What think you of Ted Hughes?

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I checked out his Collected Poems from the library. I can't quite make up my mind about him.

His strength seems to be an ability to coin phrases that can astonish me - little runs of three or five words that may never have been put together before in English that are crisply vivid and suggestive.

On the other side of the coin, many of his poems do not appear to me to cohere in a satisfying and organic way. They remain vignettes of language, but do not live and breath as humans do. They lack natura naturens. Exception so far: The Birthday Letters and the adaptations of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

What say you, ILB? Is there much Ted Hughes love among you? Especial favourites? Deep insights? Crass opinions? I am curious to hear. Thank you.

Aimless (Aimless), Saturday, 31 December 2005 03:46 (sixteen years ago) link

I like his poem about being offered a fox near Chalk Hill Farm, I think. It's in The Birthday Letters.

youn, Saturday, 31 December 2005 04:59 (sixteen years ago) link

Birthday Letters has some really beautiful stuff.

Freud Junior (Freud Junior), Saturday, 31 December 2005 09:11 (sixteen years ago) link

I really like the one about him and Sylvia Plath reading Chaucer to cows.

Freud Junior (Freud Junior), Saturday, 31 December 2005 09:12 (sixteen years ago) link

everyone knows that reading chaucer to cows is the beginning of the end of any relationship.

scott seward (scott seward), Saturday, 31 December 2005 13:03 (sixteen years ago) link

I think you summarise his strengths and weaknesses well. He was a gifted and occasionally brilliant writer of short lyrics. After 3 collections he seems to have decided he needed to be more than just a lyric poet. Crow still worked well because it was bitty, ragged and haphazard enough to suit his gift, but subsequent attempts at more sustained work (often in collaboration with illustrators) like Gaudete and Cave Birds just confirmed he had little talent for longer forms. His interest in cranky philosophies (particularly those based on Robert Graves's White Goddess but also on idiosyncratic readings of Nietzsche, Lawrence and Shakespeare) didn't help. He had aspirations to being a sage or shaman rather than merely a poet, in the tradition of Blake, Whitman, Lawrence: that sort of thing either interests you or it doesn't: it doesn't interest me.

He returned to short lyrics from Moortown Elegies onward but some of his gift seemed to have gone - there was less emotional intensity and a over reliance on certain stylistic ticks (adjectives hyphened together and stuff). I haven't read much the later stuff, but which he now seems to be best know (Ovid and Birthday Letters): it seems from their reputation that he may have had an Indian summer as a lyricist and I really should get round to checking these out.

frankiemachine, Saturday, 31 December 2005 19:05 (sixteen years ago) link

Poets thrive on idiotsyncretic reADingss of Nietzscje. Hughes' weaknesses are stacked right up close to his strengths, it;s true. He did a Lot to puysh versions of n ature awaty from ~Humusism;. Every time we drive over Saddelworht I feel thatr miserable mythomlroydogyny. Hawks are evil. Crows dunt care. These qare the truths thar kill everbodt/y.

Noodle Vague (noodle vague), Sunday, 1 January 2006 01:36 (sixteen years ago) link

i am not sure how raw crow is, but its my favourite

anthony easton (anthony), Sunday, 1 January 2006 02:40 (sixteen years ago) link

so good.

so true about birthday letters. "dogs are eating your mother". worth the price of admission, as they say.

vahid (vahid), Monday, 2 January 2006 06:38 (sixteen years ago) link

aspirations to being a sage or shaman rather than merely a poet, in the tradition of Blake, Whitman, Lawrence: that sort of thing either interests you or it doesn't: it doesn't interest me

should we add pound and (especially) basil bunting to the list?

"aspirations to being a sage" makes them sound pretentious. could we scale that statement back a bit? i do think you're on track, but i see hughes as more concerned w/ having a strong sense of oral tradition and working w/ some sort of primal ecopoetics ... i don't think he's as concerned w/ the visionary thing as blake or whitman.

vahid (vahid), Monday, 2 January 2006 06:56 (sixteen years ago) link

his book on shakespeare looked amusingly and interestingly insane, not that i got past page four or so

tom west (thomp), Monday, 2 January 2006 22:48 (sixteen years ago) link

Hughes thought being a shaman/sage was what a poet did if he was doing the job properly. Personally I think that's baloney, but his beliefs were sincere and I've never sensed that they were motivated by a desire for self-aggrandisement. I don't think of him as pretentious.

