Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

The Hawk in the Rain Revisited

The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Hardcover, 208 pages
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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.Never really having gone away, either as a major figure on the poetry scene or as the sober--and surviving--partner in the most over-analyzed, over-sentimentalized, over-feminized row to hit the lit-and-gender wars since l'affaire Woolf in 1941, Ted Hughes, widower-martyr and Poet Laureate, may now be said to have dealt oblivion a resounding setback with Birthday Letters, a cycle of 88 poems designed to set a very broken record straight about his marriage to martyr-poet and cultural icon Sylvia Plath, whose suicide in 1963 soon sent his career into an elliptical and highly eccentric orbit around her own, more luminescent one. Perhaps this most recent attempt to harness, if not wholly exorcise, the ghost of Sylvia Passed will at last apply the bit, the snaffle, and the curb to the mare's nest of rumor, vindictiveness, and ressentiment entangling Hughes's literary reputation in what is now almost two generations of feminist blather. But what seems far more likely is that Birthday Letters will keep in place the dichotomy--held to rigidly within the fortress of academic P. I.--between the "bloody horse" of Colossus and Ariel, and the ritualistically designated bloody horse's ass whose much insisted upon mediocrity caused it to be kvetched in stone in the first place.
              Hughes has been quietly practicing his craft as a poet, translator, novelist, playwright and writer of children's books for over 40-odd years now, and if the last 30 of those have been odd indeed, then that oddity is in part due to his pre-Plathian self-in-verse having been eclipsed by the riveting and conflicting testimony of self-in-reverse poems like "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," and "Death and Co."
              It has become exceedingly difficult for anyone trying to keep an open mind about this whole affair to remember the incredible impact his first book of poems The Hawk in the Rain made when it appeared in 1957. Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender chose it to receive the Poetry Center's First Publication Award that same year, and it managed to sweep all competition, and scattered carping, before it. The particular gem of the collection was thought to be its terminal poem, "The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar," though pieces such as the title poem and "Secretary" (from which the Beatles appear to have knocked off "Eleanor Rigby") cast their own distinctive, if satellite, spell. Critics seized upon the ferocity--"pagan," as adjective and noun, was often in evidence--of Hughes's language, his predilection for animal subjects in predatory poses, his ability to make colloquial utterance look and sound in stanza form like strong measures implacably taken.
              But more important, perhaps, is the singular, even solitary, remoteness of vantage these poems collectively assume, not to mention the tumult and turmoil they contract in order to bring what is in essence a bedlam of bites and scratches under the sway of each poem's slim and sensually recondite parable of innocence unceremoniously drowned. Hughes's reined-in asperity skirts the formulaic but hardly ever gropes its clichés with openhanded gusto, as so many younger poets of his generation tended to do; when it came to grabbing what was at hand and symbolically hot to trot, only Geoffrey Hill among his native contemporaries seems not to have prognosticated in verse some dreadful equivalent of Clintonics to come. Beginning a poem like "Childbirth" he could swing into a curve when almost anyone else could imagine only a straightaway:

When, on the bearing mother, death's
Door opened its furious inch,
Instant of struggling and blood,
The commonplace became so strange
There was not looking at table or chair:
Miracle struck out the brain
Of order and ordinary: . . .

Or this, from "The Thought-Fox":

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
            Something else is alive
            Beside the clock's loneliness
            And this blank page where my fingers move.

              Hughes also knew how to move a poem's dominant image along without tying its bona fides to some further, more furtive remove. In "The Jaguar," a mesmerized crowd stares at a jungle cat, unretouched by Blakean fires, as in "hurrying enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short fuse," the words which cage (and here, any Hughesian rhapsodies to the feral so irretrievably outside us all, just who is staring out at whom is reduced to a nicety) seem like bars--all strength to paradox!--incarcerating the reader within a liberating perception of that recessive claustrophobia which is our unique zoological inheritance. The jaguar may "[spin] from the bars,"

but there's no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel. . .

              Stuck in our conception of an animal perceiving us conceiving him as so much caged ferocity, where in the world, Hughes importunes us to wonder, might the world, the real world--of teeth, sinews, claws--be found? And how should that world to be made accessible--for it must be, if perks such as life are not to fall through the cracks--to erotic marauders from whom death alone offers refuge?
              "The Hawk in the Rain" returns primordially--almost preternaturally--to this theme with an almost gratuitous refusal of anxiety. The pure eurhythmics of force dominate in this poem more than in any other in the collection: Hughes no doubt knows his Hopkins but clearly has difficulty swallowing the gristle of immortality that clings to totemic mobiles such as the elder poet's "The Windhover." Hughes's hawk is no figure-skating epiphany conjured to grace the margin of some overcompensating cleric's Book of Hours. Overflying the poet's mundane cache of words and the weather of reality they come up against, the bird, to the poet's burnished amazement, coolly reigns above rain and rein:

While banging wind kills those stubborn hedges,

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,

And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs

The diamond point of will that polestars

The sea drowner's endurance . . .

              How far from this true north of hawk-eyeing is the saving ornithological grace of his wife's "Black Rook in Rainy Weather," written about the same time his collection was being published. Not into predatory finesse, Plath's bird allows the speaker of the poem to castle out of a tight spot sojourners through "this dull, ruinous landscape" are likely to find themselves in. Snookered by a lack of bearings, there is no bliss, Rilkean or otherwise, to be found in remaining "ignorant / Of whatever angel may choose to flare / Suddenly at my elbow"--though if the celestial visitor is caught preening in a Prozac moment--

I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
From total neutrality. . .
There lingers an aggressive passivity in this, of the sort which anticipates that With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts--

              But Hughes's poetry has for many years continued to weigh the gravity of power against the gravamen of freefall without which potency is but a pointless curse. Plath's blasted loner may "... desire, / Occasionally, some backtalk / From the mute sky," Hughes's lidless "I" "strain[s] toward the master- / Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still."
              Still, not all early Hughes comes across with the granitic inevitability and mace-mashing immediacy of Macbeth's first act as cinematized by Roman Polanski; much of it remains mired in something less viscous than the heart's blood or its entrapping horizons. And still more of it fails to approximate the ruddy discernments and sure visceral articulations of the slightly younger Geoffrey Hill, who can repeatedly, without stonewalling his muse, make the unspeakable cry uncle, as in the opening lines of "Annunciations":

The Word has been abroad; is back, with a tanned look

From its subsistence in the stiffening-mire.

Cleansing has become killing, the reward

More touchable, overt, clean to the touch. . .

              But no one can doubt the mature and sophisticated talent pearling in every line of "The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar," whose second stanza outstuns any movie camera's shuttered eye. It needs to be quoted entire:

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire's mouth; they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

              It's finally a mindless convention to leave such poems for last on the mistaken assumption that the high on which it causes the reader to exit the volume will translate into an extended shelf life for the whole collection. Their power to culminate in anything beyond their own centripetal intensities is vastly overrated, which accounts perhaps for the miniscule half-life of most anthologies of verse. A golden treasury of unsorted excellences is its own deficit spending of indispensability. There is a sense pervading The Hawk in the Rain of jackpots narrowly missed, of odds remaining with the house despite coaxings of tumblers and courtings of luck.
              Though largely a rush to the inside right out of the gate, Hughes's entry in the Notice Me Stakes no doubt repaid its qualifying investment. Beyond setting in motion the rest that is history.

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