Hughes, Ted (Vol. 2)
Hughes, Ted 1930–
Hughes, a British poet of nature in the raw, of primitivism, pessimism, and natural destruction, is the author of The Hawk in the Rain, Wodwo, and the highly praised Crow. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
The particular tone that Hughes could create from the start is still there [in Wodwo]—an almost surrealist vision of half-perceived horror, fraught with implications of violence and destruction. In the midst of British poets safely recording the sensibilities of suburbia, he is something of a maverick, a touch of the apocalyptic in a tight isle.
Chad Walsh, "Poetry is Alive and Well in 1967 A.D.," in Book World (© The Washington Post), December 24, 1967, p. 6.
The most striking single figure to emerge among the British poets since the last war is undoubtedly Ted Hughes. The total volume of his serious published work remains slight. It is to be found in scattered periodical publications and in two books, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) and Lupercal (1960). Even in these books, the total number of poems that stand out from the rest through the extraordinarily fierce power and concentration that one thinks of as the marks of Hughes's special genius is rather small. In the first book, published when he was twenty-seven, this unique forcefulness is more marginal or potential, usually, than actually present. That is, there are moments—a single stanza or phrase, perhaps—when the smoldering fire blazes forth savagely….
Even in poems that are not completely successful, such as the deliberately weird piece of buffoonery called 'Vampire' or the half pitying, half contemptuous 'Secretary,' the authority of the conception is compelling. The dazzling gate-crasher at the party described in the former poem, who is really somehow absorbing his hosts' blood for the sake of his 'real' body, a 'fusty carcass' that becomes a 'grinning sack … bursting with your blood,' is a small triumph of Hughes's exuberantly horrid imagination. An ultimate terror and fascination at the gross brutality of nature, and of man in his more unreflective animal aspect and in the savagery of his wars, makes itself felt in this poet as it did in the writing of his wife, Sylvia Plath….
The title poem of The Hawk in the Rain, carrying echoes of Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, places the speaker, a man slogging through the sucking, clinging mud in a heavy rain, in a curiously interdependent polar relationship with a hawk in the distant sky that 'effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.' The speaker 'strains toward the master-/Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still'; yet the hawk may one day view the earth from a victim's standpoint and feel 'the ponderous shires crash on him.' The poem attempts too much, but reflects better than any other in the book the obsession of the poet with one aspect of nature—the power and the gift of animals to make the kill, and behind that the intransigent force of being itself that is so indifferent to suffering and weakness. The symbolic application to man is fairly clear. Hughes picks up cues from Lawrence and Thomas, including the latter writer's artistic creed: 'Man be my metaphor.' More than either Lawrence or Thomas, he carries them to unsentimental limits in his best poems….
His empathy with the animals he contemplates is so thorough and so concretely specific that the effect is of magical incantation, a conjuring up of another possible kind of self. Both otter and pike, though they can be caught and killed by man, are given supernatural attributions by the language that Hughes sometimes employs in describing them, and by his awestruck feeling of the mystery of their existential reality, so different from our own though constantly suggestive of the human.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 224-33.
[Wodwo] by Ted Hughes is terrifying, marvelous, macabre, and to me at least, not altogether comprehensible…. Hughes is largely concerned with Lawrencian darknesses and other kinds of darkness, and it is possibly a part of his strategy that everything should not be luminously clear….
His is largely a poetry of extreme situations or attitudes or pressures. His deservedly famous animal poems, for instance, are really emblematic of human postures and behavior. And the drama of his poems, indeed, of this whole book, consists in the frightening and insoluble paradox that man at his peril, possibly sometimes at the cost of his life, denies his animal nature, but at the same time that very nature, when it gets out of hand, makes him bestial and hateful and can also kill him. By the same token, man's consciousness, while useful, is also dangerous, and when divorced from his deepest nature is feeble and useless.
Anthony Hecht, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 211-13.
Wodwo is the work of a writer who believes, I think, that the best way to describe the chaos of human experience is by recourse to chaotic thinking and, it follows, chaotic language….
Hughes cannot be dismissed and should not be. His earlier works have contained some considerable poems; this present book has the play and the short stories. It is true enough that a man writes what he can when he can, and I can only continue to hope that Hughes will write more poems that I can understand and perhaps enjoy.
David Galler, "Excellence and Victimization," in Carleton Miscellany, Summer, 1968, pp. 110-14.
Ted Hughes is famous as a poet of violence, for certain poems in his first book, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), and its successor, Lupercal (1960), brought into English verse an animal ferocity unknown since the death of Lawrence. So it is perhaps legitimate to wonder whether the voice in this new collection [Wodwo] is that of Sir Gawaine or of the wodwo. Certainly here are many terrifying poems …, in some of which it is as if the feral spirits lurking inside the skins of beasts themselves speak, or are spoken for….
