If you walk regularly in Yorkshire, you will eventually climb Ingleborough. It sits on the horizon colossal and truculent and it throws down its challenge to you, completely uninterested in whether you wish to take it up. But if you don’t at some point, then you haven’t truly walked in Yorkshire. So it is with writing about Yorkshire and the poetry of Ted Hughes: it is inevitable that at some point you will have to engage with it, try and pin it down and at least reach an accommodation with it. You won’t be able to avoid it and you won’t best it, but you might be able to live alongside it.
I have a troubled relationship with Hughes – and I suspect I am not alone in this. His was the modern poetry we were made to study at school and I did not like it – to this day I find little of interest in Pike, except the line “killers from the egg”. There is an argument here that we were all too young to ‘get it’ – and that has some validity. Nowadays he falls squarely into the middle of that argument about separating the art from the artist, and can we? I’m too tired to go down that path right now. I also find the attempts to shoe-horn some kind of shamanistic / animal-spirit side into his writing to be mainly bogus. So, what am I left with?
A brilliant – in my reading, unsurpassed – ability to capture the wildlife, the land and towns of Northern England. Not to mention the weather. He writes of where I grew up and he has it down to a “T”. Some of the most poetic and honest evocations of Yorkshire are to be found in his work.
As most know, this collection has an alternate version, decorated with, informed by, inspired by a series of wonderful black and white photographs by Fay Godwin. That collection is worth a separate review of its own – one day maybe. The collection I’m looking at here is the version without the photos, hence everything falls on Hughes’ poetry. And it carries that weight effortlessly. It contains some of my favourite Hughes poems: Widdop, Heptonstall Old Church (used to terrifying effect at the start of the 2014 film ‘Catch me Daddy’), The Sluttiest Sheep in England, Football at Slack and the sublime Light Falls Through Itself.
Widdop: “Where there was nothing / Somebody put a frightened lake.”
Heptonstall Old Church: “A great bird landed here // Its song drew men out of rock / Living men out of bog and heather // Its song put a light in the valleys / And harness on the long moors.”
The Sluttiest Sheep in England: “This god-of-what-nobody-wants / In his magnetic heaven / Has sent his angels to stare at you / In the likeness of beggars.”
Football at Slack: “Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill / Men in bunting colours / Bounced…“
Light Falls Through Itself: “Wind without hindrance / Blows on the threadbare light / And through it. // Light creeps in grass /“
These tight dark valleys, with their crooked tumbling becks, the heroic walls of monotheistic endeavour , the people capable of such grudging lunacy and determination, and their blighted livestock are here in all their glory. Maybe you have to be from here to love it: I do think you need to be from here, or to have lived here long enough, to write it or paint it. It is lyrical without being oleaginous, blunt and sometimes brutal. This poetry is weather-beaten, it is dragged across vast bleak moorland until it is found pressed against a ruined sheepfold gazing into the empty eye-sockets of an animal skull. It has a heartbeat and so, it has blood. It is alive. To my mind, this writing shares blood with the Brontes at their best.
He was also doing something wonderful in making ‘nature’ poetry abrupt and feral. Returning it to the wild. He put words together that were not always comfortable or accepted as a good fit. Making beauty out of “slutty sheep“, “Lorries from Rochdale…Lorries from Bradford“, “slovenly bracken“, “…the acid rain fall-out / from Manchester’s rotten lung” is no easy thing. And he did it so well – he pissed in all the corners – that it makes writing of this place and of these people with enough originality to be interesting, quite a challenge.
Show me three lines that capture the human cost of the Industrial Revolution better than these from the title poem: “The sunk mill-towns were cemeteries / Digesting utterly / All with whom they swelled.“
This is the book of Hughes’ poetry that I go back to time and again. As the immortal John Peel said of something else entirely, there is nothing you could add to this or take away from this, that would improve it. With poems that open like When Men Got to the Summit does, I don’t need to explain any further:
“Light words forsook them / They filled with heavy silence“
I was going to close this review by reproducing the title poem, but then I made the mistake of re-reading some of the others and being stunned again, by a different poem. So instead I’m closing with that:
What calloused speech rubbed its edges / Soft and hard again and soft / Again fitting these syllables
To the long swell of land, in the long / Press of weather? Eyes that closed / To gaze at grass-points and gritty-chippings
Spines that wore into a bowed / Enslavement, the small freedom of raising / Endless memorials to the labour
Buried in them. Faces / Lifted at the day’s end / Like the palms of the hands
To cool in the slow fire of sleep. / A slow fire of wind / Has erased their bodies and names.
Their lives went into the enclosures / Like manure. Embraced these slopes / Like summer cloud-shadows. Left
This harvest of long cemeteries.