Facts and Makings

John Bayley

  • Moortown by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 176 pp, £5.25, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11453 9
  • Selected Poems 1955-1975 by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 131 pp, £4.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11512 8
  • Collected Poems 1942-1977 by W.S. Graham
    Faber, 268 pp, £8.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 571 11416 4

Ted Hughes has always possessed in his poetry the gift that D.H. Lawrence had whenever he took up his pen: the gift of joining his ego to the visible world so that both not only energise each other but seem aspects of the same display. The first poem in this collection, ‘Rain’, seems to give the essence of what actually happens when rain falls and falls on a bare modern English farming countryside. It is an apparently casual performance that could only come from a poet steeped in his own great talent to the point of taking it for granted, as Wordsworth seems to take for granted the exposition of his verse paragraphs, or Browning a prolonged monologue. Hughes is remorseless in his eye for what is really happening outside in nature at such a time. The cows

          look out sideways from under their brows which are
Their only shelter. The sunk scrubby wood
Is a pulverised wreck, rain riddles its holes
To the drowned roots. A pheasant looking black
In his waterproofs, bends at his job in the stubble.

The mid-afternoon dusk soaks into
The soaked thickets. Nothing protects them.

Mostly, the statements can afford to be quite plain, and, however plain they are, the poem never loses its mesmeric wet grip, its impact of saturation. This is the more interesting since Hughes’s language has often in previous collections given the impression of a weight-lifter hurling steel girders and plastic laths around with an equally ferocious virtuosity. Now, down on the farm, it seems exactly equal to the task – as if to tractoring, milking, mucking out, performing these jobs with the wholly effective absence of enthusiasm which for a countryman often seems the nearest thing to enjoyment. But with this rain falling, animals and men could as well be on the Western Front as on a Devon farmstead.

                     The gateways
Are deep obstacles of mud. The calves look up, through plastered forelocks,
Without moving. Nowhere they can go
Is less uncomfortable. The brimming world
And the pouring sky are the only places
For them to be. Fieldfares squeal over, sodden
Toward the sodden wood. A raven,
Cursing monotonously, goes over fast
And vanishes in rain-mist. Magpies
Shake themselves hopelessly, hop in the spatter. Misery.
Surviving green of ferns and brambles is tumbled
Like an abandoned scrapyard,

Phrases like ‘hop in the spatter’ show the movement of the bird as no other words have ever done. And the rain – ‘spirit-quenching’, as Hardy calls it, in a little ‘incident poem’ not unlike Hughes in tone and technique – turns the ‘country’, as effectively as man and his own works, into mean and meagre dereliction. As art, the truth of this vision is intensely satisfying: the satisfaction coming from the fact that Hughes has not attempted to make anything out of the vision itself.

He is a divided poet in a sense which his talent makes particularly interesting, and to which it gives a larger significance. The tradition of poets in English who have written about this kind of thing – Crabbe, Clare, Edmund Blunden – is one of a sober and perennial kind, not much concerned with or altered by changes in outlook and vision, spirit and Zeitgeist. But Hughes, like Lawrence, has the kind of creative temperament which is very much concerned with these things – indeed, sensitive to them, almost obsessed by them. He needs meaning, needs apocalypse, but down on the farm they are not to be found. No matter, the power and precision of his language produce them by the sole virtue of concentration, by laying the visible world inexorably before us.

The world of Hughes’s poetry presents us with a particularly dramatic example of the division in Romantic sensibility and in the developments of Romantic poetry that goes back beyond the 19th century. On the one hand, an overwhelming sense of things: on the other, the impossibility of things. Keats’s imagination seizes on the world and gives it in his imagination the absoluteness of truth, a truth into which the always unappeasable spirit of query and abstraction cannot enter. One romantic world is the creation of absolute fact, so far as language and poetry can make it, which may be the world of enchanted castles and maidens as well as that of minnows and billiard-balls, of lime-trees and water-snakes and an evening sky, ‘with its peculiar tint of yellow green’. But the other world is not a world at all: it is the ‘description of a place rather than the place itself’. For a post-romantic poet like Wallace Stevens, that is the place where poetry has to live. The poet has here all the blank misgivings of a creature ‘moving about in worlds not realised’: indeed, this fact becomes the poetry’s subject and raison d’être.