Vahid I simply don't agree with your portrait of him. I think he's obsessively concerned with the "visionary thing": that might not be apparent from some of the lyrics read in isolation, but it's unmistakeable if you read Crow, Gaudete, Remains of Elmet and Cave Birds or a reasonably representative selection of his prose writing. Oral tradition? Yes, he was obsessed with folk wisdom and myth but his was a scholarly approach (he studied anthropology at Cambridge and the folk and mythic content of his poems is heavily refracted through his reading of Jung, Eliade, Graves, anthropology, comparative religion etc). Of course he was a farmer/countryman with a deep interest in the natural world as well but there is something both scholarly and second-hand about his use of myth and folktales in his longer works.

"Primal ecopoetics"? Hmm. Probably about as valid as calling Francis of Assisi the first eco warrior. There was an overlap between some of Hughes's interests and the ecology lobby but he is a very different animal. A royalist, certainly no egalitarian, and a man who regarded the sort of people who became vegetarian to reduce cruelty to animals as decadent neurotics (see the poem A Vegetarian in Wodwo).

frankiemachine, Tuesday, 3 January 2006 11:31 (sixteen years ago) link

so do you think he's similar to pound + bunting, why or why not?

also that's not what i meant by "ecopoetics". i meant "a deep interest in the natural world" when i said "ecopoetics".

vahid (vahid), Wednesday, 4 January 2006 06:14 (sixteen years ago) link

'decadent neurotics', i like that.

Josh (Josh), Wednesday, 4 January 2006 06:41 (sixteen years ago) link

I don't know Bunting well. He's someone I used to mean to get round to reading. I now doubt I ever will. My interest in "difficult" modern poetry isn't what it was.

Pound and Hughes is an interesting comparison. It's not one I feel qualified to make: it's many years since I read either of them. I do think they have some interesting things in common. Both had exceptional gifts as writers of short lyrics but were less capable of writing anything more sustained. They both aspired to writing longer works and experimented with similar solutions to the problem, including translation and collections of more-or-less interconnected shorter poems. Both, I would argue, would have written better poetry if they had written within their limitations.

Both believed that modern civilisation had lost touch with something essential although Hughes would have emphasised the problems of excessive rationality & empiricism where Pound would have been more concerned with economics and political systems.

On the other hand I don't think of Pound as a would-be prophet/sage in the semi-mystical Blakean/Lawrentian tradition (despite his beard & Christian name). I'd have to think longer (and do some re-reading) to clarify exactly why I think this, but Pound seems to me less mystical, more interested in beauty for its own sake and more preoccupied with form and craftsmanship than Hughes. His interest in older poetic traditions tends to be more purely aesthetic: Hughes is more preoccupied with ancient wisdom and mystical insight. Of course these are differences of emphasis: Pound was interested in what older poets actually had to say, and Hughes in the aesthetic qualities of their work. But I think there are very significant differences of emphasis.

Pound obviously was a man of many theories but he was less interested than Hughes in subordinating these into a single coherent philosophy. On the other hand Pound is much more original both as a poet and thinker. (I'm bending over backwards to be kind here: you could argue that both were little more than cranks, of no interest whatsoever as thinkers, and I'd have plenty of sympathy with that. Of course poet's cranky beliefs needn't adversely affect the quality of his poetry (think of Yeats) but there are big chunks of Pound and Hughes that are pretty hard to read because they are little more than the exposition or illustration of daft theories.)

Obviously Pound was interested in formal experimentation in a way that Hughes was not - there isn't much technical innovation in Hughes. Perhaps mainly for that reason Pound seems to me a "major" poet in a way that Hughes isn't quite. On the other hand, while Pound had the more significant talent, but he also squandered it more extravagantly. I'd rather read Hughes nowadays, but then again I'd rather read Larkin than either.

frankiemachine, Wednesday, 4 January 2006 14:57 (sixteen years ago) link

Frankie, I think you're right about his semi-mystical aspirations-- I always thought there was an obvious chameleon, or Merlin-like, quality about Hughes's animal poems, as if he were taking on the personas of fish and fowl like a shaman. I think the poets that Hughes reminds me of the most are Roethke (in his last book The Far Field, where he sort of "goes Indian") and W.S. Merwin, another poet who seems most comfortable with a mask on, writing from the perspective of, and to, creatures other than humans. All three seem to aspire to some kind of ecstatic transcendence (well, maybe not Hughes, he was kind of a cynic, wasn't he?). And I love Roethke and Merwin at times, but I'd rather read Larkin too.
Can anyone recall the poem, I think from Crow, about his marriage to Plath? It contains the line "But love is hard to stop..." It's a wonderful poem.

