A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today, Vulpes Libris welcomes Alan Parker, writer of our second chosen piece from our Write For Us! competition. Thank you, Alan!
The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes
There are books in the bookcase that have been read once, even abandoned, books that are there for reference, or for show. And there are one or two…. no, there is only one. There is one book in my bookcase that is falling apart, that is never loaned, that is filthy and has notes in it. There is a wrist-aching book whose hymn-book thin pages crackle with a 40,000 volt charge on every page and which grows in power as it sits on the shelf brooding. A fat raven on a high crag, a bitter rain shower, an unexpected summer storm to start a migraine and unchain passions. That book is the Collected Poems of Ted Hughes. And it is a masterpiece.
When we were nippers in Woodsetts, Mr Pearson told us ”We have a special man coming to speak to us this afternoon”, and we thought nothing of it until a giant, stooped in tweed with a thatch of filthy black hair and huge hands, loped into the classroom and – wonder of wonders – spoke in the low thee-and-thou singsong of our cluster of villages on the South Yorkshire pit ridge. “Boys … do you know that blasting quarry, where the spindly trees grow through the mire and the newts grow fat and bright-crested?” Know it? We lived there! Me and Baxendale and Helliwell and Scholey, we lived in that quarry – fishing and swimming and setting fires and scrambling up the sides. My family had mined that quarry for twenty generations, in the parish records ‘Gervais Allen, quarryman, son of William Allen, quarryman, son of Gervais Allen…’ and so on. So when he started, and we were enraptured, the words met our ears like the owl’s hoot meets the night – no separation, no distance: “Pike, three inches long, perfect pike. Green tigering the gold…” He had us. We would have followed him onto a longship and over the waves, our skald, our voice, our shaman. He spoke to us at subterranean level and his mark has never left me more than 40 years after.
Ted Hughes was the poetic giant of his age, and his long shadow is cast down the years, but his influence and the depth of his literary mineshaft knows no bottom. There is a great deal of psychobiography to be overcome, his failings as a modern man are well known and his effect on those around him well described elsewhere. If the work is poor then the mythology of the author will wither and fall into neglect. With Ted Hughesthe work is not poor, the work is awe-inspiring. In this massive body of work there are treasures beyond compare. The poem cycle Crow is well known and hard to digest, the collection Moortown Diary stunning but neglected, and the masterwork, Tales from Ovid, will live forever. George Steiner described it as the masterpiece of our age, the one book that will be read in a thousand years. Its insights into our condition, deeper than Freud, more acute than Jung, further reaching than any modern poet has a right to be as an ‘unacknowledged legislator of our age’.. Hughes does not attempt to re-enact the mystical complex metrics and syntax of Aeschylus:
Death is my new life.
Let me welcome it.
No struggle or clinging to breath and tears –
A single numbing blow to liberate me.
Then let me drop and relax and melt
Into the huge ease – of death.
He absorbs the pain, the vastness, the rage, the sexual violence and the jealousies tackled with a head-on collision, and regurgitated back to us in an owl-pellet of concentrated language. This is the same anguished cry he lets loose in poems where he describes the crushing of a hare with his car and feels the hurtling madness, remorse and joy of the cosmic unfair hideousness of the world spinning out of kilter. A man accustomed to great passions as well as the swelling of a drop of dew on a snowdrop leaf as it forms in the pre-dawn hour.
Hughes was a countryman, a Royalist, a truculent Yorkshireman who never moved back home, a caster of runes and spells. His work ranged from stunning to doggerel. Rain Charms for the Duchy is poor. Many of the works are unlovely and half-formed as he tried to straddle the rifts of modern literary life. At times he seems a tottering and futile figure, caricatured by Private Eye (‘Oozing death trickles from a dead sheep’s eye, maggots buzz, stink of hatred. Happy Birthday your Majesty’) but he managed to wade through personal loss and disintegration like a modern-day Green Knight, a poem he was working with in his final days. He has his roots deep into the same primordial ooze as his exemplars – Woodwo and Crow – and in the creaking, grinding metallic falling of The Iron Giant.
If, as Joyce said “Old England is Dying” then Ted Hughes has been its Precentor – and in the green shoots he sees a ‘senseless trial of strength’.
His influence cannot be underestimated. For the newsagent’s son from Mexborough to have “….grown so terrible, grown so wise” was astonishing in itself. For his momentum to keep building is like watching a ninth wave gather.
Ted Hughes: Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. 1376pp