Last Updated September 5, 2023.
“Wodwo” appears in Hughes's 1967 book of poetry, and the collection is named for this poem. A "wodwo" is a "wild man," a creature somewhere between elves and fairies and actual humans. Written in the stream-of-consciousness style with no rhyme scheme or stanza definition, this poem reads how we might imagine such a creature perceives the world through thought. One way to understand the Wodwo is to think of it as a representation of primal masculinity, or "maleness" in a state before civilization. Hughes's poem is told from the point of view of the Wodwo and is an effort to answer the question posed at the start: "What am I?"
Hughes's poem works on several levels. One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its evocation of the natural world. The Wodwo's compulsive exploration of the natural world is described with potent sensory imagery: it is "nosing here, turning the leaves over, following a faint stain on the air"; this attention grants him knowledge of "the frog's most secret interior," but this causes him to wonder about his separateness from nature. He wonders if the weeds know him or his presence as he knows theirs. This part of the poem appears to be suggesting that in posing the "What am I?" question, the Wodwo already seems to have become self-conscious.
The poem then turns to considering the origin of the Wodwo and the nature of freedom. When the Wodwo notes that "I seem / separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped / out of nothing," he is articulating a basic paradox of existence: as a conscious being, he understands himself to be different from nature, but he cannot account for how this difference has happened. He seems to have been "dropped out of nothing"—there are "no threads / fastening me to anything I can go anywhere." In a way, it is this freedom that comes to define the Wodwo; he finds that if he moves until he is tired and reaches a stopping point, this will be one “wall” of his being, as if his "shape" can be measured not by physical size but the degree to which he can move or shape the natural world. It is as if his growing consciousness of himself has become an organizing principle for all existence.
The concept of having “roots” or “threads” tethering the Wodwo to something is of interest, especially given the creature’s search for meaning. There are many things that tie us to one another—both in societal terms (family, friends, coworkers, people of our same identities) and in reference to our shared humanity. The Wodwo is just becoming aware that these anchors exist in a spiritual form. While we as humans, or wood-people, are not physically tied to the earth as plants are, we are still an important part of many unique ecosystems.
It's hard not to read this poem—the centerpiece of Hughes's first collection after the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath—as a kind of response to the feminine energy in her posthumous collection Ariel, the publication of which was overseen by Hughes himself. The Wodwo's supposition that he is the focus of attention while also helpless before his instinctive need to explore the natural world also sums up a particular view of masculinity: one that is supremely self-conscious and ego-driven, while at the same time, spurred on by unconscious desires. This poem, then, may very well be less of a declaration of what it is to be "male” but a description of the poet's internal state.