Books: Myth in the making: Ted Hughes has always had his doubts about criticism, but this first collection of prose gives the remarkable range of his work over 30 years, as well as insight into his motives and methods
Sunday 06 March 1994
Ted Hughes recounts the dream early on in his new book of occasional prose writings, Winter Pollen. It is almost caricaturally Hughesian: the wild animal; the catastrophe that has overtaken it; the appeal from nature to man to 'stop destroying us'. Hughes prints it without comment. What does it mean? It seems to describe, or allegorise, his feelings about literary criticism. He had chosen to read English at Cambridge, he tells us, because he thought this would help his own writing; the dream, we infer, changed his mind, warned that literary criticism is unnatural, intrusive, a danger to creativity. For his finals, Hughes switched to anthropology and archaeology.
The Critic as Violator: it's not a new idea. But whereas Samuel Beckett, say, in Waiting for Godot, makes a joke of it (putting the critic at the bottom of the slush-pile, below moron, vermin, cretin and sewer-rat), for Hughes it's more a superstition or phobia - no joking matter. He has himself felt violated by critics, as both his own work and that of Sylvia Plath has been chewed over like dead meat. And he has shown little appetite for practising literary criticism on books pages or in poetry magazines. Only for a short time in the 1960s, in half a dozen pieces for the Listener, did he ever review books - not collections of contemporary poetry but disquisitions on such subjects as vagrancy and shamanism. Many poets review to keep the wolf from the door; for Hughes, reviewing would be like letting the wolf in.
Perhaps Hughes's anxieties about literary criticism were exacerbated by his education at Leavis's Cambridge. Perhaps he doubts the whole process of paraphrasing and 'explanation' which criticism requires: to illustrate his distrust of fluency, he tells the story of two survivors from Gallipoli, one eloquent, one taciturn - the latter's grunts and hesitations were far more communicative. At any rate, while there were distinguished poet-critics in the generation before Hughes (notably T S Eliot), and there have been good poet-critics since (both Tom Paulin and Craig Raine, still only in their forties, have collected theirs in book form), it is only now, at 63, that he has assembled his prose writings, and then only under the editorship of William Scammell, as otherwise the collection might not have been wrung from him.
The surprise is that the book runs to nearly 500 pages and that, though it assembles more than 30 years of prose, large parts of it date from 1992 and 1993. (The appearance of Hughes's long-pondered study of Shakespeare in 1992 seems to have unlocked or unblocked something.) However averse to reviewing his British contemporaries, Hughes has plenty to say about poets of the past and other foreign countries. He is particularly enthusiastic about British war poets (Wilfred Owen, Keith Douglas), poets from Eastern Europe, and artists and directors with whom he has collaborated (Peter Brook, Leonard Baskin). Criticism does not come easily to him, and he wouldn't think it worth much if it did. But this is a much more generous and approachable book, much less hermetic or hermit-like, than popular images of Hughes would lead you to expect.
Poetry, he says here, should work like a single 1,000-volt shock (unlike novels and biographies, presumably, which are steady acres of street lighting). At best, this is how Hughes's criticism works, illuminating its subjects in a single phrase and also casting light on his own work. Wilfred Owen points 'a hallucinated telescope into the cluttered thick' of war. Dylan Thomas's 'free-for-all monologue occasionally reminds one of the dogfighting voices in possessed medieval women'. Emily Dickinson has an 'aura of immensity and chill', a 'mosaic, pictogram concentration of ideas'. The four pieces here on Sylvia Plath have their moments of strange detachment from, and foggy memory of, the life, but are marvellously clear-eyed about the work - how she retrieved, as if 'from inner dictation', the poetry she had to write rather than the poetry she thought she wanted to write.
Hughes has both a mechanic's know-how and a priestly sense of poetry's spiritual mission. Nowhere is he more conversational and direct than in his three pieces on 'Poetry in the Making', which began as broadcasts for children in the 1960s. For Hughes, the child is the perfect unspoilt audience, and he seizes the chance to offer some of the best descriptions we have of what motivates poetry: the desire to 'capture' something living for posterity (Hughes's own progression was from collecting lead models of animals, to trapping mice and rabbits in the wild, to recording his catches in a diary, and finally to writing poems); the need to raise or fish up from the inner, inchoate world 'some lovely solid thing, like living metal'; the struggle to possess our experience in words, if only fleetingly - 'the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river'.
