Ted Hughes

Where all sounds count

I start the new year enjoying the sound of poems (always in tandem with thinking about how they look on the page, of course), how they enter ear and brain through being spoken and received. This consideration of the music of words comes from a pleasant conflation of events – my recent performances of Formerly with musician Douglas Benford; a great evening with the visiting American poet DA Powell (with equally terrific turns from Amy Key and John McCullough); a fabulous reading in Dorset, participating with fellow poets Tim Cumming, Annie Freud and Bethany Pope; and my attendance at last night’s TS Eliot Prize event. These readings and performances have coincided with a recording session of my first workshop as MP3 download: watch this space for more on that in the next few weeks.

Listening to other poets read their work is always a valuable experience – there are issues of pace and voice and cadence that can only be understood by hearing a poem in its composer’s voice. I was thinking of that the last time I heard Paul Muldoon – I find his work is best read aloud to get the extraordinary richness of his word play, but my flat American vowels can never quite do justice to his Irish lilt. We are lucky to have resources such as the Poetry Archive, which brings together recordings of some of the best living poets, but also those who are no longer with us. I regret never seeing Ted Hughes read his work, but his poems come to life for me in being able to hear him.


Someone asked me if performing with Douglas, who has created an urban soundscape for the Formerly poems, alters the way I read. Invariably, Douglas’s rhythms change my own, and I find myself falling into the patterns of the soundtrack, but the soundtrack has also been created from listening to the poems, so the two complement each other.


I’m sure working with him has made me bolder as a performer; I think of people like Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson who are constantly working in the space between music and words – I wish I were as amazing as either one of them, but they are certainly inspirational in showing me how it can be done. Then there are those extraordinary poets such as Paul Dutton, for whom the boundary between music and word merges, and an orchestra can be created from a human mouth.


Over the years, I’ve given much thought to how to present poems to an audience. A live reading is inevitably a very different experience than reading from a book or composing, as both of those are intimate and largely silent (although, as I’ve said above, sometimes speaking poems aloud helps me hear and comprehend, both in reading the work of others and composing my own). An audience is a dynamic structure, sometimes responding back to what a poet gives them; there’s such a thing as a poetry hum or sigh, which an audience emits if a poem pleases them. The beats many years ago used to click or snap their fingers, and sometimes if a poem is a real show-stopper, a round of applause is in order (although I feel poetry readings are like classical concerts, and it never feels quite right to me to applaud between poems!). There is also the vexed question as to whether poets should provide a bit of talk or banter or explanation between poems. As long as it doesn’t overpower or interrupt the actual work, I like it when a poet ‘talks’ to the audience. As a writer, I have always thought that I am a split personality – my writing isn’t necessarily like my speaking, and the way I order my words is a different experience than the way I tell a story when I’m just talking casually. Talking between poems is a way of connecting, a way of introducing not just the poems by oneself to an audience, and so an integral part of a reading, just as choosing what poems to read for each occasion (and selecting a pair of earrings of course. The American poet Tess Gallagher once said to me that it is crucial to wear ‘statement’ jewellery when doing a reading – I think she was wearing a stunning Native American necklace of silver and turquoise at the time – so that the audience has something to look at apart from face and book).

I often wonder if the reading the finalists give the night before has any bearing on the results of the Eliot prize. There were some fine readings last night (and a few jokes between poems too), so I’ll be interested to see what the result is when they award the prize this evening.

Picture is from Janet Cardiff’s installation Forty Part Motet.

In praise of dragonflies

Exactly a year ago I started this blog with a piece in praise of crows, which mentioned that greatest of crow-poets, Ted Hughes. So today, in celebration of the Invective anniversary, I give you dragonflies, and Hughes again. On a walk over Blaxhall Common this morning, I encountered (along with my fellow poets Anne Berkeley and Sue Rose, who took the picture) this fine male Emperor, Anax imperator. Sometimes a thing is so perfect, so beautiful in itself that you don’t need to write about it; it’s just there, making a simple walk significant. And you couldn’t do better than this poem, which is all about the issues of trying to capture nature in art (but Hughes manages to nail it, of course):


How To Paint A Water Lily

A green level of lily leaves
Roofs the pond’s chamber and paves

The flies’ furious arena: study
These, the two minds of this lady.

First observe the air’s dragonfly
That eats meat, that bullets by

Or stands in space to take aim;
Others as dangerous comb the hum

Under the trees. There are battle-shouts
And death-cries everywhere hereabouts

But inaudible, so the eyes praise
To see the colours of these flies

Rainbow their arcs, spark, or settle
Cooling like beads of molten metal

Through the spectrum. Think what worse
is the pond-bed’s matter of course;

Prehistoric bedragoned times
Crawl that darkness with Latin names,

Have evolved no improvements there,
Jaws for heads, the set stare,

Ignorant of age as of hour—
Now paint the long-necked lily-flower

Which, deep in both worlds, can be still
As a painting, trembling hardly at all

Though the dragonfly alight,
Whatever horror nudge her root.