Wallace Stevens accused T.S. Eliot of being ‘a man too exactly himself’, and it is equally a fear and a fascination in the tradition of Romantic poetry to write a poem which is too exactly itself. Many of Hughes’s poems are, and no doubt deliberately so, an explosion of exactness in the midst of contingency, from which the echoes die abruptly away. An image and embodiment here is the farmyard tractor, on a morning of snow and super-cold.

The tractor stands frozen – an agony
To think of …

The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive – but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother.

At last:

It jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life …
And stands
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more than usually complete materialisation
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting ‘Where Where?’

Eyes
Weeping in the wind of chloroform

And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing.

The poems in Moortown also celebrate the achievements of people – stringers of wire or bashers-in of fence posts, shearers, dehorners, huge purplish hands which are tender accoucheurs of animals. And the animals themselves: sheep that ‘fade humbly’ in the evening snow; a cow in labour –

She reached for us with a wild, flinging look
And flopped flat again;

a bull who is not very powerfully masculine and attractive, but a bull just the same, and totally individualised, with his own kind of ‘gristly pinkish head, like a shaved bloodhound’ and his own way of approaching a cow:

He sniffs the length of her spine, arching slightly
And shitting a tumble-thud shit as he does so.

These poems are indeed ‘exactly themselves’, and with an ease that has none the less something uneasy about it. When Keats said he wanted to write poems that ‘cannot be laughed at at all’, he was probably thinking not so much of laughter per se as of the vulnerability of being exactly oneself which is its potential target – of being the man who, as Chesterton put it, ‘is laughed at by rustics because they have never seen him before’. Here the boot is on the other foot: it is we who have never seen these things before in poetry, and they are a new sort of wonder, exposed to us. It is an exposure that reveals the author too much, and the way his imagination works, the imagination that produced the extraordinary fantasy of Gaudete. Gaudete has come to impress itself on me as one of the most remarkable achievements of modern poetry, an achievement in which fantasy – the very odd tale or legend that preoccupied the author – is made as real as life on the farm.

But Hughes wants to be the other kind of romantic too, the seer and sage, not just naming things but naming them hermeneutically. Crow was a bird that never flew in a farmyard, and now we have ‘Prometheus on His Crag’, an all too similar cycle of 21 poems, in which Hughes’s great powers of turning the visual into the verbal disappear into a welter of ‘powerful’ imagery. Hughes seems determined to escape from the limitations of what might seem to him his own too accurate gaze, but in the concluding cycle called ‘Earth-Numb’ he is back on form, looking at a young German on the quay at Torquay who speaks

a few words
That sounded like English so lordly
It was incomprehensible.

In ‘Old age gets up’ he gives us just that; in ‘Buzz in the Window’ a prolonged, hypnotically compelling glimpse of a spider-and-fly encounter; in ‘Knock at the Door’, a meths-drinker comes to call.

Such a poem has a sort of hidden despair in it, which is not connected with its subject, but with the way its subject has to be presented in this kind of poetry. Bang-click, the product is there. Blake would have distrusted the penetrating single vision of Hughes, as much as his power over the vegetable universe. Wordsworth’s beggars in their various ways admonish us from another world, and though we may not consciously believe in such a world, or its admonishments, Wordsworth’s poems make us do so for their own purposes and in their own ways: they suspend our disbelief in that otherness. In Hughes, there is nothing to do but to see, and then to turn away. It is not surprising that he wants so much to construct a metaphysical world, but it is not one which most readers can believe in, word-wise, or take much interest in: better to turn back to the all too recognisable world of the M5 Restaurant, which has yet never been seen so horribly or so exactly before, with its ‘symbolic food eaten by symbolic faces’, its ‘symbolic eating movements’.

Thom Gunn, too, has a poem about a meths-drinking hobo, which is moving, and as finished in its own way as the poem by Hughes. The finished quality in Gunn’s case is that of its being more obviously a poem, an effective object in print – not a reaction that occurs to one à propos of Hughes. Thom Gunn’s accomplishment seems in a sense to go against his attitudes, more particularly that indicated at the start of the poem called ‘Autobiography’ in Jack Straw’s Castle:

