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.