DOnald, Wednesday, 11 January 2006 03:36 (sixteen years ago) link

Here it is, of course, "Lovesong"

http://oldpoetry.com/poetry/9343/showline=1

He makes it sound like so much fun

donald, Wednesday, 11 January 2006 03:48 (sixteen years ago) link

Agreed - thanks for the reminder, it's ages since I read Crow. Despite what I said above, Crow *is* more than the sum of its parts, very fine though some those parts are.

Hughes was very upfront & explicit about his Shamanic aspirations. I'm not sure I'd call him a "cynic" as the word is generally used now (poems like Lovesong notwithstanding). But his insistence on the absurdity of human beings trying to deny their bestial nature is in the tradition of Diogenes (the dog!) so I'd agree he may be a cynic in that more traditional sense

(The difference, I think, is that whereas a contemporary cynic might say "love's a sham, it's sublimated animal instinct, both parties are out for what they can get" Hughes goes on to say "but, strip ourselves of romantic illusions, look at love honestly & acknowledge its pain, selfishness, drive for dominance etc, it's still glorious". It's the insistence on the glory that prevents Hughes from being a cynic in the modern sense, in the way that, for example, Larkin sometimes is.)

frankiemachine, Wednesday, 11 January 2006 12:59 (sixteen years ago) link

That's very well said.
I really haven't read much Hughes lately. One of my favorite books of his is "Poetry in the Making," a kind of anthology for children and teachers, consisting of BBC "programmes" he did in the 60s. Perhaps because he was writing for that audience, he seemed to simplify his thoughts about writing, especially in "Meet My Folks" and "Capturing Animlals". I found it inspiring. The other is the anthology he did with Seamus Heaney, The Rattle Bag, which has lots of poems I wasn't familiar with. The selections seemed very Hughesian-- gritty, visceral, a lot of animal poems

Donald, Wednesday, 11 January 2006 18:47 (sixteen years ago) link

ts: 'animal poems' vs 'flower poems'

Josh (Josh), Wednesday, 11 January 2006 21:50 (sixteen years ago) link

I liked Poetry in the Making too, charming, although probably irritating if you don't buy into Hughes's fairly conventional post-Freudian theories about how the creative process works (like fishing analogies, etc). The kids poems I didn't take to so much; I know Rattle Bag has a good reputation but I've never owned it, or read it beyond flicking through it in bookshops. I remember Hughes/Heaney being interviewed simultaneously about it one time (by Melvyn Barrggh if memory serves) and both vehemently agreeing that Wordsworth was the last truly great English poet, a very unfashionable view but one I more or less agree with (depending on how I feel about Yeats on any particular day). So I felt childishly pleased about that.

frankiemachine, Thursday, 12 January 2006 18:31 (sixteen years ago) link

Don't Shelley and Keats's handful of great poems count for anything? Of course there's their armfuls of crap to overlook

Donald, Friday, 13 January 2006 05:17 (sixteen years ago) link

Depends on your definition of great, I suppose. My take - Keats not a significant enough body of good work (only a handful of great lyrics + Lamia, The Eve or St Agnes). Shelley is probably too abstract/intellectual: I prefer the "versified philosophy" (Mont Blanc, Prometheus, The Sensitive Plant etc) to the political stuff, it fascinated me at one time, but you have to read quite a lot of Berkeley, Hume etc to really get to grips with it and that will always make it a minority taste. People who want to make a case for his political stuff always seem to be in love with his beliefs first, his poetry a distant second.

frankiemachine, Friday, 13 January 2006 10:47 (sixteen years ago) link

I didn't know that Hughes and Heaney said that about Wordsworth, that's fascinating. I'd like to know why you agree. I'm not that well-read in any of them, and my opinion is more emotional that critical. (I did read some Wordsworth recently, after reading the review of the new W. biography in the NYT by James Fenton, and was reminded of how good W. is.) But, my gut feeling is that Keats and Shelley's best poems are better than Wordsworth's best. Ozymandias, Bright Star, Skylark, When I have Fears, On First Looking..., Grecian Urn. parts of Nightingale. So. What are your favorite Wordsworth poems, that stack up against those?

Donald, Friday, 13 January 2006 17:30 (sixteen years ago) link

Wordsworth presents particular problems. A lot of his stuff is pretty hard to read now (I've never got through all of The Excursion, for example). Large chunks of his most celebrated long poem, The Prelude are pretty dull; and yet most readers experience is that when you extract the "good" bits they lose a lot of their power in isolation. That The Prelude is available in two versions doesn't help (W "improved" it later in life; the consensus is that the early (1805) version is to be preferred but that is not universally accepted & most people would feel that there are at least some parts of the second version that are an improvement).