Hughes is not concerned to retell old myths in new clothes, or to mythologize contemporary life. His concern is to treat certain experiences as though for the first time, as though he, their first experiencer, were their first poet, the maker of their myths. Therefore his myths do not ordinarily invoke old names from vanished pantheons, but reveal intrinsic patterns of actions, of realization, which the old myths, too, expressed. This process of mythologizing experience comes clear in Wodwo….
Both in diction and technique—as well as in subject—[Hughes's] poems of the divided self suggest strongly the influence of Robert Graves, who had been practising many of The Movement's virtues for forty years before they were issued in New Lines as a battle-cry. A second similarity to Graves in Hughes's work appears in his fascination with war as the natural expression of man's life….
Ted Hughes's poetry is curiously impersonal, at least compared to the "confessional" verse of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and their many imitators. For Hughes tells us very little about himself directly. Instead he excludes from his verse all but the search for the knowledge he must have and finds in his own versions of what Eliot called objective correlatives. If Hughes's poems are rather bare of similes it may be because their actions are themselves the poetic analogues representing the action of the mind. It is the action not the language in the poem which is figurative….
The intensity, consistency, and rigor of Hughes's work demand that we measure it by the highest standards. What he has written is as true as he can make it to what he most deeply feels. In the making of his style he has, as he said of Keith Douglas, broken free from "the terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus of ancient English poetic tradition." His diction is piercingly direct, his forms entirely functional. He abandons stanzaic and metrical conventions for line-breaks and the spacing of bursts of lines which try to capture the shape of the experience, rather than impose any arbitrary pattern upon it. The novement of this verse, like its spare language, is designed to render the energy of the mind in its moments of most significant thought, its deepest awareness.
Yet Hughes's consistencies are achieved at a heavy price, for the universe imagined in these poems—the experiences available in them, the particular journey of the protagonist, the necessitous direction of his Quest—excludes many of the possibilities of life. The dream which calls this shamanizing poet is a dream of suffering and a dream of death. The brute instinct in his blood is the destructive element….
Should his Crow at last exhaust his fury against the rattrap of existence, Hughes may return from his shamanic visions bearing not only the "clairvoyant information" of our instinctual violence, but also a "healing power." As he has written, "Once you've been chosen by the spirits, and dreamed the dreams, there is no other life for you, you must shamanize or die." Whatever comes next from him is sure to be written down in new poems that will be wonderful and wild.
Daniel Hoffman, "Talking Beasts: The 'Single Adventure' in the Poems of Ted Hughes," in Shenandoah, Summer, 1968, pp. 49-68.
Hughes is often said to be the best younger British poet, sometimes in tandem with Thom Gunn…. Hughes is the reverse of a sentimental animal-poet: he does not interpret animals in human terms at all. Instead, he shows respect for other kinds of life, utterly different from humanity; thus he makes poetry less man-centered, but he is aware also of these mysterious forces as they enter human life.
Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (© 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 250.
If we look for a poetic precedent for Crow, perhaps Blake would be the first name to present itself: not so much the Blake of the turgid and obscure Prophetic Books, as the Blake of Songs of Experience and the poems and fragments of the Rossetti Manuscript, The Nobodaddy poems and the Proverbs of Hell. There is, for example, a certain similarity of poetic function between Blake's Tyger and Hughes' Crow: both creatures symbolise some kind of non-ethical energy or principle in the universe which is not satisfactorily accounted for by orthodox religion. Well one might ask of Crow, 'Did He who made the Lamb make thee?' (The question is in fact raised in many of the poems, but is ambiguously answered.) Compared to Blake's Tyger, however, Crow is a much less conventionally 'poetic' creature, with no fearful symmetry—no beauty, dignity or nobility of any kind. He has 'scrawny little feet', a 'bristly, scorched-looking face' and 'unspeakable guts'….
Crow, in short, is the beast of a very modern apocalypse, one in which images of global disaster and individual violence take absurd and grotesque and debased forms that derive quite as much from contemporary mass culture as from literary tradition….
I don't mean to equate Ted Hughes' poems with cartoons, the vast majority of which are of minimal interest and value as art. I am merely pointing to a certain similarity of style and convention: the caricatured, quasi-human bird reappearing in a series of heterogeneous but familiar contexts; the mixture of comedy and violence; the stark, hard-edged quality of the visual images; the construction of narrative in a series of parallel episodes, or statements, climaxed by some unexpected twist or deflating pay-off line; the sudden transformations, mutations, mutilations, reversals and recoveries, which defy all the laws of logic, physics and good taste; above all, perhaps, the very direct, rapid, economic, simple manner of delivery. For there is nothing subtle about the technique of these poems: there are no nuances, no tentative evocations, no haunting cadences…. [But cartoon] art (it is not clear whether animated or strip cartoons are being referred to, but it does not greatly affect the issue) is, for the most part, superficial, but Hughes' adaptation of it is not…. Crow serves Hughes as Sweeney served Eliot, or Crazy Jane served Yeats. The adapted cartoonstyle conventionalises the experience, frames it ironically, puts it at a distance and thus makes it manageable. Major innovations in the arts are often carried forward by such collaboration between high and low art….
