Originally published in the Plume newsletter of April, 2016.
I’ve often noticed, without making a theory out of it, that a number of my favorite poetry books were published in 1959 and 1960. The list includes James Merrill’s The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, James Wright’s Saint Judas, and W. S. Merwin’s The Drunk in the Furnace. Robert Lowell’s game-changing Life Studies—a book that I admire but don’t especially love—also appeared, famously, in 1959, but it would be a few years yet before it actually changed the game.
I don’t consider these the most important books of poems ever written, or the best; they’re not even necessarily the best or most important books by these particular poets. And yet there’s something about their style, sensibility, and seriousness of purpose that speaks to me, right into my privatest ear. My abiding delight in these collections has nothing to do with schools or arguments or philosophies, and everything to do with pleasure and gravity and a certain electrification of the language.
Someone may well have written about the years 1959 and 1960 as a kind of pivot in American poetry; I was busy getting born in 1959, so I have none of my own experience to apply. It seems to me, though, that poetry was just shaking off its thralldom to the chilly triumphalisms of High Modernism, and hadn’t yet put on the hectic and glittering garments of its various “postmodernisms.” There was a return, at least in these books, to a more intimate register, to a more forthright approach to subject matter, to a formalism more traditional than conceptual. In certain moods, there’s nothing I prefer more.
A recent addition to this cluster of beloved books from my inaugural year is Lupercal, by Ted Hughes, which Harper & Row brought out in the U.S. in 1960. I sometimes suspect that nobody in America reads Hughes, because of the whole Sylvia Plath story—even now, twenty years after his death and more than fifty years after hers. I certainly avoided him for decades, only half on purpose, as an involuntary “Plathian.” I came by my Plathianism honestly, I suppose: I grew up about two miles from Plath’s house in Wellesley, went to the same high school, heard her mother’s name occasionally from my mother, who knew her mother slightly. I vividly remember my sister, two years my elder, swanning around with a much-fingered copy of The Bell Jar, which I believe had been assigned to her at school shortly after its U.S. publication, in 1971. My sister must have been in the 9th or 10th grade, at the onset of her own series of hospitalizations for psychosis, and her own suicide attempts, so I always associate Plath with my generation, even though she was really my mother’s age.
Whatever the case, I was certainly aware of Plath from childhood. The ugly first edition of Ariel was the only book of poems in the house, next to A Child’s Garden of Verses and some unreadable editions of Pushkin and Yevtushenko that my mother, a Russian translator, kept on hand. It may well have been the first book of poems by a relative contemporary that I ever read. That would have been quite the baptism. I can’t accurately situate the memory in time, but I do recall puzzling over “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” and the baby going like a fat gold watch. Nobody in my house was going to be able to explain any of that to me. But it must have gotten into me somehow—both the beauty of the language and the darkness of the vision, a darkness that chimed, in a distantly audible way, with my own experience. Plath’s example also hinted that a person like me could take poetry seriously and make a life of it. It was a kind of permission.
I was not so aware of Hughes, except as a sort of shadowy presence in the background of the Plath story. I was pleased, therefore, to discover a significant kinship of sensibility in his early work. Gravity, for sure, but also pleasure and, like Plath, beauty of language in the service of a dark vision.
It’s difficult to get the news from poems, and sometimes, when you do, you discover that the news is bad. In a Ted Hughes poem, the news is often dire. The voice that delivers the news, however, can be gorgeous.
The farms are oozing craters in
Sheer sides under the sodden moors:
When it is not wind it is rain,
Neither of which will stop at doors:
One will damp beds and the other shake
Dreams beneath sleep it cannot break.
Between the weather and the rock
Farmers make a little heat;
Cows that sway a bony back,
Pigs upon delicate feet
Hold off the sky, trample the strength
That shall level these hills at length.
Buttoned from the blowing mist
Walk the ridges of ruined stone.
What humbles these hills has raised
The arrogance of blood and bone,
And thrown the hawk upon the wind,
And lit the fox in the dripping ground.
I take in the charged language of this poem before I get the news from it—or, rather, the language of the poem takes me in, before delivering its payload of woe.