The sniff of the real, that’s
what I’d want to get…

And he sets out courageously to get it in poems of supple and traditional elaboration, often conventionally rhymed. Get it he does too, insofar as such a thing exists. ‘Autobiography’ is an admirable poem, and so are many others in Jack Straw’s Castle, Gunn’s most recent collection. Gunn seems to be on the whole an underrated poet, partly because he has a style of impact and resource different from that of Hughes, with whom he was often compared, and partly because both had the air of inhabiting a sort of Black Leather Gauntlet Country whose stylised popularity soon became passé. Reality is not guaranteed by invoking violence. But in fact Gunn can be seen in this selection to have possessed the developmental powers of a coherent and determined poet. From Fighting Terms and The Sense of Movement to the later collections, in particular Touch and Jack Straw’s Castle, a purposeful line, and a surprisingly independent one, can now be seen to have been followed. ‘Misanthropos’ is a remarkable poem and one that repays rereading. ‘No speech from the scaffold’ is a little masterpiece. Gunn’s weakness is that words and rhymes never seem quite unaware of themselves and of the direction they are required to take, but this in itself can have its own kind of effectiveness: Gunn is in his way quite as original a poet as Hughes. It is worth comparing ‘Yoko’, in Jack Straw’s Castle, an excellent poem about a dog, a black labrador, with Hughes’s poems about creatures, on the farm and off it.

Poetry is such a big, disparate thing: so satisfactory that it should be. W.S. Graham’s poems are wholly different in every way from those of Hughes and Gunn, but they are no less authentically poems. Graham is a ‘maker’ in the good old-fashioned sense, and also in a specifically Scottish sense: Dunbar and Henryson would have understood exactly what he was trying to do and approved it. Poetry for Hughes, and in some degree for Gunn as well, must contain a kind of boost, a cerebral alcohol. Their image of it and of themselves – and it is an image which can strike us as tiresomely voulu – is of a danger area in which they have elected to live, a no-man’s-land of the naive and reflective in which the poet leads a tense and wary existence, alert for the sudden ambush that floods his consciousness with adrenalin: indeed, Hughes has more than once expressed a longing for the kind of poetry which he feels can only be produced in and for an extreme situation – for instance, when machine-gun bullets are flying round one’s head. But this is frightening oneself in a somewhat artificial and specious sense. The real danger lies elsewhere: Hölderlin called poetry the most innocent of pastimes, but for him it was also the most dangerous of necessities, and for the great Romantic poets the two were never far apart.

Whether false or true, however, such dangers do not concern a maker like Graham. He apprenticed himself early on to the craft of poetry, becoming at the same time an engineer by profession, and he has continued to explore the work of words systematically and with a rewarded persistence. Dylan Thomas was an obvious influence on the early poems in this collected volume, but as a new technique the craftsman could make use of, not as a manner to be involuntarily enclosed by. Like his cultural predecessors, and in the same spirit, Graham has tried out all the traditional forms and modes: the love poem, the meditation, the poem of friendship, the argument and the anecdote. For him, poetry seems an essential part of social and civilised intercourse, to be practised and discussed among friends, and he does this in a manner more in the regional tradition than in that of coteries and saloon bars. But he is not a regional poet, any more than Thomas was, and he has something of Thomas’s attitude to the language of the ‘craft and sullen art’:

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive. I want to be able to speak
And sing and make my soul occur

In front of the best and be respected
For that and even be understood
By the ones I like who are dead.

This comes from the 1977 collection, Implements in their Places. In the title poem (a revealing title), Graham uses the kinds of deadpan verbal accuracy which had become fashionable, but with his own individual touch. A poet on his way to a party

                     wondered who would be there
Worthy of being his true self to.

A girl there

          babys her eyes and sends her gaze
Widening to wander through
The sipping archipelagoes
Of frantic islands.

Graham’s eclectic techniques and sense of continuity in a national tradition help him to sound timeless when he wants to. His little anecdotes like ‘The Murdered Drinker’ are masterly, invoking as they do the narrative spirit of Scott and Stevenson as well as Hardy (and Hardy learnt much from Scott):

To set the scene. The night
Wind is rushing the moon
Across the winter road.
A mile away a farm
Blinks its oily eye.

There may be a certain self-indulgence, at the end of so brief a poem, in the repetition of that first stanza, with its magical epithet for the light at the farm. But it is the kind a good craftsman can get away with, especially as the repetition and the ritual, almost Scaldic invocation – ‘To set the scene’ – is used in the other two anecdotes of this kind, both of which are equally memorable. Graham is certainly a master maker, one of a kind which poetry always needs and many generations do not get.