Nature cure

Nearly two weeks out of London, and the countryside is beginning to have an effect on me.  I move more slowly, I notice birdsong and wildflowers more acutely, perhaps because there are fewer distractions imposed by other humans. It is restorative. But I could never give up London entirely. It is too quiet here, and once you have lived in a city for a long time you require a certain amount of noise and activity.  I will never be a country person, or for that matter, a pastoral poet. In a previous post, I came to the conclusion that I am an urban poet, perhaps by default, as I am uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with nature al la Alice Oswald or Ted Hughes. It is not who I am, not what I know. It seems easier to speak of the built environment, things created by humans for humans. The natural world is largely alien to me. Harriet Tarlo, the editor of the recent The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Nature Poetry has mentioned ‘the complexity of the relationship between writer, land and language.’ And Richard Mabey poses the question: ‘Isn’t a life of words the very antithesis of a life of nature?’

In Suffolk, the desire to describe every aspect of the landscape is overwhelming, because everything is visible at once. You can see a field in front of you, and the field beyond, and the field beyond that, stretching to the horizon. The sky is enormous and dramatic at all times, in all weathers. The curlew’s mournful cry, which I had never heard before I started coming here, is the sound I most equate with this part of the world.

So is there hope for me as a born-again pastoral poet? Possibly. Little sprigs of flowers and migrating birds are creeping into my poems. They will never completely replace the landscape of concrete and asphalt, but they mean something, they have a purpose. I am not entirely sure what it is yet, what metaphors they carry, apart from the obvious ones of beauty and tranquillity. I don’t really do “beauty” in my poems, not in the conventional sense, so I am waiting to see if new themes emerge from breathing in all this pure country air.

In the meantime, little pink frills of thrift and white spikes of saxifrage have appeared in the garden. At the very least, it must be Spring.

The image is a painting of Butley Creek by Kate Giles



A walk round Metfield in Suffolk and its neighbouring farms. Hedgerows heavy with sloes, wild bullaces, and the last blackberries. But we were there to taste apples. Russet and Pippin and Spartan, but more unusual varieties too: Orange Goff, Orleans Reinette, Flower of Kent. Biting into my first Orange Goff, named not only for its colour but for its citrusy tang, I remembered Tacita Dean’s incredibly moving and beautiful film of the late Michael Hamburger and his orchard in Middleton (like a scene from Vermeer come to life) and WG Sebald’s description of ‘a few dozen diminutive crimson apples on the sill of [his] window darkened by the yew tree outside’. And these lines from Ted Hughes, Hamburger’s great friend and fellow apple lover: 'Through all the orchard’s boughs / A honey-colour stillness, a hurrying stealth, / A quiet migration of all that can escape now.’



In praise of crows

Littérateurs will have already spotted that the name of this blog is stolen from the great American poet Wallace Stevens. In his poem ‘Invective Against Swans’, Stevens has a dig at those lovely birds, bringing them down a peg by calling them 'ganders’ (which are actually male geese), dismissing their 'bland motions’. I suspect Stevens had no serious gripe against swans; nor do I. They are decorative, they transform a landscape into a painting, they make me hum Tchaikovsky to myself. But stick them into a poem, specifically a contemporary poem, and they become a metaphor for all that is trite and precious. And that’s Stevens’ beef, all those 'white feathers’ and 'chilly chariots’. There he was, facing a newish century, a brave new world that had shaken itself out of a war; a new poet trying to find a new way of saying things. He is railing against the grandiose, the clichéd, the humourless. Never one to miss a joke: 'gander’ is also colloquial in boon dock Florida for 'a quick glance’, as in 'get a gander of that’; also colloquial for the village simpleton, as idiotic as a goose. And as we’re talking specifically about a 'male goose’, could the poet be referring back to himself, possibly to all his fellow bards (how close that is to 'birds’!) as well?

Anyhow, enough of a gander at ganders. I write in praise of crows. Stevens liked crows, you can tell. They get the best line in the poem, the greatest honour: 'the crows anoint the statues with their dirt’. A swan is only graceful when it’s gliding on water; on land, it’s a clumsy, big-footed lug. But there’s something honest about a crow, it has a certain butch integrity. Think of Hughes’ King of Carrion in his palace of skulls, the Twa Corbies of the ballad, Poe’s harbinger of death (ok, so he’s a raven, but that’s really just a big crow). The crow seems a more appropriate metaphor for our world at the beginning of this newish century: a bird that can be seen to represent doom, but is also intelligent, resourceful; a bird that resides and thrives in both countryside and urban centres; a bird that is beautiful, albeit in a beleaguered way.

So poets, here is your brief: less swan, more crow.

And I haven’t even touched upon the blackbird …