Curious disruptions in the syntax trouble what might otherwise pass as a straightforward description of an agrarian landscape and its strong weathers. If you think this is a simple pastoral, you’re not paying attention. The precipitous enjambment of the first line, while mimetic of the “sheer sides” of the “oozing craters,” destabilizes the poem’s formal arrangement from the jump. Sentences ramify unexpectedly across the line breaks, refusing parallelism. The rain will “damp beds,” but the wind does more than “shake / dreams” (notice, too, how Hughes advances the terms of description from thing to state). Farmers, cows, and pigs appear in orderly fashion but possess radically unequal powers, described in unequal phrases (the cows and pigs are clearly mightier). Hughes pushes his sentences almost to illegibility in the third stanza. It takes some time to absorb the fact that the phrase “What humbles these hills” does not introduce a question, but rather a key statement about the poem’s true subject—a subject which Hughes doesn’t directly name.
The poem’s conclusion never fails to detonate. Hughes sets up a delicious little explosion partly via clever management of off-rhymes and an irregular tetrameter, with plenty of inversions and headless lines. The last three lines approach resolution by settling into a strong regular rhythm, but then veer away from it by withholding the perfect rhymes that end the first two stanzas. The a and b rhymes sort of “ooze” into the c rhyme, which echoes both the a rhyme’s concluding “t/d” sounds and the b rhyme’s concluding “n” sound. Internal rhymes stitch the thing up, with seams running crosswise to the cut: “bone” and “thrown,” but also “hawk” and “fox” and, a bit more distantly, “wind” and “lit” and “dripping.” This kind of stuff makes a prosody wonk like me go all gooey inside.
But more than prosody is at work here. The genius of Hughes’s word choices is a perpetual astonishment, and the wonder of these lines is the verbs, which go straight to the heart of Hughes’s project in Lupercal. The hawk, who presides over Hughes’s first book, and who lords it over the entire food chain in the poem “Hawk Roosting,” is here subject to an infinitely greater force. The hawk is “thrown,” like a toy, or like trash. The force that throws her is the force that both “humbles these hills” and brings “The arrogance of blood and bone” into being (arrogant because it believes, as the hawk does, that all of Creation resides in her foot). That force can only be time, that makes a ruin of stone and “level[s] these hills at length,” or else it’s some blind and irresistible process within time, out of which everything emerges—hills, farms, humans, animals, ridges, moors—and into which everything subsides. Ridges end in ruins, hills end in ooze, life ends in the ecstasy of death. If this is news, it’s the sort of news a prophet would deliver, not the sort of news you would read in the local papers.
To my ear, “And lit the fox in the dripping ground” is as sublime a line as any in poetry. To begin with, it’s stunningly visual: the fox is not just lit, but spotlit, by the verb. But “lit” also indicates a flame, or a fuse. The fox has been set on fire with violent life, and that life is here, at the root, in the very ground. To celebrate the fox is to embrace the whole matrix of which the fox is a part, the whole extraordinary, beautiful, bloody, sensuous, fatal, implacable business. In “Crow Hill,” all life—crows, foxes, pigs, cows, hawks, humans—plays out “Between the weather and the rock,” in a temporary interstice where farmers can “make a little heat,” and where humans and animals alike have enough time to arrogantly forget where the true power of the world resides. But the world will remind them soon enough.
Hughes’s deep attention to nature as a system may be more recognizable now than it was in 1960, when he was rather ahead of his times. In Lupercal, Hughes emerges as a sort of “ecopoet” avant la lettre. I put “ecopoet” in scare quotes because, even though it’s a convenient shorthand, I have reservations about its use as a category. Poetry “with a strong ecological emphasis or message” is still “just” poetry, or better be: subject matter can be no determinant of poetic style. I resist “ecopoetry,” too, because it often presumes that some sort of placid harmony can be achieved, and that it represents the natural order of things. Against this notion, Hughes places his thrushes, which are “More coiled steel than living”—“Nothing but bounce and stab / And a ravening second.” Against the fantasy of a world made comfortable for humans, Hughes places “the decomposition of leaves— / The furnace door whirling with larvae.” And against the apparent stability of landscape, Hughes places hills that, instead of standing still to be admired, “Must burst upwards and topple into Lancashire.”
Hughes is neiher a comfortable nor comforting poet, combining beauty and terror in equal measure. Only the “Dead and unborn are in God comfortable.” If that’s an acknowledgment of heaven, it’s distinctly not a heaven on earth, of which human beings have made a kind of hell. The living, both the thrown and the lit, must live here, and they must live otherwise. As a late prophet of this news, Hughes deserves to be read more widely—even in America.