ‘utility general-purpose style... that combines a colloquial prose readiness with poetic breadth… and yet in the end is nothing but casual speech.’ Casual speech is never ‘a’ language: it is an improvised bringing together of disparate elements. Perversely, as Hughes’s mastery of language increased, he lost faith in it. This is from Poetry in the Making:
There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow’s flight… The ominous thing… the bare-faced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstroke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness… a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying.
As Craig Raine has noted, this outstrips most people’s experience of seeing a crow, but for Hughes the defining characteristics of language were now failure and lack. Likewise, the seething cauldron of the natural world, with every creature insisting on its own uniqueness, is revealed to be a struggle against meaninglessness. In ‘Pibroch,’ meaninglessness itself pushes through into something like a transcendent vision:
Minute after minute, aeon after aeon,
Nothing lets up or develops.
And this is neither a bad variant nor a tryout.
This is where the staring angels go through.
This is where all the stars bow down.
The mix of thumbnail sketch, hallucinatory vision and colloquial phrasing works to head-off any possible argument. Here is a language ‘not to be outflanked,’ and a vision bleaker than anything in Crow.
Hughes returned to nature poetry with Season Songs, Moortown Diary and River. After the more difficult work of the 70s (Crow, Cave Birds, Gaudete), these collections appear less concerned with language and the limits of representation: in the brutal world of Moortown Diary, simply to exist is difficult enough. Consider this account of dehorning cows:
The eye
Like a live eye caught in a pan, like the eye of a fish
Imprisoned in air. Then the cheese cutter
Of braided wire, and stainless steel peg handles,
Aligned on the hair-bedded root of the horn, then leaning
Backward full weight, pull-punching backwards,
Left right left right…
While not for squeamish, Moortown Diary is in the best sense ‘accessible,’ making the natural world available to any reader. The techniques (anecdote, anthropomorphic description) are familiar enough, yet the writing feels rejuvenated. In Flowers and Insects, similar techniques yield quite different results: a distance opens between Hughes’s facility with language and nature itself. ‘Sketch of A goddess,’ describes an iris’s two blooms:
That one’s past it. But this one’s in her prime.
She utters herself
Utterly into appeal. A surrender
Of torn mucous membranes, veined and purpled,
A translucence of internal organs
In a frisson,
Torn open,
The core debauched,
All loosely dangling helplessness
And enfolding claspers –
Such disparity between the object and the speaker’s projections suggests satirical intent, but Hughes nevertheless appears to have exhausted nature as a means of negotiating his experience.
Crow is offered as a work-in-progress, but the projected story, in which Crow successfully completes his trials, is surely a convenient fiction. Crow’s antecedents include the trickster heroes of aboriginal cultures. Such figures represent the chaotic instinct in man, and are not expected to show character development. Hughes wants Crow to be more than this, but the endless repetition of disasters, and formal monotony, mean that Crow breaks every law but the one of diminishing returns. Too often the glissade leads simply to a clinching last line: ‘His head fell off like a leaf.’ ‘Creation had failed again.’ ‘He was blasted to nothing.’ ‘Then everything went black.’ To work, the form requires especially interesting information - such as surprising, apt images - as here in ‘Crow and the Birds’:
When the eagle soared clear through a dawn distilling of emerald When the curlew trawled in seadusk through a chime of wineglasses When the swallow swooped through a woman’s song in a cavern And the swift flicked through the breath of a violet…
Finally we come to Crow, ‘spraddled head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream.’ Of the uncollected Crow poems, ‘A Lucky Folly’ surprises us by having Crow do the right thing - if only out of cowardice and desperation. Elsewhere, the best poems (‘Dawn’s Rose,’ ‘Crow’s Elephant Totem Song,’ ‘Littleblood,’) are those that get furthest away from Crow himself.
Cave Birds is a more convincing account of breakdown, and an attempt to heal, and make whole the self. Tonally and linguistically, the sequence is more varied, beginning with a language determined to cancel itself out:
Then the bird came.
She said: ‘Your world has died.’
It sounded dramatic.
Later, ‘The Executioner’ is an exercise in hyperbole, reminiscent of Hughes’s early poems (‘He fills up the mirror, he fills up the cup/ He fills up your thoughts to the brims of your eyes’). Banality of diction and hyperbole again suggest belief in an ideal object beyond language: the attempt to reach it will be strenuous and hopeless. However, there are genuine moments of transformation, such as ‘Bride and groom lie hidden for three days,’ in which a couple ‘like two gods of mud’ put each other together, piece by grisly piece. The positive outcome (‘they bring each other to perfection’) is fully earned.
