Nature Read in Tooth and Claw
Haughton, Hugh, The Independent (London, England)
THERE is something disconcertingly concerted about Ted Hughes' writing career as it is now laid out before us. With his 300-page New Selected Poems 1957-1994 following on the heels of last year's huge collection of occasional prose, Winter Pollen, and his massive Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Hughes now confronts us with something of the sheer bulk and presence of a contemporary poetic Titan.
Hughes' art might be described as a "convulsive re-sacralisation" of poetry, English poetry in particular, performed in the context of a post- Christian, secular and biologistic world view. His New Selected Poems 1957-1994 is crammed with the harvest of the 15 or so collections he has published since The Hawk in the Rain announced his scarifying arrival on the poetry scene nearly 40 years ago. It not only weighs in with the bulk of a complete oeuvre but grips you with the kind of compelling vision, the broad reach and humming note of a life's work. It would be easy to mock Hughes' obvious stylistic idiosyncrasies - in sequences like Crow and Cave Birds the poet has the impossible project of forging sacred archaic texts from non-existent ancient cultures in authentically violent modern idioms - or else to satirise the combination of fishing-lore and Shamanic New Age doctrine that drives so many poems (poetry and mumbo-jumbo are a bit close for comfort in all this).
Nevertheless despite the flailing unevenness of his prolific and horrific muse, the first poem "The Thought Fox" and the last "The Dove" are unmistakably part of a single, massive, raucous and obstinately heterodox visionary project that (for all its indebtedness to Blake, Hopkins, Lawrence and Dickinson) is awesomely unlike anything else in the language.
I grew up with the slim two-headed Hughes-Gunn Selected Poems, which mainly drew on the arrestingly clenched early nature studies like "Hawk Roosting" and "Pike". Since then there have been two more - the second of which, Selected Poems 1957-81, took the story on via the violent, playful mythological narratives of Crow, Cave Birds and Gaudete and ended with extracts from the disparate topographical and legendary sequences of Moortown, "Prometheus on his Crag" and "Adam and the Sacred Nino". There was a sense of disappointment in these later poems, of Hughes treading water in mid- career, as if he'd written himself into the narrow ground he elected as his own.
The new book utterly dispels this. It swells the number of poems from earlier books (restoring the wonderful apologia for his own art, "To Paint a Water Lily" from his second book, for example, doubling the number of scratch lyrics from Crow to 34, and almost doubling the selections from Cave Birds and the magnificent Season Songs for children). …