Learning from Ted Hughes


exploring modernism: four

The practicalities of Cafe Writing Days make the one page poem the study model we almost always have to take. Sometimes such a poem is happily representative.  It worked very well for us with Dickinson and Plath and quite well with Lawrence and Rilke, though it cut out ‘Snake’ and Ship of Death’ from our time together with Lawrence and stopped us short from visiting The Duino Elegies. Unless you can fathom the Cantos, the early short pieces are the most enjoyable way to encounter Pound, but it was rather sad having to make do with extracts from Whitman and Eliot to map the journeys we had chosen for that Day.

Yesterday, fourteen of us spent the Cafe Writing Day with Ted Hughes’ poems and those of some of the European poets he admired.  Three ‘markers’ defined our space: the numbers of dead from the two twentieth century World Wars; a photograpSurvivors-of-the-Auschwitz-concentration-camp-1h of Red Army soldiers examining survivors in Auschwitz immediately after the concentration camp’s liberation in 1945; and a few verses from Psalm Nine.

What is man that thou are mindful of him? And the sonne of man that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the Angels; and has crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feete.


During the Day, we kept revisiting the questions:
  • What is man that he can live with the knowledge of being a creature who perpetrates such things?
  • How did poets of the middle twentieth century cope with that they had experienced, or knew of by report?
  • How were they to speak of what they knew?
  • After Auschwitz, can any poet truly discover a redemptive space?

These dark questions seemed at first a long way from the alchemy of ‘The Thought-Fox’, the sorrowful portrait of ‘The Bull Moses’, or even the terror of ‘Pike’ where a child is brought up against the alien creatures’ murderous ‘otherness’. But the dark questions are totally present in ‘Hawk Roosting’ where the creator/observer discovers as he writes that hawk, who kills ‘where I please because it is all mine’ is, of course, another name for man.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold


During the Day we also read ‘Crow’s First Lesson’ and ‘Lovesong’.  For Hughes, love of a fellow human, and especially sexual love for a fellow human,  does not seem to be offering man a truly redemptive space.

So how did this toweringly great poet come to terms with the anguish and horror he saw as inseparable from creaturely existence in the world?  Months of reading would give each of us an answer – different answers, probably, depending on our existing beliefs and sympathies.  We would need to read at length, exploring the translations and taking the separate pieces in River as essentially one piece. ( As Crow and Birthday Letters need to be taken as one piece. )  Hughes’ one page poems are often unmatchably good. But he seems to define himself as a poet of the whole book.

All we had time for yesterday was to end our afternoon with a one page poem where Ted Hughes does seem to have reached his own redemptive space – a vision of man’s wholeness and oneness with all the other creatures on the turning wheel of life. Held fast like them. Accepting the cycle of life like them. And having accepted, able to rejoice in its miracle. The poet of ‘That Morning’ has passed beyond the horror, partly by seeing it as inevitable and partly by simply passing in his imagination out of the modern – almost out of the human world.  The power of his writing creates a space where the writer can be wholly absorbed into his own redemptive myth.


So we found the end of our journey.

So we stood, alive in the river of light,

Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.









We are all looking forward to seeing the new poems which emerge from this fourth Cafe Writing Day.