These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was an English poet, but he surrounded himself with the American Confessional poets of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath (who was his wife). Despite engaging with the Confessional poets, he was not a Confessional poet, though he did try to find outlets to explore who he was.
One of the first things I notice and latch onto as I read through Ted Hughes Selected Poems 1957-1994 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) is the use of the “I,” or the lack of it. Hughes is an observer of the world he is situated in. He is both empathetic and sympathetic to it, as he is trying to understand his surroundings. In his early poetry, there is a certain amount of joy and awe, but later the joy will disappear, at least for a short while. Early on, Hughes uses the “I” sparingly, and when he does, it is usually not a stand-in for himself, but, instead, he inhabits another form. For instance, in “The Man Seeking Experience Enquires His Way of a Drop of Water” (from his first collection of poems The Hawk in the Rain (1957)), he allegorically uses a drop of rain as a stand-in for himself, so that with the last line “Blundered the world-shouldering monstrous ‘I’,” that is the rain drop giving the “plain lesson how / Experience has worn or made you anew,” and it speaks for itself, and allegorically for Hughes. The rain drop is announcing its existence, much like I think Hughes is trying to do throughout his poems, but he can’t quite plant himself into the poems.
In his observations, he creates a mythic world, or at least creates a world with a frame in which he can center himself to focus on what’s around him. He is trying to find the “Blood [that] is the belly of logic” (“An Otter,” Lupercal, 38). As said above, the “I” Hughes uses is not him, but the embodiment the “I” uses generates more sympathy for what he is looking at or experiencing. “Wodwo,” in Wodwo (1967), is good example of what I mean.
Wodwo What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge I enter water. What am I to split The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed Of the river above me upside down very clear What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret interior and make it my own? Do these weeds know me and name me to each other have they seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped out of nothing casually I’ve no threads fastening me to anything I can go anywhere I seem to have been given the freedom of this place what am I then? And picking bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it me and doing that have coincided very queerly But what shall I be called am I the first have I an owner what shape am I what shape am I am I huge if I go to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me for the moment if I sit still how everything stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre but there’s all this what is it roots roots roots roots and here’s the water again very queer but I’ll go on looking
A “wodow” is a wild-man, a half-man and half-animal spirit type entity, like a faun or satyr. This poem is an ars poetica, of sorts, as Hughes is exploring the use of “I” and trying to represent himself and/or locate himself in the world and in his poetry. On an ars poetica level, “What am I to split” indicates the split between Hughes and the subject he is writing about. Hughes wants, seemingly, to write about himself but he has to dislocate from himself and embody another, much like the lines, “Why do I find / this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret / interior and make it my own?” That seems to be at the heart of most of Hughes poetry until about 1989 in Moortown Diary.
In his next collection Crow (1970), Hughes embodies a crow, and in this collection there is a sudden shift in tone. The tone of the poems, the accumulation of images in the poems is very Merwinesque. Despite the tone changing, Hughes is still trying to center himself in the world, but his observations are mediated throw a crow, who is seemingly godlike and/or omnipotent, which adds to the mythmaking feel. The mythmaking is so Merwinesque, I often feel like I am reading Merwin and not Hughes, and many of the long poems, especially “The Contender,” sound and move just like Merwin’s “The Last One.”
Hughes continues his observations and world creating with a sort of celebratory tone and feel until Moortown Diary (1989) and Earth-Numb (1979). In Moortown Diary, a harshness develops, as Hughes observes the less beautiful and exposes an unsympathetic nature. In Earth-Numb he experiences the harshness of life and towns and cities. In these collections, it is as if “Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat. / [. . .] He could not understand what had happened. / Or what he had become” (“The Beacon: A God,” Earth-Numb, 208-9). These poems are hung with pain.
By 1986, in Flowers and Insects, he continues with his empathetic observations, but they are less cynical and more prosy. Another turn in his poetry occurs in Wolfwatching (1989), which is unlike any of his other poems, as he explores the suffering of war, especially though his father and his Uncle Walt.
In the end, I don’t know how to generalize Hughes or what poets to group him with, but he is an impersonal poet trying to become personal. I would gather to say he was influenced by the New Critics because of this impersonality, but he’s not allusive or stylistically/technically as tight as one might expect from a New Critic poet, though early on he makes good use of anapests, which almost give his poem a sense of play or fun. Early on at times, too, he feels like D. H. Lawrence in his observations and sympathies, and I think of Lawrence’s poem “Snake,” in particular. Also, early on his poems can be surreal or dreamlike.