If, like me, you came to Ted Hughes through the excellent,
accessible prose of Poetry in the Making
or the photographic collaboration with Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet (1979), and then returned to him later when Birthday
Letters (1998) attracted so much media
attention with the ghoulish 'at-last-the-whole-story-about-Sylvia' angle,
then this doorstep of a book should surprise you and reacquaint you with the
often lost idea Ted Hughes the poet. There are a great deal of elements to
brush aside to arrive at this particular landscape: the Poet Laureate work,
Paltrow as Plath, the vague stereotypical idea of poems about dead sheep to
name but three. But seasoned Hughes admirers will be pleased to know that
this volume probably represents the first step to clear away such tangled
It will also surprise many of Hughes' readers with the generous chunk of
privately published and fugitive material put alongside such familiar
collections as Crow and Gaudete: would you, for instance, be familiar with such
limited edition volumes as Orts
(1978), Recklings (1967) or Howls
and Whispers (1998)? The effect is to
reshape and clarify the contours of Hughes' corpus and development as a poet.
Textually, poems were tinkered with, rewritten, inserted into later
collections, often bewilderingly. Paul Keegan, the editor of this edition,
provides welcome lengthy textual notes explaining such complexities. These
are not mere scholarly afterthoughts, either: in the case of Crow, a major work, Keegan collects twelve preliminary
poems, sixteen later ones and four other uncollected ones, later published in
Moortown (1979). Anyone
intending to seriously study and contextualise the Crow poems henceforth must tackle some eighty poems,
rather than the fifty-odd in the original volume.
In surveying the content and technique of Hughes' work, it's frightening how
fully-formed he was early on: familiar anthology pieces such as 'The Jaguar',
'The Thought-Fox' and 'Famous Poet' all come from his very first volume, The
Hawk in the Rain (1957). Wodwo, Remains of Elmet and Moortown Diary then set out to explore a landscape which he, by
and large, had already stalked early on. This is a natural world of elemental
savagery, the fortunes of Crow merely a particularly bloody part of it.
Creation myths lie glimpsed in puddles, the blood, mud and harsh struggles of
farming inhabit Moortown Diary,
the ghosts of the First World War (Hughes' father survived the Gallipoli
campaign) recur in several poems and there is a microscopic attention,
somewhat in the manner of John Clare, on all kinds of birds and other
creatures. To revert to the parodic twitch of 'poems about dead sheep' seems
particularly unjust as Hughes laboured so long to explore an entire landscape, (often Devon or Yorkshire, but not
exclusively so) .
Inevitably an overview like this can only scratch the surface, pointing to
reader to the scope of the whole volume, but here are some random
observations. Firstly, some surprises: Hughes has a sense of humour, Hughes
broods at length over poems, revising, revisiting, rearranging them fussily
into later collections. Poems we think we know are rarely completed quickly.
Exceptions to this seem to be the early poems, as noted above (youthful
energy?) and Birthday Letters,
in which textual notes and redrafting by contrast, seems remarkably sparse or
straightforward. Therein may lie the key to the ease of reading which the
early and very late volumes share.
Secondly, an enterprise like this shines light into overlooked corners of
established careers. For me, the surprise was rediscovering Season
Songs (1976), a volume to which I'd paid
little attention and which the general poetry reader rarely sees cited or
discussed. Some of the pieces collected from this book read like random
nature jottings ‡ la Gilbert White, whilst others recall John Clare in their
precision: 'they're gone / on a steep // controlled scream of skid / round
the house-end' (from 'Swifts'), or the large harvest moon, from the eponymous
poem, 'like a gold doubloonÉ booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon',
sunflowers 'tired out, like old gardeners' ('Autumn Nature Notes') or the
horse chestnut which 'splits its padded cell [and] opens an African eye.'
There is much to savour here in Hughes' quiet control and precise, painterly
Finally, despite their wide acclaim, the Birthday Letters poems stand as a peculiar bookend to Hughes'
career: they focus attention back on Plath, they lay no ghosts and they
almost unbalance the arc of Hughes' achievement. Dare one suggest they
function better as therapy than as poetry, or is this a trick of perspective?
Posterity will begin weighing up Hughes with this volume, and we shall soon
begin to know. In the meantime, here is an excellent, copious introduction to
a wide poetic corpus, still capable of surprising us.
© M.C. Caseley 2005