land, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing
of the earth's mouth
From clay that clutches my each
step to the ankle
With habit of the dogged grave.
These are the first lines of Ted Hughes's first book, The Hawk in the Rain (1957). They describe a man walking through mud. They are reckless hyperbole, rhetorical exaggeration of a kind that had not been heard in English poetry since Andrew Marvell. They are also a prophetic statement about the young poet's own creativity, his flaring, defiant take on his own fecund material.
His material, as announced in that book, was earth, animal, ultra-physical nature and the myths at work in it. That first book soars from earth to heaven. Above the grabby earth is the hawk of the title, whose wings "hold all creation in a weightless quiet". The poet flounders in mire and envies the hawk, yet Hughes's language could also hover as delicately as any hawk. As a young, adoring wife, Sylvia Plath wrote proudly of this book in her Letters Home, saying that it "combines intellect, and grace of complex form, with lyrical music, male vigour and vitality, moral commitment and love and awe of the world".
In Lupercal (1960) Hughes mined his chosen themes deeper. The living myths that animals represent; the ancient rituals human beings live without knowing it. In Wodwo (1967), the poem "Public Bar TV" announces the poet's kinship with threatened secret life, like drought survivors seen on a screen surrounded by men who hardly see the "wives, the children, the grandmothers/ With the ancestral bones, who months ago/ left the last river". All through Wodwo he expresses a belief that I think is at the heart of his best and weakest work, that there are forces moving in us, like sap in that harebell, which we are not responsible for. Our life force - our sap, if you like - is myth.
Crow (1970) is his masterpiece because it flows directly from myth at work in himself. The book showcases his incredible strength of language and imagination, as if he wrote the words in fire. You feel him like an omnipotent hang-glider, realising that he can go anywhere, say anything, about himself, the cosmos, history and God, in a music whose voice is its own and only form.
With his first four books Hughes changed British poetry, shooting into it a new charge of energy, risk, and an extraordinary, impacted power, revealing myth in all kinds of unnoticed physical things, such as a bike wheel in a muddy pool. People complained his poems said nothing about the civilised world. Where are the telephones and fridges? But "Public Bar TV" answered all that. His imagination chose the pre-electric world, but he knew exactly what electricity could do. His own creativity came from the earth, but he worked for radio like anyone else. He wrote against the city, for the city.
He also worked with searing responsibility to edit Plath's work after her death. He knew - who better? - its value and power. Becoming Poet Laureate answered some part of his mythic belief in magic, ancientness and "royal" power. But I don't think it was ultimately useful. It did not seem to get him out of creative deadlock in the aftermath of tragedy: a tragedy whose wounds were cruelly renewed by the outside world. In Wolfwatching (1989), the old wolf in the London zoo "listening to London", has been "tattered" to pieces by public gaze, becoming "a lumpish/ Comfort of woolly play-wolf... All his power is a tangle of old ends,/A jumble of leftover scraps and bits of energy".
It seems to me that poems may have felt a little like that, for a while, to Hughes. His prose book about Shakespeare was maybe necessary to write; but he was not a critic or analyst. When he wrote to explain, the magic did not work.
But then, in Tales from Ovid (1997), creativity fought brilliantly back. His best work came from identification with and opposition to nature (including women), and from myth on the wing, rather than explained. Ovid offered all that. With his genius for the naked undermood of landscape, animals, and plants, for compassion with a person or animal's feeling, and for the sudden revelatory image, Hughes made Ovid's Metamorphoses into a tragic masterpiece about his marriage: a potent tapestry of myths about love gone wrong, bodies tragically changed, with his own experience flaming through and changing the tone of Ovid's sophisticated Latin.
For in the end Hughes is a poet of relationship. Relationship with the earth you put your feet into. Relationship that means struggle, love, fury, compassion and wounds. The clinging, clayey struggle to love and be loved back. "Earth" in those early lines stood for all the important elements of the world as he saw it, including what he called in Wodwo "the endless without-world of the other". Including, above all, the other sex. As "wodwo", the wild man of the woods, he presents himself as inhabiting a world he does not understand, but relates to by feeling: seeking a relationship between the naked self and what it is outside. In the light of that search, the "Lovesong" in Crow is almost unbearable:
He loved her and she loved him
His kisses sucked out her whole past
and future or tried to
He had no other appetite...
In their entwined sleep they
exchanged arms and legs
In their dreams their brains took
each other hostage
In the morning, they wore each
It is extraordinary that Hughes's version of Phedre, that archetypal psyche destroyed by love, was on in London as he died. Like many poets, I felt Birthday Letters let Hughes down. They explained. Some of its poetry (made it his weakest book. I would far rather remember his work, in relation to Plath, through the last lines of Tales from Ovid:
the two lovers in their love-knot
one pile of inseparable ashes
closed in a single urn.
But in the long term I suspect poets will honour him most for that burning vitality of imagination and language, the unique mix of delicacy and brute strength, the lit, black-humour-driven vision of human loneliness in relation to the world, summed up in Crow:
That heart, dancing on in its open
Helpless on the strings of laughter.
Ruth Padel's most recent collection of poetry, `Rembrandt Would Have Loved You', is short-listed for the TS Eliot PrizeReuse content