Friday, November 13, 2009

I've spent some time this week with the poetry of Ted Hughes--specifically, several poems from his collection Moortown Diary, written in the early to mid-1970s and set in what I assume is rural Yorkshire. They are, as the title suggests, "factual" poems: that is, they work to capture a specific scene as completely and realistically as possible. This is not always Hughes's approach; he wrote an entire collection around a totemic character named Crow, and throughout his career he was seduced by mythical-mystical themes. Yet he he was just as often seduced by the physical world, particularly farm life, and those are the poems I like best. Perhaps they aren't better than than the mystical ones, but they speak to me personally. And frankly, isn't that why most people love the literature they love?

Hayden Carruth also wrote persistently and eloquently about rural life, but his poems are quite different from Hughes's. What I notice in particular is the way each poet used sound. The music in Carruth's poems are line-based: at least to my ear, the metrical rise and fall of each line are more important that the sounds of individual words. Here are a couple of examples. You might try reading them out loud; then maybe you'll see what I mean.

from The Sociology of Toyotas and Jade Chrysanthemums

Listen here, sistren and brethren, I am goddamn tired
of hearing you tell me how them poor folk especially
black, have always got a Cadillac parked in the front
yard, along with the flux of faded plastic and tin.

from Loneliness: An Outburst of Hexasyllables

At home the fire has died,
the stove is cold, I touch
the estranging metal.
I pour tea, cold and dark,
in a cup. The clock strikes,
but I forget, until
too late, to count the hours.
I sit by the cold stove
in a stillness broken
by the clock ticking there
in the other room, by
clapboards creaking, and I
begin to shiver, cold
at home in my own house.

Hughes, on the other hand, was all about the words themselves, which shine like hard stones. They seem to take over the line, the tale; they become larger, more vivid than the tale. "Ravens," for instance, tells the story of a man and a small child, who walk out into a field to look at the newborn lambs and discover a dead lamb half-eaten by ravens. The poem is detailed and linear; the narrative is easy to understand. Yet what matters, in the end, is the word choice. Almost the images seem to become the words rather than vice versa. Here are a few snatches, first from "Ravens" and then from another poem in the collection, "Rain."

from Ravens

A raven bundled itself into air from midfield
And slid away under hard glistenings, low and guilty.

* * *
                                       . . . And there is another,
Just born, all black, splaying its tripod, inching its new points
Towards its mother, and testing the note
It finds in its mouth. But you have eyes now
Only for the tattered bundle of throwaway lamb.
"Did it cry?" you keep asking, in a three-year-old field-wide
Piercing persistence. "Oh yes" I say "it cried.

from Rain

Toads hop across rain-hammered roads. Every mutilated leaf there
Looks like a frog or a rained-out mouse. Cattle
Wait under blackened backs. We drive post-holes.

* * *
                                                              . . . Cows roar
Then hang their noses to the mud.
Snipe go over, invisible in the dusk,
With their squelching cries.

I'm thinking that Hughes's diction and Carruth's music are what make me feel so glum about the Jourdain poem I posted yesterday, with its sickly push-button meter and timid word choice. Milly did do better in other poems, but she was never a great artist. Meanwhile, Carruth and Hughes: yes, both of them were artists, and sometimes I think recklessness is the dividing line between decent work and stunning work. These men jumped off the cliff. They fucked up their lives and everyone else's too. But they also wrote the poems.

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