Crow is a book to read, and read again; and one of the rare cases where punctuation and typographical layout are really functional, guiding and controlling the reader's inner voice. There are few rhymes, and no regularity of line length in most of the poems, yet Hughes rarely falls into the slackness this invites. The poems are strong-lined, packed, purposeful. They sound as if they came off the top of the poet's head—they have the air of rapid improvisation—but they are stunningly effective, and when you examine them it is difficult to see how they could be improved. One suspects that if they were composed in quick, spontaneous bursts, with little revision, it was only after the poet had thoroughly mastered his style by long practice and many failures. And the language, as well as having a contemporary, idiomatic ring, also echoes ancient and traditional forms of discourse, such as the Old Testament, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Milton and Marvell. Themes and images from the Bible and classical mythology mingle with sharply topical allusions to motor-car accidents, pollution, mechanized war and nuclear devastation….
The mixture of the mythical and the topical, the sacred and the profane, poetic resonance and brittle colloquialism in Crow is indeed reminiscent of The Waste Land, yet the effect is quite different. Part of the difference, I suggest, derives from Hughes' assimilation of cartoon techniques.
David Lodge, "'Crow' and the Cartoons," in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1971, pp. 37-42, 68.
No romantic flights for English Poet Ted Hughes. Let others waft upward in attenuated dawns and high-blown rhetoric. Hughes stays below, foraging over a gritty landscape, battening onto whatever is starkly elemental. For him, poetry is "the record of how the forces of the universe try to redress some balance disturbed by man." In his taut, compulsive poems, both the error and its redress are usually violent, sometimes disgusting, occasionally awesome. From a bullet-pierced soldier's helmet come "cordite oozings of Gallipoli." Giant crabs, "God's only toys," tear each other apart. Even a thistle is "a grasped fistful of splintered weapons." Hughes sees a grim beauty in all this. His ability to make the reader see it too has placed him … among the handful of essential poets that Britain has produced since the war….
Crow is a sort of cosmic Kilroy. Alternately a witness, a demon and a victim, he is in on everything from the creation to the ultimate nuclear holocaust. At various times he is minced, dismembered, rendered cataleptic, but always he bobs back. In his graceless, ignoble way, he is the lowest common denominator of the universal forces that obsess Hughes. He is a symbol of the essential survivor, of whatever endures, however battered.
Christopher Porterfield, "Demons and Victims," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), April 5, 1971, pp. 91-2.
[Ted Hughes'] "Crow" is one of those rare books of poetry that have the public impact of a major novel or a piece of super-journalism. In the figure of Crow, the 40-year-old English poet creates a shocking synthesis of the life-force and the death-force. Hughes evokes an ambiance of epic legend in which Crow has several different births—he is spawned of "an egg of blackness"; he is "his own leftover, the spat-out scrag"; he is a fallen angel, and he is also the black placenta of creation, the leftover slag after the multiple holocausts of war, insanity, despoliation, cosmic explosion and divine wrath.
In poem after poem Crow is the ultimate quixotic will battling the wolfish evil of man and the imperious somnolence of God….
Hughes' language has the bombing, plummeting weight of birds of prey. His Crow is the last sputtering aviation of consciousness in a doomed universe, where even a smile is a lost abstraction looking for a home. Because Crow is indestructible, his life is an eternity of destructions—he is hung, blown up, roasted, ripped apart, crushed and buried. But, like the road runner in the animated cartoon, he always survives….
In Crow, Ted Hughes has created one of the most powerful mythic presences in contemporary poetry. Crow is the blackness of all of us, including the whiteness that was. In these poems that hit like rocks and bite like beaks, Hughes speaks the ultimate prophecy: life will survive—in a terrain and continuum of destruction. It is a prophecy beyond hope and despair, made of its own black-blooded music. If our own organs—our brains, blood, hearts—could speak, this would be their language.
Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1971, pp. 114-15.
What [Hughes'] Crow really represents is consciousness in a Last Ditch situation. He is like some new mutation—radiated and thalidomided—which grotesquely survives the concentrated fire upon its person of all the effects of atomic warfare, detergents, frozen foods, and tranquilizers. Crow is the spirit of survival incarnate. And the suggestion implicit in this is that the poet/anti-poet should be the prime example of such a survivor, whose final reductio ad absurdum aim is to verbalize a strategy against the results of war-game programming….
Hughes has been criticized in England for his sadistic imagery, but I do not share this objection. There is a grittily personal black humor about this poet's grim view of the world which makes the horrific comic. The voice has something in common with Orwell's perpetual grousing, a justified looking at the worst side of things which serves the purpose of really making us see that they are extremely bad while we find the speaker rather lovable.
