Harmonizing at the moon

Hughes roosting: Michael Glover watches the Poet Laureate rekindle his old fire at a recent public reading

The spring sees a notable flowering from the Poet Laureate: a New Selected Poems: 1957-94 (Faber, £7.99), incorporating for the first time a selection from his books for children, What is the Truth? and Season Songs.

To consider Ted Hughes is to consider a force of nature: both because the natural world is his most favoured subject and because of the energy of his imagination which can minutely inspect a humble fly and redeem it as "a freshly barbered sultan, royally armoured/ In dusky rainbow metals". But like the flora and fauna of spring, this year's published offering can often look uncannily like the last. For some years now, Hughes's poetry for adults has started to resemble the thistles he once wrote about, "Every one a revengeful burst/ Of resurrection", that yet were doomed to "grow grey, like men" and whose sons went on "fighting back over the same ground". Was it possible to redeem Hughes, as he redeems the fly, into the figure of passionate energy he used to seem? I went to hear him at Bath's first ever Festival of Literature.

Hughes doesn't give readings all that often, and to hear him is a treat for the eye and the ear. The value of hearing poetry read out loud is that the experience can humanise what so often seems - especially in the case of 20th-century poetry - abstracted and dehumanized on the page. Hughes's bodily presence seems to elementalize his poetry. This is not simply a matter of the voice itself, which is powerful, rough-edged and deeply resonant. There is the rest of all that complicated machinery of himself too: the unusually broad shoulders; the huge, squarish head; the eyebrows that have grown more wild and wiry with the years until they now resemble those of Chaplin's chief tormentor in The Gold Rush; and his hands, a little on the small side proportionately, that hold the book he is reading in a fiercely possessive grip.

When he talks between the poems, with a succinct eloquence, he almost never meets the eye of the audience. His head droops forward as he speaks, as if he is addressing his own words on the page, offering them somewhat belated explanations of their own meaning. He has just one expansive gesture - of the right hand, that planes to and fro, skimming the air into thin horizontal slices. Otherwise he stands very still, legs spread, braced, pinioned against adversity, ignoring entirely the jug of water that's been left out for him.

He smiles only once during his hour-long reading at the Bath Forum - and that is when he describes how wolves can resemble a barbershop quartet of harmonizers when they sit huddled in a tight circle at Regent's Park Zoo and howl at the moon.

In spite of the fact that Hughes seems shy in the presence of an audience and concerned to protect his inner self from its collective prying eye, he reads with a slow, easy confidence, neither stumbling nor hesitating. He only appears a little exasperated when he is searching for the next poem, riffling through all those fussy little paper book marks of his - and even occasionally dropping one. The performance is an effort of will.

The evening begins with a selection of the poems that were ostensibly written for children. Hughes does not in fact believe that they were written for children at all, he makes clear to us, and he doesn't, by the by, think that children want children's poetry anyway. They want adult literature. These poems are simple poems that he hopes children will enjoy. He then reads "The Harvest Moon", a poem that celebrates the magnetic effect - upon people, animals and the earth itself - of the sudden appearance of a flame-red moon, "Booming softly through heaven like a bassoon". "Moon" is a favourite word of Hughes's, and it really does boom as he says it, like the after-echo of some distant cannon.

After that comes "Sheep", the story of an animal that is obliged to come to terms with the death of its June lamb, a creature born too late, too small, and suffering from a disease of the joints. Before reading the poem, Hughes takes a small anecdotal turning off the road - back to the days when he worked full-time on a farm. "I was a shepherd once upon a time," he tells us. "I kept 150 sheep. A flock of sheep is like a terminal hospital. They're all trying to die continually. And the way they die, of course, is what every farmer keeps to himself. . ." The lamb in the poem just doesn't have the "gumption" to live: "It was not/ That he could not thrive, he was born/ With everything but the will - / That can be deformed, just like a limb./ Death was more interesting to him."

Hughes spends the whole evening moving from children's poems to adult poems and then back again, and this makes for a great revelation. They do indeed make a seamless whole, and the fact is that as his adult poetry has become less effective over the years, losing its way in private mythologising, his children's poetry has gained in strength, simplicity and assurance, something we have not been quite aware of because children's authors tend to attract less attention than writers for adults.

But the best demonstration of how a public reading can draw us back to the book itself with a new sense of excitement and discovery comes when he reads, towards the end, "Hawk Roosting", one of the hardiest of his hardy perennials. This is what he says about it:

"I was living in the United States when I was writing this poem. I was nostalgic for home. It was written as one of an interconnected frieze of creatures - of the sort that you might find on a nursery wall. I had in mind a particular kind of sparrow hawk that I'd shot. But something that is dead is not the thing that it was when alive, and so I was deflected onto this piece, which was just waiting there. . . I want you to imagine it as the monologue of a hawk sitting in a wood; the hawk's voice is the cassette in the tape recorder of himself. It plays, again and again, keeping him braced with hawkish morale. The poem goes back to the first god of hawks, Horus, who is also the sun, of course."

And then he locks onto the poem with such energy, sending it straight through the bones of the 700-strong audience, that it seems inconceivable that we could have read it before, in a mere book.

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