Furthermore reading and understanding W is a cumulative thing: once you're familiar with his work a piece like I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud is much more than the anthology-of-light-verse piece you may think it is.

The most powerful sections of "The Prelude" are often called the "spots of time" passages. These, The Intimations of Mortality Ode, and Tintern Abbey are good places to start.

Here is one of my favourite "spots of time" passages: it may give you an idea whether it's the kind of thing that you'd be interested in exploring further.

I remember well
('Tis of an early season that I speak,
The twilight of rememberable life),
While I was yet an urchin, one who scarce
Could hold a bridle, with ambitious hopes
I mounted, and we rode towards the hills.
We were a pair of horsemen: honest James
Was with me, my encourager and guide.
We had not travelled long ere some mischance
Disjoined me from my comrade, and, through fear
Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
I led my horse, and stumbling on, at length
Came to a bottom where in former times
A man, the murderer of his wife, was hung
In irons. Mouldered was the gibbet-mast;
The bones were gone, the iron and the wood;
Only a long green ridge of turf remained
Whose shape was like a grave. I left the spot,
And reascending the bare slope I saw
A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,
The beacon on the summit, and more near
A girl who bore a pitcher on her head
And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
Against the blowing wind. It was in truth
An ordinary sight, but I should need
Colours and words that are unknown to man
To paint the visionary dreariness
Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,
Did at that time invest the naked pool,
The beacon on the lonely eminence,
The woman and her garments vexed and tossed
By the strong wind.

frankiemachine, Friday, 13 January 2006 18:10 (sixteen years ago) link

Keats is a singles act. Wordsworth an album guy.

Does Eliot count as an English poet? (Surely, if Yeats does!)

Jerry the Nipper (Jerrynipper), Friday, 13 January 2006 18:12 (sixteen years ago) link

Yes, Eliot counts (if Eliot and Yeats didn't count the opinion would lose most of its interest, I think).

frankiemachine, Friday, 13 January 2006 18:53 (sixteen years ago) link

that's powerful, thanks. And not difficult to read at all. Does it seem slightly prosy to you? I don't mean that as a criticism, just that, even if it is blank verse, it could almost be in prose. An excerpt of a novel. (I remember being bored by much of the Prelude, but then would find sections, like this one, little epiphanies.)

Donald, Saturday, 14 January 2006 00:03 (sixteen years ago) link

six years pass...

Best CD of Hughes' poems/writing?

djh, Saturday, 31 March 2012 18:29 (ten years ago) link

three years pass...

Great review of the Hughes bio by Janet Malcolm.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 21 January 2016 16:15 (six years ago) link

Thank you, devoured that like a bowl of custard-covered Christmas cake.

Malcolm's book on Plath/Hughes is electrifying.

Chicamaw (Ward Fowler), Thursday, 21 January 2016 16:57 (six years ago) link

I haven't read that book - I'll need to.

Proper lit journalist busting some balls.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 21 January 2016 19:54 (six years ago) link

In my literary youth I listened to a recording of Hughes reading his poems, including this one:

What will you make of half a man
Half a face
A ripped edge

His one-eyed waking
Is the shorn sleep of aftermath

His vigour
The bone-deformity of consequences

His talents
The deprivations of escape

How will you correct
The veteran of negatives
And the survivor of cease?

Back in my teens I would go along with anything, but even so that one didn't work for me. (Better than this though.) Also, "shorn sleep" was so close to "shorn sheep" that it ruined the effect, and I was sure that's where Hughes got it.

Sean O'Brien wrote an essay about Hughes going off the rails for a while with respect to diction. I've read Orghast at Persepolis which was about some pretty strange stuff.

alimosina, Thursday, 21 January 2016 20:18 (six years ago) link

six years pass...

The Iron Man is described as being taller than a house, his head is as large as a bedroom and his feet are as large as a bed. So when he falls down the cliff and smashes into pieces on the beach, how come a seagull can pick up one of his eyes and a hand?

the man with the chili in his eyes (ledge), Friday, 26 August 2022 13:13 (one month ago) link

Because the first set of impossibilities you cited implies room for further impossibilities?

more difficult than I look (Aimless), Friday, 26 August 2022 18:11 (one month ago) link

A deeply unsatisfying answer for many reasons.

Anyway despite that minor editorial inconsistency I'm glad that this book is as unique and captivating as I remembered. and that our 6 year old seems quite taken with it too.

the man with the chili in his eyes (ledge), Friday, 26 August 2022 18:47 (one month ago) link


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