Poetry: Ted Hughes

I’ve been reading my collection of Ted Hughes poetry very, very slowly, and in spite of the slowness enjoying it very much. My edition is one of the lovely Faber anniversary editions, and although I don’t like the lack of dates or any other acompanying contextual information, the book looks great and the poems themselves are wonderful. I’ve read Hughes before, for a grad class or two, but it’s been a while, and this is the first time I’m reading much beyond the usual anthology inclusions.

Although I’ve read only the first 35 pages out of 140 or so, it’s clear that Hughes’s main topic is nature and often animals. Among the titles of poems I’ve read so far are these: “The Thought-Fox,” “The Jaguar,” “The Horses,” “Hawk Roosting,” “The Bull Moses,” “View of a Pig,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar.” Other poems have animals in them even if the title doesn’t mention it, and of the poems without any animals in them, most are about nature. Other titles include “Wind,” “October Dawn,” “Mayday on Holderness,” “February,” “November,” “Snowdrop,” “Pike,” “Thistles,” “Fern,” and “Full Moon and Little Frieda.”

What’s striking about the poems is the way animals and nature are not sentimentalized or romanticized. The poems have a dark, almost harsh tone to them, and while they are beautiful, it’s a stark kind of beauty. Often we get a purely exterior view of the animal in question, such as the haunting “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” which describes a jaguar pacing relentlessly in a zoo. “View of a Pig” is about a dead pig in a wheelbarrow that the speaker thumps “without feeling remorse” because “it was too dead. Just so much / A poundage of lard and pork. / Its last dignity had entirely gone. / It was not a figure of fun.” The poem is about the changes that death brings, the way it transforms a being with dignity — because even a pig can have it — into a lump of flesh. It’s a harsh reality, but that’s exactly what these poems are about.

When we get an imagined interior view, as in the poem “Hawk Roosting,” which is written in first person from the hawk’s point of view, the voice is remote. The poem ends this way: “The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this.”  The hawk rejoices in its ability to kill: “I kill where I please because it is all mine. / There is no sophistry in my body: / My manners are tearing off heads.” The voice is otherworldly, speaking from a place and perspective that feels entirely different from the one we know. Humans don’t exist in that world.

In “The Bull Moses,” Hughes tries to imagine what goes on in the bull’s mind, and he does it by imagining what’s not there: “He would raise / His streaming muzzle and look out over the meadows, / But the grasses whispered nothing awake, the fetch / Of the distance drew nothing to momentum / In the locked black of his powers.” The calmness, the complete disinterest in the natural world that is moving all around him is mysterious and haunting, and there’s nothing to do but watch it and marvel.

While the animal poems describe the otherness of creatures and captures their least “human” moments, the poem “Thistles” personifies the plant, describing the thistles as men fighting feuds. However, while the thistles may be like people, they are like people at their harshest, ugliest, and most frightening. I’ll close with this poem in its entirely, to give you a fuller taste of Hughes’s voice:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst

Of resurrection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.

They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.

Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.

Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,

Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Poetry

16 responses to “Poetry: Ted Hughes

  1. zhiv

    I’m waiting patiently for the Olive Kitteridge review, I post on Maine Novels, I’m freaking out because there’s a whole slew of To the Lighthouse posts in this Winter Woolf/Woolf Winter zhiv that I missed completely… checking, checking… and Ted Hughes shows up? Okay… Any reference to the Janet Malcolm book on Plath and Hughes?–didn’t you read that? Just Ted Hughes? Okay… Icelandic frost. I get it. …fighting back over the same ground.

  2. I really like Ted Hughes’ poetry although I hardly ever think to pick his writing up (and in fact am guilty of forgetting that the genre of poetry exists sometimes!). I have his Tales from Ovid which I’ve been meaning to get though, but experience suggests they are going to be pretty ferocious, and I’m feeling too feeble and wintered-out at present for them. Their moment will come. Lovely analysis, Dorothy.

  3. I used to use “View of a Pig” by Hughe’s, “Sow” by Sylvia Plath, “Jubilate Agno” by David Lee, and a couple of other pig poems together. It was a fun way to cover a wide variety of poets in an unusual way.

  4. I need to read some of Hughes’ earlier poetry. The only collection I’ve read is Birthday Letters and it frustrated to me. I need to get over my Plath-induced bias and read some Hughes!

  5. These sound like beautiful poems. I’ve not read much Hughes but I’ve liked what I read. Still I don’t seek him out. Maybe I will sometime.