By using his extraordinary gifts to project a state of consciousness which sees the destruction of the world behind everything, Hughes may well be speaking for what many of his contemporaries really do feel. Some of the most terrifying (and terrifyingly funny) passages in Crow give one the sense that this is the nightmare reality behind the American or world dream of salesmanship and television….
Yet if there is no contrasted life with the present horrific destruction, then the picture which Hughes presents is merely the blankly pessimistic view of a man who hates all of life. Because I am certain he does not hate life, I cannot help seeing the lack of some vision of eternal delight under the contemporary darkness as making his poem a partial failure on the order of James Thompson's City of Dreadful Night or of Hardy's Jude the Obscure, in which everything in the world that is loaded against life is brought to play against chances of fulfillment and happiness.
Stephen Spender, "The Last Ditch," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), July 22, 1971, pp. 3-4.
Creation is the principal theme of Crow, and since man is blighted, wounded, or decapitated, Crow takes over as creator; as he also plays the more traditional role as destroyer, scavenger and Death.
It has been said about Hughes' work that his gift is for writing about the natural world "from the inside, as a being who knows that he is not divided from it." But here we cannot tell whether or not there is division between man and animal or man and the natural world, for even the animal—here Crow—is often at odds with nature. Besides, there are so few human voices that it is impossible to paraphrase the relationship between the poet and his world, natural or spiritual. The triumph of Crow is in our not being able to get to the bottom of any of these relationships.
The poems are all short, and while many are rich in paradox and the kind of ironies usually found in a more complex or elaborate poetry, they achieve, over all, the concentrated power of the epigram. The difference, however, is that unlike the epigram these taut structures, with their final punches, do not really end but turn us back into their middles….
Hughes' indictment of human detachment, ironic or purely careless, is as persistent as the detachment itself and the tensions between these two opposing attitudes produces a poetry of "high seriousness."
Crow is full of burlesques, intricate turns on older methods of fable telling, and some hard and clear poetry about the beginning and endings of our lives. "Crow's First Lesson" was not love; God suggested the word and Crow retched. Instead he watched or partook of the love act between a man and a woman. Still a young one, like an innocent child, "Crow flew guiltily off." He knew the role he would play in man's creative and happily lustful enterprise.
Barry Wallenstein, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 17, 1971, pp. 483-84.
The forms Ted Hughes has chosen, from The Hawk in the Rain through Lupercal and Wodwo, to Crow, are grievous, possessed of an unremitting constancy, pursued as an obsession is pursued, or fled from in the same way. Hughes' poems are rare in this (as in other aspects, all excellent) that they perform their author's quest for terror and the center of terror as well as afford him the means by which to defend himself against it. For Crow is made of poems, and the poems are made; their appearance of absolute directness, their impression of a natural utterance uncluttered and spontaneous, make it necessary to remember this, to state what is perhaps too often overlooked: that any speech is earned, fought for, developed as iron is forged. Hughes' poems sound inevitable, profoundly necessary, but they are nonetheless poems, crafted, willed. The quality of possession consists in choosing what will be owned as well as the sense of being owned oneself….
[His] work, then is astoundingly affirmative: what he has seen has not stopped him from speaking. His vision includes simultaneously his sense of the brutally animal center of all existence and the particularly human ability to make languages. I know of few other poets—Jeffers, Roethke, Muir—who have so insistently celebrated the mysterious mud we are made of, whose other name is darkness….
Hughes probes toward sources unstintingly, trying to perform verbally the bases of animal existence. Even as he lifts off an old form he invents a new one, and the idea of form remains, as does the act of making it. No delver casts off his tools: Crow's maker differs from his creation in this, that willy-nilly he is at a remarkable distance from that to which he would most closely approach, because of the mode of approach. He invents that to which he would attend. The discoveries of these poems are discoveries of language. The truth Hughes has found has more to do with our ability to create than with our ability to destroy. The immediate experience is of making, the secondary experience is of potential loss. The action of most of the poems is figurative, but the words are the thing in itself.
Dabney Stuart, in Mediterranean Review, Fall, 1971, pp. 51-3.
[In Crow,] Hughes's quarry, through the simulacra of cities and times, is the very self, caw caw, the idea of that self, caw caw, in the West; for him selfhood must be rooted in the ground of existence as we know it. Consciousness, or self-consciousness, he regards as the cause and effect of everything it perceives. When all has gone, Crow paradoxically is still there to know it. Which means that poetry endures, as the only form that the experience of consciousness can take. That is Crow. Naturally, even this concept may lapse, as we change to whatever we shall be in the (perhaps very near) future. Still, Hughes will have had the last croak—which is what he intended in this daring, magnificent assertion….
