Robert Hull on
The Collected Animal Poems of Ted Hughes
In the 60s, Ted Hughes’ wodwo found the world continuously ‘very queer’, but undertook to ‘go on looking’. The four new volumes that comprise his Collected Animal Poems are an unavoidable buy, not least for the revelation of what that commitment has come to mean.
Poems from all Hughes’ books (except ‘Gaudete’) and many uncollected pieces are arranged in ‘a sequence of increasing complexity’. A warning: to adults not to stay at the ‘complex’ end of the offer for their own reading; and to those buying for children not to choose a volume to ‘fit the age-range’. Adult and child, and those in between, need them all.
Young readers first. Familiarity with the whole four-volume collection makes entirely plausible the claim that it is ‘for children to cut their reading teeth’ on.
Hughes often tracks to the same creature, the same moment. Reading this poem puts you on the path to reading that. Wandering forwards or back, unhurriedly, the young reader discovers Hughes has certain preoccupations. And helpfully, many poems are stories, and as stories, straightforward, like the lovely ‘Birth of Rainbow’.
Hughes’ selection and ordering of his tales usher the reader towards similar encounters. A March Calf includes ‘Cranefly in September’ and ‘Sheep’. They are fine poems in a Hughes genre, the narrative elegy, written out of intense seeing and a terrible compassion - for the dying cranefly ‘blundering with long strides ... from collision to collision’, ‘with the simple colourless church windows of her wings’; for the lamb ‘born / with everything but the will ... / Life could not get his attention’.
These anticipate others in the genre, like ‘Coming down Through Somerset’, about a dead badger, and ‘October Salmon’, just as they succeed tales, like the account of a fox’s death in What is the Truth?, that prefigure such dark events. At the same time they are balanced by moving affirmations, like the celebratory ‘A March Calf’ or the affectionately observed ‘Hen’ of What is the Truth? - which is also wonderfully funny. (The truth is, Hughes is also funny.)
So children encounter variations on recognisable themes. The collection instructs them in the habits of Hughes. On a large scale it works the way Hughes suggests individuals do: ‘If they can recognise and be excited by some vital piece of experience within the poem, very young children can swallow the most sophisticated verbal technique.’
The poems continuously assume in children ‘adult’ concerns, with birth, death, joy and pain. His ‘children’s poetry’ is distant by a universe from the sort that self-consciously targets its audience, trapping it in childhood. Hughes doesn’t know how to write down to his six-year-olds. So those who might opt for the main ‘complex’ poems - for themselves or on behalf of older young readers - will also miss out.
In some ways, indeed, Hughes’ most magical apprehension of the animal world comes at the latter end of his wodwo’s decades-long attention span, in the short rhyming poems written for the youngest children.
Here, Hughes has his creatures by heart: ‘My water-bag wobbles / Until I spill / At the river sill / And flow away thin / As an empty skin / That dribbles bubbles. / Then I jut up my mutt / All spiky with wet.’ Often you don’t need titles: ‘Wherever I go / I travel by hole ... I don’t eat alone. / At my table sit / Centurion / And Ancient Brit.’
Out of compression comes a wrought wit, Donne-like, or Marvellian. The cuckoo to the linnet: ‘Your eggs look so ill! / Now I am the doctor, and here is my pill.’ Mainly by force of wit, the ‘Sparrow’ of The Iron Wolf is finer than the (previously uncollected) ‘Sparrow’ of A March Calf, in which the beggar/ex soldier image, common to both poems, is immersed in competing metaphor. The 12-lined ‘Sparrow’ is all old soldier: ‘Help an old solder, he cries / He doesn’t care if he lies. / All he wears on his back / Is a raggy sack. / All day the same old shout: / "I’m back from the wars, worn out!"’
He has said himself: ‘Writing those verses taught me a great deal - about writing verse.’ It is fascinating to watch Hughes’ metamorphosis - struggle at times - out of a poetic that Lawrence would have recognised into a musical terseness near to Emily Dickinson or Blake. And like Blake in Songs of Innocence and Experience, Hughes, in writing what is offered to children, children’s poetry, produces poetry absolute.
But the vision of these ‘simpler’ poems is entirely of a piece with the rest of Hughes. Wherever you look - in indifferent poems too, where the imagination can seem to be flying, as it were, on autocrow - are deep efforts of perception, or just brilliant bits of before-your-very-eyes verbal cinema: the rhino as ‘elastic boulder’; the salmon on ‘the floor of his chapel’ where ‘he sways at the altar’; the reservoir with its ‘rusty harness of old waterlines’.
Hughes’ vision is for the children to see with, and think with. Children will learn from it that you ‘go on’ looking. The truth is, nothing’s finished. You re-scrutinise salmon, hen, sparrow, cuckoo, goose, curlew. You keep writing.
I hope readers will take the lot, and if they teach, use the lot. And that if the curriculum says it hasn’t time and the money door’s closed, they’ll bring the geese on to ‘carol out their discords ... / With a rusty-shipyard bonging echoing hollow din.’
Inspired meanwhile, I shall go back to my poem on the mythical Great Delivery Bird, swooping from Key Stage to Key Stage, mindless and menacing.
Vol. 1 The Iron Wolf, 0 571 17622 4, £3.99
Vol. 2 What is the Truth?, 0 571 17623 2, £3.99
Vol. 3 A March Calf, 0 571 17625 9, £5.99
Vol. 4 The Thought-Fox, 0 571 17628 3, £5.99
The four volumes are also available as hardbacks in a boxed set at £30.00.
[Hughes’ remarks are quoted from an interview by Heather Neill, published in the TES, 2nd June 1995.]