  6. You convince me to give Hughes a try again (love the Hawk, but being pounded with that swallow of summer poem year after year was too much at school). I especially liked your comments on his approach to nature being unsentimental and the pig poem sounds very appropriate for now, as people try to work out how to feel about the food they eat.

  7. I’ve only read a poem or two by Hughes, but now feel motivated to seek him out. I’m sure this is overly simplistic, but reading your post made me categorize Hughes as an English Robert Frost, the subject matter and how he approaches it.

    I like the perspective of the animals, without humanizing or sentimentalizing it.

    This stopped me: “My manners are tearing off heads.”

  8. I haven’t read Ted Hughes before. That is a striking poem. Thank you for posting it.

  9. Your post takes me back to college days when we were all into Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. They were worth reading then, and are worth reading now. I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve wandered there. Thanks for reminding me.

  10. Zhiv — I’ll definitely have to get to Jewett soon because it looks like I’ll be vacationing in Maine again this year, and just because, of course. I’m nearly finished with OK — 40 or so more pages to go. I’m loving it, is the short version. I should have linked to my posts on the Malcolm book, but it slipped my mind. And I also want to look at Hughes himself without the whole Plath story getting involved. I feel badly that his poetry often doesn’t get looked at for its own sake.

    Litlove — thank you! It hadn’t occurred to me to read Tales from Ovid, but that would be a good way to learn something about classical literature. And yes, I’d expect Hughes’s writing to be ferocious; that’s not surprising at all.

    Jenclair — how great to teach a series of pig poems! I love the idea. I’ll have to check out the others you mention.

    Amanda — I think it’s great to be able to forget the saga of their relationship and just think about the poetry, to the extent that’s possible. It would be hard to do with The Birthday Letters, I would think. Maybe try his earlier stuff?

    Stefanie — I think he’s worth seeking out, if you find yourself in the right mood. The poems really are beautiful.

    Jodie — I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but the pig poem is definitely about our relationship to the animals we eat. Having someone’s poetry pounded into your head in school sounds disastrous — the best way to turn people off, right?

    JaneGS — I love that line too! Absolutely love it. Yeah, he is like an English Frost, although perhaps even darker and more naturalist than Frost is. I definitely recommend him!

    Lilian — I’m happy to :) Hughes is well worth checking out if you are at all inclined to.

    Grad — definitely they are both worth reading now, I agree. I’m glad I was exposed to Hughes so I knew he was someone worth reading more deeply in.

  11. I always think of Ted Hughes as Sylvia Plath’s husband–I bet he would have hated that (can you tell I’ve not read him?). I think the closest I’ve come to wanting to read any poetry is from reading Nicholson Baker right now–which is really good considering how I tend to avoid it. I think I’d appreciate poetry more if I could read it in a classroom situation where it was explained (at least to beging with)–much like your post here! :)

  12. Guidance in literature can be a good thing sometimes!

  13. “Ghost Crabs” is another great one to illustrate your inhuman-ness-of-animals idea. I haven’t read all that much Hughes, but I do really love some of the ones I’ve sought out. And for me, reading poetry suuuper-slowly helps me get more out of it…as much as that creates a push-pull dynamic in my mind of wanting more and at the same time forcing myself to linger.

  14. Bookboxed

    I have long liked Hughes and Plath as poets. Perhaps we are moving a little to a point where they as individual poets can be read for just their poetry, as all literature should be.
    I think Hughes is writing more about the instinctive side of humans through animals than you suggest. For instance the hawk is also a dictator. In poems like Thrushes and Strawberry Hill the instinctive which underlies what Hughes seems to see as a veneer of civilisation is clearer, but I don’t know if they are in your collection. The stress on the vicious side of humans and nature may be an expression of the proximity of the early poems to the war and holocaust, which play a part in Plath’s poetry too.

  15. Danielle — it can be challenging to read poetry on one’s own, especially the ones who write more obscurely, but there are plenty of poets whose poems are great but also easy to follow. Yes, isn’t the Baker book an inspiration? I’d love to read through the anthology Paul Chowder is producing — wouldn’t that be great?

    Emily — I can see that the super-slow pace would work for that reason — enough to enjoy, not so much to feel as though you’ve gotten enough. I’ll have to look up “Ghost Crabs”; it’s not in my collection I’m seeing now.

    Bookboxed — I do hope that we are moving toward a place where we can read their work without so much baggage. They are both such great poets. Neither of the poems you mention are in my collection, so I will have to seek them out. Your argument, and especially the connection to war, is quite interesting.

  16. Pingback: What are you reading? « Of Books and Bicycles

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