One thinks of the book of Crow as the kind of lyric poetry that exists before bibles come to be written. Its language is grim, clear, and primitive as only a sophisticated poet can fashion. One feels that Hughes's universe, vast and microscopic at once and by turns, contains a charred and drifting world, its forms standing forever in the airless, lightless void after the big bang—bitter memories of how it was. And it wasn't very nice. Crow flies over a post-apocalyptic world, hops among its carbon thoughts (the only real shadow), telling himself the little legends of what had been, how he defied it—a guzzler of melted ice cream on an abandoned beach. Without shame, without pride, without sentiment. There is, or was, an enemy, but it would be ridiculous to say God, because God doesn't enter in. How could He? To those of us born at the right time, like Hughes, the interior landscape and history of Crow are utterly familiar.
Jascha Kessler, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, October 2, 1971; used with permission), October 2, 1971, pp. 39, 50.
What is Crow? This is my first ingenuous question in reading Ted Hughes' new book and it remains my last after many re-readings. Hughes seems unable to establish and maintain his central character as symbol. This was not a problem with earlier poems, though admittedly the trope was often more transparent….
Now we have Crow. Is the character a man, a bird, a composite, the poet, a fallen angel? Some other superhuman creature? This last suggestion seems plausible and many poems debunk the man-God we have created who is as weak as ourselves and inferior to stoical Crow. Celebration, some lower substance, an ordinary bird, a totem animal: the title has these multiple suggestions. But individual poems explore a single identity; there is no real fusion of possibilities….
The combination of dream life and physical presence of self is present in Crow as it was in earlier Hughes poems. As before, it is telescoped into images which characterize a lyric rather than dramatic poet…. But this time the vision has a peculiar nihilism. "Nothing" and "never" echo throughout, as descriptions of a finished universe, fatalistically perceived, where we live with Crow our spectator and sometime participant. How did we get here? Why is this our condition? What can we do (not do) about it? Of course, I don't want poetry to feed me "answers," but I want the imaginative sustenance from its treatment of these questions. Most often, Hughes crows in only one key.
Peter Cooley; in Shenandoah, Winter, 1972, pp. 88-91.
I had thought I might have some special insight into these poems [in Crow] because of growing up in the Northwest, where Raven and the ghosts of other dark totem birds have left a faint trail of blood and feathers, the echo of an old screech of atavistic triumph, but I was wrong. Hughes knows all that my dear old dead Indians knew, who invented the legends, and all that [those] who keep track of the legends, know….
Carolyn Kizer, "The Feast of Domitian," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1972, pp. 291-96
Ted Hughes is our first poet of the will to live. Lawrence wrote of animal joy, a lighter, perhaps more fanciful thing. Robinson Jeffers picked up the topic occasionally, a hawk on his wrist…. Hughes is its master and at the same time is mastered by it. The subject owns him, he is lord of the subject.
The will to live might seem the first and healthiest of subjects, but in fact it is almost the last and most morbid. Men come to it after the other subjects have failed. It is the last stop, waterless and exposed, before nothingness….
Hughes speaks as if he were not at the very end but instead at some new beginning. Other poets, he says, suffer the disintegration of Christianity; he, by contrast, celebrates demonic force. More, he calls for a new ritual, a new wiring of 'the elemental power circuit of the Universe.' But we look at him and shy at the brutal light and conclude that he himself—he above all—is beyond the help of ritual. His hand is on the naked wire and he is held there helpless, a celebrant indeed, but a grimly desperate one….
In discovering his own death—or so it would seem—Hughes concluded that the only thing that mattered was life. He became a worshipper of the claw. An animal's organs represent purely, with the logic of a geometrical proposition, what Schopenhauer called 'the will to live in [its] particular circumstances.'… The creature may be a poor thing of 'forced condition,' but it is also a wire that will destroy, if it can, the first mouth that chews it. 'The universal desire for life' is a thing both driven and terrible. No poems so grim and airless, so remote from joy as Hughes's. But if this is life, so be it, he seems to say. Better to fight than die….
To Hughes the human has nothing to recommend it; to be human is to start out behind the animals, like a one-legged man in a race. The human mind, for instance—what is it but a kind of missing leg, aching where the amputated part had once been? Not even in Lawrence does the intellect appear so repulsive as in 'Wings,' Hughes's poem on Sartre, Kafka, and Einstein…. So mind, in Hughes, takes the sting out of the man. Women, too, incapacitate…. Nothing more dangerous to an independent man. At their safest in Hughes, women are grovelling whores, gravel under the male heel…. Only two types of men survive Hughes's pitiless need for strength, the he-man and the artist….
The truth is that Hughes cannot avoid violence because life is to him a violent conception. And clearly he wants to be on the winning side. Hughes's weakness is not violence but the absolute egotism of survival. It is the victor he loves, not war. He thrills to strength with all the envy, the trembling, of a mortal man.
Yet in fact there is nothing either to win or lose: Hughes is a total nihilist. To keep death from drawing a black line and adding every effort up to zero is, in his work, the whole sum of life. It is all a struggle against debit; the credit side is a blank….
