#167: ANIMALS. As with his friend Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes was a poet to whom success came early and stayed long. Already a recognized presence in his undergraduate days at Pembroke, his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was picked up by Faber, still the most important publisher of poetry in the U.K., and was widely recognized, with the help of the reigning critic A. Alvarez, as challenging the whole current genteel mode of British verse. At various points in his career, Hughes would return to peak celebrity with new and audacious books: at mid-career, with the sulfurous mythic cycle Crow; later on, with his versions of Ovid and with the shock arrival of Birthday Letters. This last book combined his fame as a poet with his other and unwelcome fame as Mr. Sylvia Plath, the husband half of the all-time number one literary marriage made in hell. In America at least his fame as Plath’s husband—very specifically, the husband of a poet driven to suicide—is now often all people know of him, usually colored with the more lubricious speculations on what share he had in Plath’s death. Hughes’s reputations precede him, and may make it hard to see the work itself at all.
It’s an enormous blessing then, to have run into A Ted Hughes Bestiary, a selection of his animal poems edited by Alice Oswald (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014). I had been given Crow many years ago and had liked it, but had been scared off by the gossip and hocus, and hadn’t picked Hughes up since. To be reintroduced to a poet of such major gifts, such real genius, and in a subject area where those gifts are shown to such brilliant advantage, is no small experience. The Bestiary bears as small a resemblance to the usual book of animal poems or nature poems as you can imagine: here is work entirely the other side of the calm pastoral, the Georgian, the twee, the wet, the cute. Hughes famously had his fascination with the darkly mythic and dabbled in the occult—my favorite story is of his experimenting with the Ouija board, entirely innocent of the fact that fellow poet Daniel Huws had gotten bored and was manufacturing the “responses” from the other side. But this obviously answered some native sense he had of the surcharge of energy, physical and spiritual, in nature. His imaginative abilities bordered on the shamanic; but imagine a shamanic ability nailed on the page by extraordinary gifts of observation and complete mastery of an individual poetic voice. This is the best of both worlds.
One word invariably used of Hughes’s work is “unsentimental.” That’s nearly right, but it’s a word, I suspect, that would only occur to city-bred and academic reviewers. If you’ve grown up in a rural setting among people who hunted and fished, who farmed and bred animals, I suspect nothing in Hughes’s knowledge of violence and death will throw you. Hughes grew up country, with just enough city between him and the Pennine hills to give that landscape a sense of something yearned for and won. So as American poetry continues to lose its sense of the rural and natural world Hughes’s animal poems may have a special value. And purely for their insight, their imaginings, their luscious glut of honed and chosen words, this is poetry for anyone, anywhere.