Ted Hughes, author of The Iron Man (later to changed to “The Iron Giant”), has easily become one of my favorite poets of all time. He takes such a close, hard look at life, and speaks so very honestly and bravely. He does exactly what a poet ought to be doing: speaking passionately, imaginatively, complexly, uniquely, and relatably about life. He doesn’t relish being misunderstood and passed over by the masses, as some poets do. I can keep up with much of it, but not so easily that I get bored.
Probably the most well-known books in this anthology of his collected poetical works are Crow, Wodwo, and Birthday Letters.
Crow is a collection of poems in which a crow, a metaphor or totem for the author, sets out on a carnal, dissective, and visceral probing into the meaning of life and death. The crow often functions as a questioner of life and God, epitomizing the author himself at times; while at other times the crow is the incarnation of life, death, death-in-life, suffering, and an unconscious, bestial absurdity growing into consciousness. This is by far my favorite book of poems in his collected works. The close examination of life in all of its filth, cruelty, danger, and beauty is so incredibly raw and direct, and in some way this ability to stare into the abyss, bordering on morbidity, earns the trust of the reader. “This is how he kept his conscience so pure/ He was black/ (Blacker/ Than the eyepupils/ Of the gunbarrels.)” Brute observation balanced with impassioned, imaginative reportage is what Hughes excels at. His perspective includes the darkest places he’s found on earth, and blends despair and horror with the beauty and awe of a terrifyingly mixed universe into a worldview that preserves the tension and ultimately reveals a gyrating harmony of good and bad which most definitely characterizes human reality. Many of the poems sound like nonsense on first look; but the crude, jutting imagery and phantasmagoric chain of events are mesmerizing. I sense that they are mysterious and profound, even when I don’t fully understand.
My favorite poems from Crow: Crow’s First Lesson, A Kill, The Battle Of Osfrontalis, Examination At The Womb Door (BEST!), Crow’s Account Of The Battle, Oedipus Crow, The Smile, Crow Blacker than Ever, Revenge Fable, Crow and Stone, Lovesong, Two Eskimo Songs: Fleeing From Eternity, I See a Bear, and Crow the Just.
Wodwo, meaning “wildman” in old English, is a collection of miscellaneous poems which includes the eponymous poem “Wodwo.” Their themes are random, which I love this in a book of poems, but the motif of finding one’s way through the universe is still prevalent and masterful. Favorites: Ghost Crabs, Boom, Public Bar T.V., A Vegetarian, Sugar Loaf, Theology, Song Of A Rat, Skylarks, You Drive In A Circle, Pibroch, The Howling Of Wolves, Gnat Psalm, and Wodwo.
Birthday Letters is a collection of poems that Hughes which orbit the theme of his relationship with Sylvia Plath. It was an obviously turbulent liaison for both parties, and I can’t imagine the impact this sort of strain must have had on the children. Plath had battled clinical depression for years with constant follow-up by physicians, especially in her final days. She moved into her own apartment with their two kids when she learned Hughes was having an affair. Probably as a result of her long history battling depression and several botched suicide attempts, and the heartache about Hughes’ infidelity, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 by sticking her head in an oven and turning on the gas. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She had sealed the doors between herself and her sleeping children with wet towels, opened their windows and placed bread and milk in their room. Plath’s history of depression notwithstanding, many still blame Hughes for Plath’s death. An especially committed band of protesters have periodically vandalized and effaced the headstone Ted erected for his wife’s grave because Hughes’ name appears on it (“[they] bite the face off her gravestone”), and each time Hughes had it repaired. Six years after Plath’s suicide, his mistress named Assia Wevill, whom Hughes left Plath for and was only one of several affairs he would develop in his lifetime, killed herself in the same way Plath had, but deepened the wound grievously by asphyxiating along with herself the 4-year-old daughter Hughes and Wevill had together. And the train wreck of Hughes’ life continued when in 2009, 11 years after Hughes’ death, Hughes’ and Plath’s son committed suicide by hanging himself.
The Birthday Poems poems offer a very intimate glimpse of the impetuous and volatile relationship between Hughes and Plath, two emotionally taut and over reactive poets of great genius. Their mental/emotional processes are so inscrutable to the common person (“I had accepted/ The meteor logical phenomena/ That kept your compass steady.”), and it makes some of their struggles appear melodramatic and petty to many onlookers. Add to that Plath’s clinical depression, possibly the by-product of an anxiety disorder, the newly developed/late-adopted drugs and methods to treat anxiety and depression, the pressures of genius and fame (“you will have paid for [fame] with your happiness”), the British post-war economy (“the stink of fear was still hanging in the wardrobes”), and Hughes’ infidelity, and one can better understand the manic states and vitriolic interactions in Plath and Hughes’ history which characterize the poems of Birthday Letters. Some of them are indeed best understood in light of the Hughes/Plath saga, but much can be understood on their own. And some, like many of his poems, can’t be properly understood at all, but must be felt.
To be honest, Birthday Letters does feel a bit mundane in parts and lacked some thrust. Perhaps it functioned more as an autobiography or was simplified as an apologetic for the public, but I felt a significant difference between this and his other poems. It could be he found it to be an exhausting but propitiatory labor, and he felt he owed it to Sylvia, himself, his children and the public not to obscure the events leading to/from Sylvia’s death with his own theatrics. He had, in fact, burnt some entries of Plath’s journal before publishing it to protect the children, so his reserve may still have been motivating him, even though Birthday Letters was published so many years later. The poems are Hughes handiwork to be sure, full of imagination and passion, but they lack a certain boldness, in my opinion, which might be due to being fueled by guilt.
My favorite poems from Birthday Letters are: God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark, Fever, The Gypsy, The Lodger, The Table, Dream Life, The Rabbit Catcher, The Bee God, Being Christlike, Dreamers, Fairy Tale, The Blackbird, Robbing Myself, The Cast, Life After Death, and The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother.
From the stories people tell about the life of Hughes, I’m not so sure I celebrate the poet as I do the poetry. I have no problem snapping off this bejeweled finger from the rot of a despicable man’s life. It is incredible and soul-illuminating. The anthology of collected poems published in 2005 is massive, and I have enjoyed every bit of it. It is cud for a lifetime. Okay, that’s nasty, but…you know what I’m saying.