Magazine article The Spectator

Rocks and Guts and Bullocks

Magazine article The Spectator

Rocks and Guts and Bullocks

Article excerpt

Rocks and guts and bullocks COLLECTED POETRY by Ted Hughes Faber, L40, pp. 1332, ISBN 0571217192

Ted Hughes was the first living poet I loved. The same is probably true for countless kids who went to school in the 1960s and 70s. The general rule that classroom study engenders a lifelong dislike of poetry must make an exception of Hughes. Only a teacher of chart-topping ineptitude could prevent a child from enjoying those magical early portraits of animals. I still remember the sensational shudder that ran through me at the opening of 'The Jaguar': The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.'

It was 'adore' that got me. Pluck or pick or squash or sift, yes, I was ready for those, but 'adore'. It didn't belong but it belonged. For me it was like the moment when the lozenge cracks and honey floods your tongue. Poetry could be physical.

Hughes's talent was copious but only when deployed within a very narrow waveband. Nature was his element. Open this book anywhere and coinages of audacious beauty soar off the page. Daffodils are 'fresh-opened dragonflies, baby-cries from the thaw.' Snow is 'fallen heaven'. A boy finding a bull feels 'the hotly-tongued mash of his cud breathing against me'.

Hughes's sense of orchestration can conjure any mood at will. Unsettling eeriness:

The howling of wolves

Is without world.

What are they dragging up and out on their long leashes of sound

That dissolve in the mid-air silence?

Or daft, helpless pleasure:

Suddenly hooligan baby starlings

Rain all around me squealing.

And the inexplicably ominous 'Pike, three inches long, perfect' ...

Hughes was a nomad, an artistic chancer who convinced himself he was at home when he was stranded. The 'Crow' series - in which a bird posing as Everyman muses about love, life and God - is an embarrassing failure. I lost touch with Hughes from adolescence onward, preferring Larkin with his subtler and more urbane sensibility and his easier feel for human experience. Hughes was all rocks and guts and bullocks. He wasn't much of a narrator either. His gift is for the rugged stand-alone utterance. Many of his poems proceed by gentle lurches - they have the stark brilliance of still photographs but not the satisfying current of moving pictures. Often they lack shape, escalation or climax.

When he was asked to become laureate I think everyone sensed it wasn't quite right. Larkin declined, properly, and the office ought to have passed with Betjeman. To accept should, I feel, be taken as evidence that one is not suited to the job. …

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