Hughes, Ted (Vol. 4)
Hughes, Ted 1930–
Hughes is one of England's most important contemporary poets. His bold, tough poetic rhythms and his obsession with primitivism and animal violence are best known to readers of his wholly original "Crow" poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
At his worst [Hughes's] poems say "TAKE THAT!" He seems to boast that he can swallow more gore and nothingness than anyone else on the block. Over and over in his first volume, "The Hawk in the Rain," he sneers at human weakness; it is as if Death itself, salacious for fear and violence, had written these pitiless poems….
For the most part, only animals tug him to admiration; they release him for fire-fine empathy. His pike, otters, tomcats, pigs and dragonflies lend him their appetites, their guiltless desire for more. "Veterans of survival," they hearten him….
Then in "Wodwo" the human frailty of the first volume and the animal viciousness of the second snap together, and Hughes's animals learn to weep…. So it is that Hughes rounds to human weakness through the struggle, the hot solace, of the dumb beasts. He articulates in them his own apprehensions; they bear him blindly, prevent him from articulating himself away.
Crow adds comic stridency to this synthesis, gives Hughes the nucleus for innumerable farcical black situations, opens his poetry philosophically and dramatically. Greedy and indestructible as Crow is, he also incorporates the world-belittled human figures of the early poems, and Hughes treats him with a strained, disgusted compassion. Crow is a figment of genius, as impudently alive as Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, yet a kind of philosophical kit. Through Crow's jump-gap poles of automatic appetite and mental quivering before the steaming horror of Creation, Hughes joins the twin nihilistic themes of the century—the Id and the Void—with witty and enormous invention.
Yet "Crow" suffers from being part of the thinning tail of modernism. It has so much to outshrill, its derisive and despairing stances are so familiar, that it seems more noise than news. Only its last-gamble dependence on the will to live and its cartoonizing of poetry and philosophy prove bold. Jaggedly exciting as the volume is, clever, resourceful, relentless, its gusto is achieved at the expense of the verbal subtlety, the poignant empathy, the mystery, of the earlier poems—poems with living, nonconceptual subjects, not flattened themes. "Crow" bangs with the tin of Hughes's will; for all its metaphysical gaping, it lacks the lifting note of wonder.
A large welcome, then, to this gathering ["Selected Poems 1957–1967"] (selected by the poet himself) of most of the early poems….
Hughes's great talent is for a dramatic grip of language, dead cold but bleakly pungent, felt from within his own or his subjects' root-tip attachment to life. His style is emotionally dry, yet burns. It ascetizes imaginative magnificence.
Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1974, pp. 3-4.
For Hughes, the violence of nature—what Yeats called its "murderous innocence"—seems to be the essential and universal human condition. His best poems are characterized by stark presentation, sharp definition, a peculiarly masculine energy. "Wind," for example, presents the poet's reaction to a storm on the Yorkshire moors. Hughes bombards us with images of urgency and terror: "Flexing like the lens of a mad eye … the brunt wind … flung a magpie away" and, later, shook the house so violently that it "Rang like some fine green goblet in the note/That any second would shatter it." Finally, the perspective shifts to the human response to this holocaust …, a powerful rendering of the sense of human impotence when confronted with the unpredictable violence of nature….
[It] is often said that Hughes's violent nature imagery is symbolic of a dark descent to the depths of the unconscious, to a mysterious interior world of being. His animal poems—like "Otter," "Horses" and "Pike"—are frequently called Laurentian. But there is, in fact, little resemblance between Lawrence's great poems of animistic projection like "Bat" and "Fish"—poems in which the self merges with an alien identity—and a Hughes poem like "Hawk Roosting," which … has no meaningful reference to any conceivable human situation.
I would argue that Hughes's peculiar evasiveness, his unwillingness to unmask the "I," is increasingly becoming a limitation in his verse….
The seemingly endless violence becomes tiresome. Indeed, Wodwo manifests an increasing sense of strain, of trying to say something new without finding the necessary means….
Hughes becomes increasingly remote; his animals become, more and more, the means by which the poet gets out of the poem, by which he avoids the complexity that results when the self confronts its world. In his most recent book, Crow, the effacement of self is completed. By adopting the Crow persona, the poet can be as devastating as he likes, confronting us with the demonic image of a world destroyed by atomic ash in which the jaunty, unkillable Crow is the Last Survivor, without disturbing our serenity. Thus we can chuckle at Hughes's wit, as when Crow is asked, "But who is stronger than death?" and replies, "Me, evidently," without being involved or troubled.
