Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ted Hughes: The Last Romantic?

Mark Ford's review of Birthday Letters in the latest NY Review, set me thinking and remembering. I knew Ted slightly (we were more than acquaintances, less than friends) at Cambridge in 1954-5. I met him and Sylvia Plath twice in Boston when I got out of the army in the fall of '57, once at their apartment once at mine. I had never heard of her, knew nothing about her poetry. She didn't say a word. I thought she was weird. That was all. We never met again.

I got down his first book, Hawk In The Rain (1957) and began to read. These early poems are full of wild things, especially predators. He admired their fierce intensity. I came to the following poem:

The Dove Breeder

Love struck into his life
Like a hawk into a dovecote.
What a cry went up!
Every gentle pedigree dove
Blindly clattered and beat,
And the mild mannered dove-breeder
Shrieked at that raider.

He might well wring his hands
And let his tears drop:
He will win no more prizes
With fantails or pouters,
(After all these years
Through third, up through second places
Till they were all world beaters...)

Yet he soon dried his tears

Now he rides the morning mist
With a big-eyed hawk on his fist.

Well. Why would one carry a hawk on one's fist when it's too foggy for the bird to see or catch its prey? Ted Hughes as dove-breeder before he met Sylvia? I don't think so. But that doesn't matter. Here's what does: little did he know; if anything, he was the hawk on HER fist. If you know the sad, tragic tale of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and have a taste for dramatic irony, this poem is for you. Also, Birthday Letters which tells that tale in a series of efficiently written and (so far as I can tell) honest poems. But then why not tell it in prose, the natural medium if honesty and efficiency is what you are after? Why use your own tragedy as material for poetry? He does mythologize this tragedy. But doesn't tragedy virtually asks for it?

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I was wondering about Hughes as a Romantic myself, especially within his nature poems. How wonderful that you met both Ted and Sylvia!