Friday, December 10, 2010

Ted Hughes and Modern British Poetry

The Post World War Poetry
     When Ted Hughes started writing poetry in the nineteen fifties, the aftermath of the Second World War still lengthened its shadow on most of British poetry. The War had created a psychic numbness and, as Davies describes it in one of his poems, “a stubborn loss of nerve”:
If too much daring brought (he thought) the war,
When that was over nothing else would serve
But no one must be daring any more,
A self-induced and stubborn loss of nerve.

This tendency is clearly reflected in what is known as the poetry of the Movement. Robert Conquest who edited the anthology New Lines writes thus about the aesthetic that governed by the poetry of the Movement:
I believe the most important general point would be that it submits to no great systems of constructs nor agglomerations of unconscious commands. It is free from both mystical and logical compulsions and… empirical, in its attitude to all that counts.
As Robert Conquest himself wrote in “Humanities,” the aim of this post-war poetry was the following:
The word on the objective breath must be
A wind to window the emotive out,
Music can generalise the inner sea
In dark harmonies of a blinded heart
But hot with certainty and keen with doubt
Verse sweats out heart-felt knowledge, clear-eyed art.
John Holloway, another poet of the Movement, warns against everything, emotive, mystic, philosophical, and romantic:
Shun the black puddles, the scrub hedge
Down to the sea. Keep to the wet streets where
Mercury and sodium flood their sullen fire.
Tonight do not disturb the water’s edge.
This kind of a quasi-Augustan pose, notes Annie Schofield, “was ostensibly, a reaction against the poetic trends of the 1940s. It was a repudiation of the ‘new apocalyptics’ who were thought to have ‘opened their Blakes and splashed about in puddles of myth, delighting in portentousness and prismatic effects.” It was in a way an attempt to discard the so-called excesses of the Neo-Romantics and the visionary poetry of the kind that Blake wrote in the eighteenth century and Eliot in his Wasteland. The result of this shutting off from all visions, philosophies and myths was a limited Augustanism, urbanity, prosaic simplicity and refusal to deal with anything except the commonplace.
Ted Hughes was clearly against this voluntary psychic closing. In an interview with Egbert Fass, Hughes expressed his view on Movement poetry in the following words:
One of the things these poets had in common I think was the post-war mood of having and enough…. enough rhetoric, enough overweening push of any kind, enough of the dark gods, enough of the Id, enough of the Angelic powers and the heroic efforts to make new worlds. They’d seen it all turn into death camps and atomic bombs.
What made Hughes revolt against this post-war mood was the feeling that people had not learnt their lesson from the war and were being evasive in their response to the new situation. Ted Hughes, whose father had a narrow escape from a shrapnel which could have killed him but for the pocket pay-book which deflected it, realized that shutting one’s eyes from the horrible reality outside was at best an evasive technique. He decided to express the holocaust, the nightmare that confronted the world in a post-Hiroshima period. Several poems dealing with the War—”Six Young Men,” “The Casualty,” “bayonet Charge,” “Out,” and many poems in Wodow and Crow paint the nightmarish world the War had created and the psychic numbness it had brought about among the survivors. In “Crow’s Account of the Battle,” Hughes writes,
And when the smoke cleared it became clear
This had happened too often before
And was going to happen too often in future
And happened too easily
Bones were too like lath and twigs
Blood was too like water
Cries were too like silence
The most terrible grimaces too like footprints in mud
And shooting somebody through the midriff
Was too like striking a match
Too like spotting a snooker ball
Too like tearing up a bill
Blasting the whole world to bits
Was too like slamming a door
Too like dropping in a chair
Exhausted with rage
Too like being blown to bits yourself
Which happened too easily
With too like no consequences
Ted Hughes’ second main reaction against the contemporary British poetry was in the form of an exploration of the inner world of man, something which the movement poetry had deliberately avoided. Hughes thinks that the unconscious, irrational and the primitive in man cannot be ignored. For they are not the creations of the human fantasy; they are rather the things man tries to keep suppressed and yet cannot. “Ghost Crabs” begin to stalk at night and invade not only the seashore but the inland, the comfortable bedrooms and laws. Being the manifestations of a repressed psyche, they roam about freely at night: “Our walls, our bodies, are no problem to them. Their hungers are homing elsewhere. We cannot see them or turn our minds from them.” They are too strong to be repressed so easily because
They are the powers of this world.
We are their bacteria,
Dying their lives and living their deaths.
They are the turmoils of history, the convulsion
In the roots of blood, in the cycle of concurrence.
To them, our cluttered countries are empty battleground.
It is for this reason that Hughes invokes the inner world of man because he believes that nothing can be gained dismissing it as either a fantasy or something evil; the best way to tackle it lies in facing it and harnessing it. Ted Hughes himself says:
So what we need, evidently, is a faculty that embraces both worlds simultaneously…The inner world, separated from the outer world is a place of demons. The outer world separated from the inner world is a place of meaningless objects and machines. The faculty that makes the human being out of these two worlds is called divine. That is only a way of saying that it is a faculty without which humanity cannot really exist. It can be called religious or visionary. More essentially, it is imagination which embraces both inner and outer worlds in a creative spirit.
This passage provides a key to Ted Hughes’ own poetry which is an attempt to synthesize the inner and outer worlds of man. He wanted poetry to do what Blake had said in the nineteenth century it ought to do:
To open the Eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes
Of Man inwards onto the Words of thought, into
Ever expanding in the bosom of God, of Human
Hughes therefore returns to primeval sources of poetry: pagan and oriental mythology, experience of shamanism, of imagination and vision. And to this he adds a modernist outlook and style to call a spade a spade.
Ted Hughes and the English Poetic Tradition