Crow, especially, is a reel of attitudes. The title figure, nimbly embodying opposite extremes, is mythological in the sense that he is a complete yet fantastic being, at once animal and human. Hughes can colour him first Schopenhauer, then Heidegger, or middle class, or elemental, or plain crow, and he will remain the same disturbing, curiously indismissable creature. Crow is Hughes's animal defiance and his human jitters in one….
The theme of Hughes's recent work is the dual horror of existence—that of the monstrous desire for life and that of being small, left out, emptily included. Double-barrelled, it hits a wide target and a poet who had once seemed limited to being the laureate of animals has developed (has suffered to develop) a significant scope. Not that his mind ranges free; it is part boot, part worm. Yet at least the brutal will to live, on the one hand, and the fear of both life and death, on the other, have the virtue of being essential truths. They comprehend, they are respectively, the first impulse and the first hesitation, the sun and the vapour of being. And of this frightening portion of existence—the struggle to live and the nothingness of living—Hughes is a jolting and original poet….
In The Hawk in the Rain Hughes, was a voyeur of violence; in Lupercal he is a fearful lover of the will to live—a far profounder thing. Wading out at last beyond the froth of violent escapism, he is abruptly stunned by the elemental severity of his subject. His manner contracts at once, thoroughly penetrated by the ancient cold. Now he knows—where before he had been too glutted with sensation even to enquire—that the tooth is the clue to existence. He hardens himself, he ceases to wax rhetorical…. Where nothing in The Hawk in the Rain seems seriously observed, here no one can doubt that Hughes, within a certain narrow range, is an incomparable observer—that, for instance, he has seen pike more boldly, fully, and simply than anyone else is ever likely to do….
In Lupercal Hughes tightens himself like a spring; in his third volume, Wodwo (1967), he lets the spring go. He alters, not in his truths, but in his relation to them: he throws himself on universal will, riding, not simply observing, the energy of the world. The stanza as a contracted ordering of lines gives way to the poem as a free space where living things may run—the poems of Lupercal look neat on the page; many of those in Wodwo sprawl over and leap down it. The new space is rather frightening in its freedom: there seems to be nothing at all just beyond the lines, and nothing, too, in the frequent abrupt gaps between them. Still, having decided what is real, Hughes boldly runs with it. He surrenders distance for energy. His imaginative awe is now even more dramatic than it was, less contemplative. Here things are seen often as from their struggling midst, in a flurry of perceptions….
Where the Wodwo manner confesses anxiety, the new manner [in Crow] reeks of disgust, of horror. There is cynicism in the style, which is slung out like hash. At this stage of case-hardened disillusion, Hughes seems to say, words will all taste the same anyhow. The very indifference of the language is expressive…. Not that all is a loss, here, even as language. Even a wasted Hughes can be extraordinary…. Just as Hughes's words are in continual danger—despite the lines on which they are hung—of sagging into prose, so his conceptions fall a little too readily into the slots of nihilism. In truth he now knows his own mind too well. He needs to pray, as Frost did, to have some dust thrown in his eyes. And this is true even though the Crow poems cross one another. Both the nihilism of the tearing mouth and that of the 'nothinged' mind have become Hughes's familiars. How jolting it would be were he now to write a poem as flexibly free of existential categories as 'An Otter'. He is in the double jeopardy of calling his shots beforehand and of shooting wildly for fear that he will. Very often in Crow the intention is either patent, as in 'Examination at the Womb-Door,' or frantically obscure, as in 'The Smile.' Most of the poems fall to either side of the richest poetry—poetry of conceptual but unconsummated imaginative experience….
What will Hughes do now, having worked his subject so near to the philosophical bone? It is impossible to say; it cannot be an easy position to be in. Yet he has it in his favour that he has already displayed, several times over, a cunning for changing and still surviving as a poet—as if some aesthetic form of the will to live were ruthlessly pushing him on.
Calvin Bedient, "On Ted Hughes," in Critical Quarterly, Summer, 1972, pp. 103-21.
Ted Hughes seems bent in these poems on proving that his nihilistic vision is unanswerable, that he will be taken in by no assertions about beauty or devotion in the human spirit, and that he can reduce every appearance of virtue in life to the throbbing demands of bottomless egoism and hunger. The persona of most of these poems is the man-beast Crow, who engages in furious battle with men and women, God, society, nature, the cosmos, and himself. Crow gives the lie to beauty, truth, and goodness and insists that we must contemplate the murderous, devouring, self-deluding nature of all our desires. He also insists that we see the universe as empty of all values except the individual desire to survive.
A view like Hughes's might serve as a cathartic to despair and a corrective to tender-mindedness, but only—I think—if it postulated some triumph within the paths of flight left for Crow. Hughes's primary intention seems to be to prove his freedom from all delusions, and so he has concealed all traces of a heart yearning for good things….
