I’ve got a confession to make.
I love poetry.
I’m not a stuffy academic or a lovelorn teenager. I’m not strange, or pretentious - well, at least, I dont think I am. I’ve just always loved verse; how it distils vast landscapes of feelings down to a tiny number of carefully-chosen words. For me, it’s the literary form that provides the most flashes of brilliance; the most moments in reading where it’s as if “a hand has come out and taken yours”, to quote Alan Bennett.
If you love the countryside but are wary of poetry, approach Ted Hughes with an open mind. Macho, misogynistic, a wayward husband and neglectful father, his reputation precedes him. However, away from the macabre soap opera of his relationships (his wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself, as did his lover, Assia Wevill), his poetry reveals a different side: a boy who loved the countryside who grew into a man who respected - even feared - it.
Hughes is undoubtedly drawn towards nature’s power, but it’s ultimately its capacity for cruelty and destruction that holds his attention: this is nature “red in tooth and claw”. Pike - loved and loathed in equal measure by GCSE students across the land - describes the ferocity of the fish he caught as a child in his native Yorkshire and kept in a tank, growing from “three inches long” to cannibalistic beasties who “spare nobody.” He lingers over the gruesome image of two specimens he found dead on a river bank, “one jammed past its gills down the others gullet”. The hawk of Hawk Roosting gives us a chilling first-person narrative of a predator with no dreams other than to “rehearse perfect kills.” It’s easy - perhaps too easy - to see this callous creature as a symbol for the far-right European dictators of the first half of the 20th century: “I kill where I please because it is all mine,” he says, brutally blasé. “My manners,” he declares with icy calm, “are tearing off heads.” Pastoral idyll this isn’t.
My favourite Hughes collection, Birthday Letters, is a book of poems released in 1998 only months before his death. For years, he’d refused to be drawn on the subject of Sylvia, but this publication revealed a raw, confessional tone completely alien to his fans. In it, he speaks directly to Sylvia with poems written for each of her birthdays, charting their relationship from its passionate beginning in Cambridge through to their bitter break-up and ensuing tragedy. Two of the most shattering poems in the collection, Daffodils and Robbing Myself, centre on the remote home and smallholding Hughes and Plath shared in Devon shortly before their split. In Daffodils he remembers picking a “treasure trove” of flowers with Sylvia and the children. But dispel any ideas you might have of Wordsworth’s sunny “host of golden daffodils” - in Hughes’ version, they wither and their “wedding-present scissors” are left stuck somewhere in the earth “blades wide open...a cross of rust.” It’s raw, reflective but, more importantly, it’s a lesson that poetry isn’t always about big fancy words. Describing Yorkshire, Hughes uses two words: “wet shops”. Could you write a better description of a Calderdale village in just two words, two syllables? I couldn’t.
Hughes touches on his tie to the land in his book ‘Poetry in the Making’ - a book about writing poetry rather than a book of poems. On wild beauty spots he has this to say: “The thing about [them]...is the state of mind they put us into...They carry us back to the surroundings our ancestors lived in for 150 million years - which is long enough to grow to feel quite at home even in a place as wild as the uncivilised earth. Civilization is comparatively new, it is still a bit of a strain on our nerves...it is almost as though these places [beauty spots] were generators where we can recharge our run-down batteries...Those prehistoric feelings, satisfaction we are hardly aware of except as a sensation of pleasure - these are like a blood transfusion to us, and in wild surroundings they rise to the surface and refresh us, renew us.” Janet posted something on the blog recently about Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and made a very similar point - you are, it would seem Mr Hughes, in good company.