Hughes’s subsequent mythic poetry lacks the scope and resonance of Cave Birds. The positive resolution of Prometheus on his Crag feels as contrived as the happy ending Hughes wanted Crow to have. How could a circular, mythic narrative be united with a linear tale of sin and redemption? Hughes found the answer in Tales from Ovid; in retrospect a logical progression from the shape-shifting figures in Cave Birds. Metamorphosis allows characters to break free of their own narratives, even as they complete the pattern. The poet of amoral nature is a perfect match for Ovid’s moral ambivalence. ‘Actaeon’ begins
Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.
Nevertheless, Actaeon is punished. Likewise, when Arethusa runs from Alpheus she says ‘my nakedness/ Though it was no invitation/ Gave his assault no option.’ When Callisto is raped, we are told ‘Suddenly, she hated the forest,/ The flowers, that had watched while it happened,’ but the insight is not pursued. A fairytale-like air of inevitability precludes guilt. Hughes/Ovid tries to square this with depth of character, much as the characters themselves contend with their destinies. Integrating the supernatural and psychological realism would be the burden of Hughes’s later poetry.
Domestic Poet
A domestic world characterised by pent-up frustration is present throughout Collected Poems. ‘Her Husband’ presents a life lived in permanent, paranoid close-up: ‘Fried, woody chips, kept warm two hours in the oven… Her back has bunched into a hump as an insult…’ In ‘A Motorbike,’ the source of the constrictive domesticity appears to be the men’s memory of war, and the freedoms war conferred: ‘The shrunk-back war ached in their testicles,/ And England dwindled to the size of a dog-track.’ In Wolfwatching, Hughes returns to the theme of war-memories, with an even more prosaic style. Lack of poetic ‘artifice’ now guarantees veracity, and should we miss the point, several poems, such as ‘For the Duration,’ concern the father’s (literally) unspeakable memories:
After some uncle’s
Virtuoso tale of survival
That made me marvel and laugh –
I looked at your face, your cigarette
Like a dial-finger. And my mind
Stopped with numbness.
Not always successful in themselves, these poems provided Hughes with a model of how a quietly-spoken candour, relying on speech rhythms and free of stridency, could be achieved.
Birthday Letters concerns Sylvia Plath, but uncollected poems from this period suggest a larger autobiographical project: Howls and Whispers deals with Hughes’s life post-Plath (a disturbing double haunting, as Hughes ghosts his own memories); while Capriccio considers the poet’s marriage to Assia Wevill in an equally raw, apparently unprocessed manner. Birthday Letters is an uneven collection. ‘Telos’ presents Plath plagued with Alphas:
You turned your mother inside out
Like ripping a feather-pillow
And came up covered with Alphas.
You stamped and stamped
Like Rumpelstiltskin
On your Daddy’s coffin and the whole band
Started up Alpha. The whole stadium
Clapped Alpha, roared Alpha…
This could be a Crow poem with the names changed. Elsewhere, moralising spoils otherwise engaging poems: ‘Drawing’ begins with an account of Plath sketching a market scene in Spain, only to remind us that ‘your hand/ Went under Heptonstall to be held/ By endless darkness.’ Such flash-forwards characterise Birthday Letters as the culmination of Hughes’s obsession with inevitability. A cynic might say, just as history is written by the victors, the elegist is guaranteed the last word - and Hughes’s penchant for heavy closure can certainly sound like a determination to close down argument. Moments of observed behaviour are more compelling, such as the account of Plath’s theatrical suffering in a fever:
I stared at the readings
On your dials. Your cry jammed so hard
Over into the red of catastrophe
Left no space for worse.
Hughes is most convincing when he keeps his eye trained on the image. ‘Daffodils’ maintains a strict focus, building to these lines on a lost pair of wedding-present scissors:
…somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod - an anchor, a cross of rust.
Even the abstractions are not permitted to stray from the actual experience: ‘We had not learned/ What a fleeting glance of the everlasting/ Daffodils are.’
Hughes was prolific. There are many weak, and some positively bad poems in Collected Poems. In the early work, rhetoric frequently hijacks the original impulse to write, supplying a decorative bow (‘May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place,’), or overusing the word ‘horizon’ as a short-cut to a resonant last line. Hughes may benefit by having his false-starts and concessions to the ‘well-made poem’ made more available. It is tedious and reductive to see Hughes as an untamed force of nature: however much he utilised his instincts, Hughes was a deliberate, calculating poet. Lines and images are recycled to better effect, and poems are often shuffled between collections, altered and improved before their reappearance. Developments in the published work may look like inspired leaps, but the uncollected work shows Hughes testing new ground and honing his skills. Selected editions are available for those who only want the many brilliant poems. Collected Poems shows Hughes refining his art.

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