Ted Hughes is a gifted poet. He uses an elemental vocabulary of violence and physical things without a grotesquerie that might shatter his combination of nightmare and realism. His rhythms are bold, strong, sure, and never totter into prose. His imagination avoids sloppily surrealistic images that might soften his poems. Single poems are often impressive, especially in a sharp and brief focusing on the problem of evil and on some common delusions within human relations. But the accumulated nihilism (well-accumulated when one is only a third into the book) is too often communicated through a gimmicky use of constant reversals and through an attempt within single poems to be progressively more nihilistic. After a few poems, this seems an exhibitionistic game and a flogging of horses that were killed off in the preceding poems.
Mordecai Marcus, "Creation as a Broken Gutter Pipe," in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1972, pp. 272-73.
In nearly all his poems Hughes strives to find metaphors for his own nature. And his own nature is of peculiar general interest … because it embodies in an unusually intense, stark form the most typical stresses and contradictions of human nature and of Nature itself, as Shakespeare's did. The poems are bulletins from the battleground within.
In the early poems the metaphors he found were so often animals because animals live out in such naked extremity the primary struggles, particularly that between vitality and death. They roar or bellow the evidence which men wrap in sophistry or turn a blind eye to. Their reality seems less questionable than ours….
Some of Hughes's earlier poems are marred by overstatement, a forcing of rhetoric and imagery. We hardly ever find, in contrast to most of his contemporaries, any deficiency of force and sinew….
For the most part we find a language characterized by its faithfulness to the facts, the evidence of the senses, shaped by a strong inspiration into images which, like those of Henry Moore, seem to have been waiting for æons within the living rock, the living language, and now, released, will stand for æons and could not be otherwise. It is a language spiced with great relish for experience, even when that experience is unpleasant or horrifying. Most distinctively it is a language able to cope with the biggest things; it can generate energies equal to the great primary energies of the world….
[Hughes's] Poetry in the Making is the best book I know about the writing (and reading) of poetry in schools. It is about poetry as a natural and common activity; about the fun, but also the seriousness, the centrality, of this activity…. Writing poetry is not merely self-expression. The poem has a life of its own and a wisdom of its own which we must learn. To write a poem is to capture a wild animal….
[With Wodwo,] Hughes comes into his own as no longer an 'animal poet' if he ever was one, but a poet with a great range of themes and styles, and, if he must be labelled, a 'metaphysical poet.'
The tension, in Wodwo, is in the struggle for meanings, not for effects, the struggle to part meanings from their bedrock in the physical world. The eye strains to focus further, but the voice now has the calm assurance of the man who says what he must say whether or not anyone listens or understands or applauds….
Sir Gawayn, in his journey through the Wirral, fought with, among other creatures of that remote region, wodwos. Etymologically the word simply means 'wood-dwellers'…. [The word's] uncertainty of status—man or beast or monster or goblin—is precisely what attracts Hughes. In 'Wodwo', the speaker is himself a wodwo finding himself at large in a world inhabited by other creatures whose relation to himself he does not in the least understand, without roots ('dropped out of nothing casually'), not knowing why his nose leads him to water or his hands pick bark off a rotten stump…. [He is] seeking to discover the circumference of himself. 'Very queer,' he concludes, 'but I'll go on looking.'
Hughes is a wodwo in all his poems, asking these same questions of the world in which he finds himself, looking at that world and its creatures to discover where he ends and the other begins, and what relationship exists between 'the endless without-world of the other' and the 'other' within—'the pitch dark where the animal runs.' If he can come to terms with the facts of life and the fact of death, he will become the still centre within the violence….
[Hughes's] first poems featuring Crow … appeared in 1967…. Eskimo legend tells that in the beginning the raven was the only creature and the world was, like him, black. Then came the owl and the world became white like him, with the whiteness of unending snow. Hughes's mythology of Crow is deeply rooted in such legends. Within it are several little contradictory apocryphal accounts of the creation of Crow….
The whole myth is to be told as an epic folk-tale in prose with songs by and about Crow interspersed. Hughes is doubtful whether he will ever complete this project and in what form it will ultimately be published. Very few of the poems in Crow demand a knowledge of the mythic framework, a good deal of which can, in any case, be deduced from the poems themselves….
Why does Hughes choose a crow as his protagonist? The prevalence of ravens and crows in folklore derives largely from the real bird's characteristics. The crow is the most intelligent of birds, the most widely distributed (being common on every continent), and the most omnivorous ('no carrion will kill a crow'). They are, of course, black all over, solitary, almost indestructible, and the largest and least musical of songbirds. It is to be expected that the Songs of the Crow will be harsh and grating. He kills a little himself, and, as carrion eater, is dependent on the killing of others and first on the scene at many disasters.
Crow has something of hawk and something of wodwo in him—an embryonic conscience. He asks bigger questions than wodwo and has all the evidence spread before him. That evidence seems to demonstrate conclusively that the world is uninhabitable by humans, habitable by Crow only because he is less than human, without spiritual aspiration, without a sense of sin, and specialized for survival.