Here and elsewhere, Hughes's prose explanations acquire a poetry of their own - they are rich with haunting variants. He quotes one of his most anthologised poems, 'The Thought-Fox', and wonders if he had chosen alternative words for the fox - 'the slight tremor of its hanging tongue and its breath making little clouds . . . the snow-crumbs dropping from its pads as it lifts each one in turn' - it might have been more alive. He describes the difficulty of rendering the crowiness of a crow, 'the barefaced, bandit thing . . . the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness . . . the unkillable biological
optimism'. He addresses a baffled reader who had written to ask him what he was up to in his poem about a grasshopper, and explains how to him the idea of an English summer is inseparable from this 'miniaturised, grotesque mechanism', poised like a spring or trap.
That such an explanation should be required suggests how far the world has changed since Hughes's poetic career began. This isn't only because grasshoppers, like other creatures, have been depleted by the arrival of agrochemicals in England's grassy places, but because he can no longer take for granted in readers a familiarity with the birds, beasts and flowers he has dedicated his life to capturing. He tells the story of an American poet who found a Hughes poem about a wren utterly meaningless because he had simply never seen a wren, let alone learnt anything of the rich popular folklore surrounding it. A more bumptious poet would rant against poor education, declining moral values and American poets. Hughes, with liberating self-doubt, looks instead at the place of the writer in a predominantly urban, multi-cultural society, trapped between a bland lingua franca and the parochial dialect of the sub-group. Forget trying to describe a wren singing itself into convulsions. Much safer to write of Hamlet sitting in melancholy inertia, while a spider spins a web between his leg and the leg of his chair. That everyone will understand.
So is a nature poet like Hughes redundant in modern society? Winter Pollen suggests that, in fact, the nature poet has never been so important. The old O-level worry about Hughes was that his poetic universe was too brutal and nihilistic. His self-defence here is that the 'violence' he described in thrushes on the lawn, self-ravening sharks and Mozart's brain was merely the behaviour of creatures at peace with their being: 'they are innocent, obedient and their energy affirms the divine law that created them as they are'. Looked at like this, the early poems do not hark back anthropomorphically to the violence of world wars, but are seminal and healing - broadsides that helped launch the environmental movement by focusing attention on the intricate wonder of creation. As for the liberal humanists who used to bang on disapprovingly about Hughes's blood and gore, what did they do for creation but consume it (dinners of calves 'stunned by a bolt through the top of the skull, throat slashed while the heart still beats, body hoicked up by the heel').
A fascination with predators has often been a clue, as Hughes points out, to larger social movements: between the wars, so Jung claimed, Germans dreamt more frequently about panthers and lions; and the late Serbian poet Vasko Popa was alarmed to find that, whenever he appeared in public, students would demand that he read from his sequence about the Serbian national saint, St Sava of the Wolves ('I fear very bad things,' Popa told Hughes). Perhaps Hughes's predators, while on one level ushering in the environmental movement, also express the brute spirit that destroyed the welfare state. For Hughes, works of imaginative literature are 'a set of dials' on the front of society, where we can read off the hidden energies beneath.
Anyone who supposes that, in accepting the Laureateship, Hughes has made his peace with the establishment will be quickly disabused. He attacks not just developers, businessmen and the Government but the 'subtly apotheosised misogyny of Reformed Christianity' and its rejection of Mother Nature. He challenges the enshrinement of scientific rationalism, the mesmerism of television and 'the morality of the camera'. His experience of judging children's writing competitions, and of noting how few winners go on to become adult writers, makes him wonder about the lobotomising of young talent, the 'massacre of the innocents'. And he displays a continuing fascination with people at the edge - vagrants, water-diviners, astrologers, tricksters, psychotics, and all those who explore 'the underground life that the upper-crustish, militant, colonial-suppressive cast of the English intelligence excludes'.
Winter Pollen ends with a long meditation on Coleridge, discerning 'a single myth' running through three of his most famous poems. Hughes hints that single myths also lurk in Eliot and Plath, and he would like to unearth them as he unearthed Shakespeare's. Hughes in this monomaniac mode is rather like Yeats in A Vision and Blake in the prophetic books: high on energy and voltage, but not easily followed by a reader untutored in the occult. There are unpredictable insights - into Eliot especially - but mostly he is far off, chasing spirit-hares with the dark gods and goddesses.
'The poet's only hope,' Hughes wrote in 1962, 'is to be infinitely sensitive to what his gift is, and this in itself seems to be another gift that few poets possess.' His own first gift is as a poet, a man who notices things, the finest poet of the natural world since Lawrence, and it would be sad if the poet were left behind by the critic's hunt for the key to all mythologies. Poet-critics are like centaurs. Winter Pollen helps us to become acquainted with the upper torso, a man whose intelligence, charm and communality have never been given their proper due. But I hope Hughes doesn't forget the bloody horse.
'Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose', ed William Scammell, is published by Faber at pounds 17.50
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