Appreciating Ted Hughes

Hawk Roosting: Feet or foot? Photo: Summerdrought [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia

LupercalLupercal by Ted Hughes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I sat down to write about my first reading of this collection of poetry, I drew a blank. I knew nothing of Ted Hughes until he was mentioned in a comment about my reading of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, along with Sylvia Plath. I'd heard of Plath! 

I didn't hate the poetry, nor did I like it. But it seemed strange. I knew it was about animals, but that was the extent of the experience of my first reading. So I took to some research and made some enlightening discoveries.

Hughes was the UK's Poet Laureate, just like Alfred, Lord Tennyson. There had to be something I was missing.

In an interview with The Paris Review from 1995, Hughes mentions a number of issues concerning "The Art of Poetry", such as the differences in drafting verse in handwriting versus typing. In response to the question "Is a poem ever finished?", Hughes mentions a struggle he has had with the singular or plural in the middle of the poem, "Hawk Roosting". Neither worked satisfactorily.

So I start there:
My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot
And he's right. Swap feet for foot and back again, and neither works grammatically. But it works as it is in the poem.

I tried another poem, "Urn Burial". On the first reading, my mind was clouded by seeing some of the oldest remnants of human urn burials in Bahrain on a visit during my sabbatical in 2009. All I could picture were the skeletal remains curled up in the large stone urns. No animals in sight.

Then, like a 3D picture, the symbolism became clear: Oh, it's a weasel! (It even reads "weasel", but I was off in another dimension.) It started to make sense.

This was not entirely my own doing. I had to digress with Hughes' ars poetica, "The Thought Fox". Hughes basically tells me how to read his poetry. It's very clever, but maybe a little more academic than I was expecting.

Hughes' fascination with animals came from his childhood experience. His older brother, ten years his senior, loved to hunt. Hughes acted as his older brother's retriever and this continued for something like twenty years. Hughes is also famous for his children's books.

Like many readers these days, I had fallen victim to the general decline in reading poetry for fun. (Except epic and didactic poetry such as HomerVirgil, and Hesiod.)

This year I have read Frank O'Hara, Sir Walter Ralegh, T.S. Eliot, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and I am now a convert. I also read Nietzsche's The Gay Science and I am currently reading Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, both works about poetry. It makes more sense to read poetry more than once, and with some study in between. (Hughes said this in his Paris Review interview, too.)

Had I not read up about Hughes, I would have been none the wiser. And I would certainly be missing out.

The icing on the cake was the name of the collection, Lupercal, is derived from an ancient Roman pastoral or fertility festival, Lupercalia, held annually on my birthday. This made more sense of the numerous classical references that had confused me in my first reading. (The birthday bit gave a surprising personal connection!)

Perhaps I am now a Ted Hughes fan.

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