Hughes, Ted (Vol. 9)
Hughes, Ted 1930–
Hughes is an English poet, playwright, editor, and writer of books for children. He is a nature poet in the sense that his poems express, in their descriptions of wildlife and landscape, the brutal savagery of nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[The] real limitation of Hughes's animal poems is precisely that they conjure emotions without bringing us any nearer to understanding them. They borrow their impact from a complex of emotions that they do nothing to define, and in the end tell us nothing about the urban and civilised human world that we read the poems in. If they reach back, "as in a dream", to a nexus of fear and sensation, this is just the point and the reason why they frequently fail as poetry: one difference between dreams and art is that art deepens our understanding while dreams on their own do not. Larkin's horses are more profound than Hughes's, in fact, because they show us something about the relationship between the horses' world and our own instead of just frightening us with theirs.
Hughes's poetic world is really a prehistoric world of natural violence, where humanity has only the barest fingerhold: when the poems are not about animals they are often about inanimate nature ("October Dawn"), and they give no place to emotions and experience of an essentially human kind. In this sense Hughes is a nature poet, a kind of tough mid-century Blunden (compare their pikes or their Octobers), and makes no serious attempt to face the "full range" of his experience: the experience and emotions that control his poems are frequently those that we share with animals, and these are evoked "as in a dream" more often than they are explored. It would be one thing to write a single poem or two out of this idea, but to make it the dominant theme of an entire output is quite another. When Hughes makes a direct attempt on human experience the result is often catastrophic: when people feature in the poems they serve as occasions for the poet's own cocksure imagination ("Famous Poet", "Vampire") or comfortable romanticising ("A Woman Unconscious") and never imply a real human engagement or any of the self-doubt that this might sometimes carry with it. It is always hard for a poet to write about people, because there is a deep and perpetual antagonism between human individuals and the poetic images through which we attempt to understand them. But this is what gives poetry its work and its justification. With Hughes the victory goes simply and completely to the images …, and the result is a cruel absence of compassion and a profound denial of the capacity for growth, love and uniqueness which makes human beings human (and not simply one more species of animal). Hughes's poems are often very fine technically, with sharp detail and imagery and a tense motion perfectly suited to their dramatic content ("Pike", "Esther's Tomcat", especially)…. But their most important lesson, it seems to me, concerns what can and cannot be done in an idiom which is decreasingly workable and relevant today and which involves, with Hughes at any rate, a lack of any essential commitment to the human world and its conflicts. (pp. 10-12)
Colin Falck, in The Modern Poet: Essays from 'the Review', edited by Ian Hamilton (© Ian Hamilton), MacDonald, 1968.
Hughes's desire for language free of any gentility is akin in motive to Baraka's stress on the brutal side of white America's consciousness, and he took intellectual clues from a book on shamanism and from certain interests of Vaska Popa's. But anyone can see how much his earlier poetry, whatever it's about, is intimately in search of a language so hard and fierce it will taste of blood. His animal poems in Lupercal are concentrations of that search, projections of a sophisticated and even decadent neo-primitivism. When he broke out of their thematic grip, he still kept the same aim of making the intensity of his...
(The entire section is 5,842 words.)