The later Hughes is, in short, at the opposite pole from the poet of Leaves of Grass who announced, "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there." In Hughes's poetic universe, the relation of the individual to the hostile, amoral violence that surrounds him remains obscure. I long for him to shed the carefully contrived mask, the pose of cynical witness to storms, murders and lonely deaths. For there can be no doubt that few contemporary poets—whether British or American—can rival Hughes's technical resourcefulness, his verbal facility, his acuteness of observation, his perfect ear.
Marjorie Perloff, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 10, 1974, pp. 1-2.
Ted Hughes' Crow (1971) was the best book of poems by an English poet in many years…. Selected Poems 1957–1967 … will show you how he got there. Taken from his three previous books, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), Lupercal (1960) and Wodwo (1967), these poems march steadily into the darkness behind the darkness until they reach Crow's monstrous and monster-filled world….
To read Hughes is to be surrounded by cold and maniacal eyes and jaws. And stones. His cold landscape is jammed with giant crabs, horses, apes, jaguars, whales, dinosaurs, moles, bulls, hawks. As his poems evolve it becomes clear that it is not these beasts' dignity or grace or even fierceness that grips him but their bloodlust, and their pleasure in bloodlust….
The leap Hughes makes in Crow is to make this animal violence an intricately worked-out metaphor for man's totality: his civilization, his psychology, his myths and his ultimate "meaning." …
Hughes' style changed through the years: he began as a skilled rhymer with precise metrics, working toward carefully modulated off-rhymes…. Gradually the style became looser and more dynamic, idiosyncratic and unpredictable, the style of Crow….
As a description of his own inner landscape, which we all touch on somewhere, Hughes' poems are completely compelling; but as a description of reality they suffer from "tunnel vision," even in Crow where he pushes past despair into something like defiance. After all, even King Lear has some bright spots.
Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 16, 1974, p. 32.
Crow is the crux. It is deplored as heatedly as it is admired. His attitude to his "black" subjects is condemned as vampiric, Gothic, horror-comical. At the same time, he is said to be a neo-Georgian.
One reason why his later work has been deplored on certain sides is that it is held to have been governed, more and more, by considerations of performance and delivery. Many of these poems are inventories, speeches, tablets of stone, commandments—though they are not the kind of commandments that his readers would know how to obey. They are incremental as well as elemental. They are oratory and liturgy. Thomas's Eighteen Poems, whose themes are not all that remote from those of Crow, did well in delivery too: but they do better on the page, and are more memorable if only because more melodic, than some of Crow, and appear to represent a different case, incantations though they are. Difficult though some of the Crow poems are, they have proved acceptable to a generation that wants its poets to climb onto the stage….
I would agree that stretches of Lupercal and Wodwo seem to reveal a state of exhaustion. They are a trough, as are parts of Crow. The increments don't always add up; the oratory can be very confused. I don't think it is possible to detect many ideas in his poems myself, but what there is here of the kind of thing that poetry critics call ideas can be unpersuasive and perplexing. There are later poems, present in this selection, which look willed and incoherent when set beside "The Little Boys." He is wrong to prefer them.
Nevertheless, there has been a failure to discriminate within his later work on the part of those who dislike it. Certain of the Crows are marvelous: "Crow's Account of the Battle," "Crow's Theology." In "A Childish Prank," grown-ups are "lying about" again, as in "The Little Boys": "Man's and woman's bodies lay without souls." This time, though, there is theology, and even for those who don't like theology, a more engrossing point is made. Gothic though it is, "Crow's Account of St. George" is another very good poem: it is of the order of, and is no less richly deliverable than, the Border ballad "Edward."
Early and late, his poems have been engaged in the depiction of instinctual life, and of the death-dealing behavior of fighters and predators, and this has been done in a context which includes a hostility to human participation in such behavior, which includes a desire for peace. His Crow is involved in this drama in an ambiguous way, being both predator and victim. This crow is not a crow as his early jaguar was a jaguar. His exploits are deeply anthropomorphic. He is a very sardonic bird….
