When I was at primary school I won second prize in a citywide poetry competition. I was just as puzzled then as I am now by the question of what makes poetry work, and I remember being utterly perplexed as to why my poem might have done well (our whole class had had our poems entered).
Anyway, the prize was book tokens, and my teacher, Mrs McConlough, took me to a bookshop to help me choose a couple of books of poetry. I don’t actually remember having much say in the matter, but I came home with – strange choice for a ten-year-old? – two books of poetry by Ted Hughes. Admittedly it was two of his ‘nature’ collections – Flowers and Insects and River – but I remember both confusing me heartily.
So Dart was the first contemporary poetry I bought after that, I’m pretty sure, and last week’s Crow was the first Ted Hughes I’ve read since then, apart from the odd anthologised piece here and there, and a bit of Birthday Letters. It’s probably his best-known collection, and it’s pretty full on.
The poems were written between 1967 and 1973 (the edition I have includes some pieces not in the original 1970 edition), and, much more than any of the other collections I’ve read so far this year, it’s very much a sequence of poems. But it wasn’t until I read Kevin Hart in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry that I found out that the subtitle, ‘From the Life and Songs of the Crow’, is a clue to the fact that the poems are apparently part of a much bigger whole – an ‘epic folk tale’, written in prose narrative, punctuated with lyrics. Hughes never wrote this narrative, so all we have, along with the poems themselves, is what Hughes said and wrote about it. In his chapter in The Cambridge Companion Hart summarises the larger story as sketched out (presumably) by Hughes.
It certainly adds a fascinating edge to the collection, although I don’t think you need to know that the poems were written to be part of something larger, or know the story, to appreciate it. The character Crow certainly asserts himself as a trickster in a skewed world, without the ‘quest-romance’ that the narrative would have provided. Read as is, it’s satire, grim comedy – contesting creation myths and giving a particularly dark take on relations between men and women.
Even more interestingly, Hughes himself wrote that he wanted to write ‘songs with no music whatsoever, in a super-simple and super-ugly language’. He certainly succeeded. Hart writes that ‘the poems efface themselves as poems in order to give the impression of anonymous legend or myth’, and that ‘the poetic yield is certainly thin’. So, one of the best-known collections of poetry but a former poet laureate, and arguably one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, and we have to confess that it’s unpoetic… it seems rather apt, given Crow’s character and the tone of the book.
It is a very dark, very ugly, disturbingly comic collection. I’m sure I’ve read a few of the poems before, though I’m not sure when or where. Favourites, if you could call them that, included ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, ‘A Childish Prank’, ‘A Grin’, ‘Conjuring in Heaven’, ‘Dawn’s Rose’, ‘The Smile’ and ‘Crow on the Beach’, which made me wonder if it was Hughes’ response to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ –
Hearing shingle explode, seeing it skip,
Crow sucked his tongue.
Seeing sea-grey mash a mountain of itself
Crow tightened his goose-pimples.
Feeling spray from the sea’s root nothinged on his crest
Crow’s toes gripped the wet pebbles.
When the smell of the whale’s den, the gulfing of the crab’s last prayer,
Gimletted in his nostril
He grasped he was on earth.
He knew he grasped
Of the sea’s ogreish outcry and convulsion.
He knew he was the wrong listener unwanted
To understand or help –
His utmost gaping of his brain in his tiny skull
Was just enough to wonder, about the sea,
What could be hurting so much?
I forgot to mention this when I first wrote this, but I think it’s worth noting: pretty poor from Faber that there’s a typo on the inside front flap. Tut.