What Hughes is seeking to communicate, centrally, is a vision of the wrongness of things, of humanity seeking to survive and live meaningfully in conditions for which it is patently unfitted. The survival is of the fittest to survive, of those who are able and willing to accept these conditions, since they are permanent, ingrained, part of the very fibre of the material world….
Crow is Everyman who will not acknowledge that everything he most hates and fears—the Black Beast—is within himself. Crow's world is unredeemable. God made the Redeemer as a defeatist act of submission to Crow….
Christianity, for Hughes, is "just another provisional myth of man's relationship with the creator'. Its inadequacies, as such, give rise to much of the comedy of Crow, where the God of Genesis figures as something of a well-meaning booby….
What first strikes the reader of Crow is the sheer rhetorical force and vitality. There are many different kinds of poems here …; they are direct and spare, colloquial. The verse is less regular, more mimetic. And there is much more use than ever before of the oldest poetic devices—repetition and refrains, parallelism, catalogues and catechisms, incantations and invocations. These devices are so powerful in Hughes's hands that they have scared many reviewers into defensive postures….
Hughes's symbols have no allegorical meanings and are not literary. Insofar as they have antecedents they are in totemism, folklore, and the archetypes of Jungian psychology. They do not 'mean' anything; they embody something, and perhaps magically invoke the powers they make manifest. Though inexplicable, they are more objective and more potent that symbolism which is invented for the purpose or drawn from some literary tradition. Some of Hughes's images are invented, but without a knowledge of anthropology and folklore as extensive as his own, it is impossible to say which. They are all drawn from the same depths of consciousness and racial experience. The myth controls the energies they release….
The worst fault [in the sixty poems that compose Crow] is a tendency in some poems to overdo the violence, maiming, killing, bloodletting, to the point where one becomes unshockable, the images cease to register as anything more than verbal gestures….
There are, for Hughes, many levels of reality, mysteries, potencies, but none of them are redemptive. Since existence is unredeemable, Hughes's vision must be rooted in it. Since the moments are all, he isolates and presents them not historically, but dramatically, mimetically, that the agony of others may be nearly experienced, unqualified, that the evidence may be confronted before the judgment, that the judgment, when it comes, shall be open to no charge of evasion or wishfulness….
The versatility of Ted Hughes does not end with poetry, fiction and drama; he is also a very fine literary critic…. But he is not concerned, like Eliot, with tradition and critical theory, nor, like Lawrence, with entering into creative conflict with other great writers. He simply says, of some work which has meant much to him, look, it is like this, these are the essentials, surely this is fine. He goes straight to the heart of the matter. No theory, no jargon, always concrete, illuminating and enthusiastic.
Keith Sagar, in his Ted Hughes, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1972.
[The] tough little black bird of Hughes's title [Crow] is emblematic of the last survivor, the force remaining in the universe once it has been destroyed by atomic ash or industrial pollution. Crow is beyond good and evil; his central quality is, both literally and figuratively, a black humor which enables him to outlast man and outsmart God, a God who is, at best, a rather confused and inept personage…. But a little of Crow goes a long way. The same ironies are stressed again and again, and the poet's sarcasm becomes increasingly heavy-handed….
[Crow has] been called Blakean, but whereas Blake knew very well that man himself was ultimately responsible for the perversions of love, freedom, and generosity he depicted, Hughes implies,… throughout Crow, that the responsibility is that of some implacable fate, cruelly sporting with a helpless mankind. This emphasis on fate—reminiscent not at all of Blake,… but rather of such poets as Hardy and Housman—is especially apparent in "Crow's Theology," an ironic treatment of the Argument From Design….
Man is the toy of the Gods who have destroyed his true world, replacing it with a terrible new one, unfit for human habitation, a world fit only for the tough, strong, fearless, and mindless energy of Crow.
Hughes's treatment of Biblical themes suggests that he is essentially an outraged Christian-turned-inside-out. He wants the Fall to have meaning and love to exist; he wants to believe that God made man in His image, but because cities are turning to rubble and "excreta poisoning seas" ("A Disaster"), he feels that one can only cope with life by adopting the ironic detachment and indifference of the subhuman Crow. Yet ultimately the poet's pervasive image of horror is too one-dimensional to have much impact….
What I find missing in Crow as well as in Hughes's earlier animal poems, is a sense of the poet's commitment. Where does he fit into the scarred, post-atomic landscape? How is he to blame for what has happened to love, friendship, kindness? The beast fables of Crow, it seems to me, are despite all their sophistication, economy, and fine control of sound and rhythm, an easy way out. By adopting the Crow persona, the poet can be devastating and prophetic without working out the implications of the situations he dramatizes. Crow is, in short, devoid of tension, of the recognition of alternatives. Its ironies are those of the surface: one can comfortably read Crow, chuckling at the trick endings, as when Crow is asked, "But who is stronger than death? and replies, "Me, evidently," without being particularly troubled or moved. The holocaust seems all in a day's work.
Marjorie G. Perloff, "Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 97-131.