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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
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,
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
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
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
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
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.