Ted Hughes reacts against the post-war poetry of the Movement; he is, however, influenced by several older and earlier poetic traditions. His Nature poetry is quite close to Wordsworth’s (as, for example, in “The Horses”), but what he brings to bear upon it is also a Tennysonian outlook so that he presents not only the serene beauty but also the violence and irrationality that belongs to the world of Nature. His attachment of anthropology made him look at the world of myth in a new, modern way. Robert Graves’ The White goddess had a strong influence on him during his earlier poetic career. So did his knowledge of anthropology attract him to ancient European, oriental and American myths. At each stage in his development, Hughes has of course tried to transcend the influences which cast their spell on him for some time. His early work is clearly influenced by the work of Hopkins, Lawrence, Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Of these only the later Yeats, poems, persists as far as Crow. The more lasting influences have been those of Greek tragedy, medieval alliterative poetry, Shakespeare and the English Romantics. Of the Romantics, two most obvious influences are those of William Blake and Wordsworth. In addition, Ted Hughes has, as Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts point out, acknowledged two kinds of “influences, or at least kinship, to which he is receptive: in his interview with Egbert Fass, in which he speaks of the connection between the dialect of his childhood and the language of middle English poetry; and in his review of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism, where he says that the shaman’s experience of being ‘chosen by the spirits’ with the consequence that he ‘must shamanize or die’ is the basic experience of the poetic temperament we call ‘romantic’—he specifies Venus and Adonis, some of Keats’s longer poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and Ash Wednesday as works which share this ‘temperament’.”
Ted Hughes and the Post-War Poetry of Eastern Europe
Hughes shows a remarkable affinity with the post-war poets of Eastern Europe, notably Vasko Popa, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslaw Holub and Jonas Pilnszky. What may have attracted Ted Hughes and others to the poetry of East Europe were its following features, as summed up by Edwin Morgain:
One broad answer might be that they have to produce their work under extremely testing social and political circumstances, and that this has given their poetry an edge; a clear-eyed quality not quite like anything we are familiar with in our own poetry. Another answer might lay stress on the theme of survival which in fact they do share with many Western poets but which they deal within fresh and urgent ways because they see it from a different background, a different angle. Or from a third viewpoint, we might say, that there is something to be learned from their attitude to language, from their pared-down, sinewy, anti-florid expression.
The most obvious reason for Hughes’ attachment to their poetry was their treatment of the second World War. Hughes had already a fascination for the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas, both English poets, who wrote about the War. Keith Douglas not only participated in the Second World War but died in Normandy during the war. The East European poets who actually lived and fought in the war naturally attracted Ted Hughes. In his editorial essay for The Modern Poetry in Translation, Ted Hughes wrote about Czech poetry:
The Western poet perhaps envies his brother in the East, for while he sings of comparative comfort, comparative freedom, comparative despair, the reality of the threat and disaster is not his. There is a tendency for the Western poet to become isolated and turn inwards, whereas the poet of the East is in tune with the rhythms of his people in a much more direct and dynamic way.
These poets expressed in a powerful way the damage that the war did to old values. In “Two Drops,” for example, Holub wrote,
So firmly they did not feel the flames
When they came up to the eyelashes
To the end they were brave
To the end they were similar
Like two drops
Stuck at the edge of a face.
This is the description of two lovers lost in their embrace as the sudden bombardment destroys them.
Under their influence Ted Hughes decided to confront the nightmare, especially in Wodow and Crow. “The Howling of Wolves” and “Song of a Rat” have striking similarities in theme and language to many poems of Popa. Similarly, “Pig” is rather close to Herbert’s “Minotaur”:
Only when she felt
The savage knife at her throat
Did the red veil
Explain the game
And she was sorry
She had torn herself
From the mud’s embrace.
In his surrealistic technique too, Hughes is close to the East European poets. “The Ghost Crabs” begins almost in the same way as the playful menace with which many poems of Popa and Plath begin:
At nightfall as the sea darkens
A depth darkness thickens, mustering from the gulfs
   and the submarine badlads,
To the sea’s edge.
As Michael parker, who has made a detailed comparison between Hughes’ poetry and that of the East European poets, observes, “Although we might be inclined to scorn the ‘cowboy outlaw’ world supplied by the image ‘badlands,’ any condescension is quickly crushed when the giant crabs themselves appear under flat skulls, staring inland/Like a packed trench of helmets.’ This last image simultaneously evokes the picture of a Great War Battlefield, and prepares us for Hughes’ broader presentation of the human predicament. Man is not the possessor of the world, Adam, but being possessed by dark, vicious, uncontrollable forces embedded in his subconscious, ever ready to emerge like Yeat’s Apocalyptic beast in ‘The Second Coming,’ moving its slow thighs’ towards Bethlehem.”
What Hughes wrote about Vasko Popa’s Earth Erect volume applies equally well to his own Cave Birds:
The whole sequence operates, with even greater intensity, as an organic sequence of dream-visions, drawing on many sources, charged with personal feeling, an alchemical adventure of the soul through important changes.
Hughes is thus quite close to these poets in his exposure of the blackest, innermost recesses of Man’s being and his questioning of the entire metaphysical structures of the universe—something that he does remarkably well in Crow—which appear to ordain endless, purposeless suffering and in the startling directness with which the most horrific experiences are confronted.
But as mentioned earlier, Ted Hughes outgrows the influences and produces something daringly original, and daringly rebellious. This is why any talk of his being influenced by others must at best be tentative. In the alchemy of his poetic genius all these influences act as ingredients but the end product is something more complex, deeper and more profound.

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