A children's story of his, The Iron Giant, bears a rather strange relation to his poetry, in that one or two of the themes and incidents of the poetry are revived as endearing fiction. There are little, faint counterparts of some of his most thunderous effects; and cartoon versions of some of his worst monsters for adults….
At the beginning of the book, the boy is fishing, and the scene is like a version of the scene in "Pike," where the poet, fishing, feels threatened by the life in the pond. "It was growing too dark to fish," the boy decides. "Past nightfall I dared not cast," the poet writes. There are owls in both cases, and a hush. Both the boy and the poet sense that they are being watched, and they are both afraid. Then the boy sees the terrible Iron Giant clambering over the horizon. I conclude that Ted Hughes was so interested in fear, and in the adolescent memory which may be recaptured in these scenes, that he had no compunction about repeating his finest evocation of the frightening in terms of a standard episode from a children's book.
Karl Miller, "Fear and Fang," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), March 7, 1974, pp. 3-6.
Hughes, though generally acclaimed as Britain's leading poet, gives no quarter to his readers, and his critics give him little in return. His obsession with the bleakly non-human in Lupercal and Wodwo seemed spent, and his readers looked forward to a new departure. But, continuing his immersion in the primitive, and extending the shadows of his temperament to the full, he published Crow, which is resolutely contemporary and shuns the detached control of the typical Audenesque lyric. Indeed, Crow challenges the very notion of lyric, for while the individual "songs" have their own emotional shape, it is through imaginative participation in the world of this at once primordial and apocalyptic beast that we can arrive at an estimate of its final worth. Like other contemporary book-length poems, such as Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares and Hill's Mercian Hymns, Crow demands to be read in full; only in bulk does the blackness of its humor and the redness of its blood appear in the proper light. But to read the book as a unit makes some readers feel battered past tolerance, while others find the work pretentious or puerile….
Someone complained that despite the myriad references to blood, Hughes never convinces us that he has ever seen any. That is witty, but beside the point. The real difficulty is in the relation between the poem and its presumed audience. Persons accustomed to reading neo-metaphysical poetry, or requiring to know whether a poem is an allegory or a realistic "picture," are not well-equipped to face the impurities of Crow's mode. In that poem, agony and broad comedy readily commingle, and we are deprived of any comforting tradition of discourse to guide or relieve our attention to tone. The poem survives by its own manic energy, or it fails utterly.
Charles Molesworth, in The Nation, March 16, 1974, pp. 346-47.
Hughes is undoubtedly, unfortunately, one of our finest poets still young enough to have an artistic future. As talented and serious and lyrical as one could wish, there is something dry about his brutal anguish. The flights of his bat-winged pegasus are [so] carefully calibrated … that the feeling of an almost indifferent depression that one gets from reading him comes more from a response to his technique than his "message." And yet it is for his technique that perhaps he should be read, since his hothouse violence is more often than not ludicrous.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Spring, 1974), p. lvii.
Hughes has long been fascinated by the manner in which life sustains itself in the face of death. Prior to the appearance of Crow (1970), a number of his poems explored the behavior of animal-predators, for whom the energy-requirements of the blood constitute "the belly of logic." With instinctive ruthlessness these animals hunt and seize living food…. Despite their ferocity, however, the predators too are at the mercy of the organic cycle…. With death as a constant threat, violence matters less than vitality. Survival in Hughes's Darwinian realm calls for remarkable strength, alertness, and stamina, such as that of the hawk in "The Hawk in the Rain"….
In contrast with this animal vitality which opposes death, contemporary man appears to Hughes deficient in will, stamina, and vigor. While permitting advances in civilization, the eradication of certain threats to man's existence has simultaneously encouraged a general relaxation and softening which the poet regrets, particularly since he associates passivity with death….
To convince himself of the persistence of life, Hughes must ultimately abandon mortal individuals and turn to the foundation of existence, immortal energy itself. This he has done in Crow, in which the legendarily persistent scavenger bird becomes the mythological embodiment of energy and is endowed with appropriate physical attributes…. [Living] energy is inseparable from change, as Crow dramatically demonstrates by being repeatedly mangled, dismembered, and blown to pieces. Like the atom Crow not only survives such endless transformations but thrives upon them to triumph in his combat with death and inertia.
Julian Gitzen, "British Nature Poetry Now," in The Midwest Quarterly, Summer, 1974, pp. 323-37.