Critics, poets and the common reader (PartTwo)

This being the second part of my appreciation of Yvonne Reddick’s Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet.

Ted Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? 

There’s a very useful and concise summary at the end of Chapter 2, which begins

Ecopoetry, then, is a poetry of habitat; it explores our relationship to the environments and ecologies that surround us, the alterations we have made to them, and our imbrication within their system. It can no longer present the supposedly untouched landscapes of earlier nature poetry.

What hooks me is that notion of our imbrication within their system. I read this through a particular refracting lens. My habitat is a landscape that I see through the lenses of what I’ve read, the images I see, the physical familiar world I move through. In turn, that becomes the lens through which I read any poet of place, any ‘topological ‘poet.

Where I grew up there was a mill at the bottom of the street and a farm at the top. A quarter of a mile up the road were acres of municipal park woodlands. Beyond that, an open-cast valley, more woodlands, brickworks, some working pits. In the valley where I live now, not far away from where I was born, is polluted river, a canal, a railway (think : The Rainbow).  There are defunct mills,a defunct marshalling yard. No one can build on the field beyond my back garden because it has pitshafts in it. There’s an even older pitshaft under my neighbour’s house. And so on. Everything formerly ‘organic’ has been managed, enclosed, changed, even the river itself. I live on the edge of a coalfield where the 19thcentury houses are on the boundary between stone and brick. My horizon is the skyline of high moorland from Holme Moss to Oxenhope. This is the lens through which I read the poems of Remains of Elmet, through which I imagine the landscape of the Wodo’s wanderings, the corroded dystopian landscape of Crow, and through which I see foxes, thrushes, pike, hawks.

And then there are the voices of other poets of place: Nicholson, McCaig, Hill, McLean, and also the poets and writers of the edgelands: Lawrence, Steve Ely. The painters of place, too: Len Tabner, Peter Hicks, Peter Lanyon, Norman Ackroyd . I sometimes wonder what kind of implied writer and implied worlds I’d ‘read’ if I’d grown up in a big industrial city..Manchester, say, or out in the flatlands of the East Riding, or the Fens.

And there, I suppose, is where literary criticism and scholarship comes in, to help us see differently, to ask us to consider looking through different lenses. Which brings me finally to Yvonne Reddick’s book, the scope and sheer knowledgeability of which makes it difficult for me to do it justice. It’s so packed I found it helpful to think of it a collectionof books, each of which could be read in their own right. 

In her introduction she is clear that the she will focus more closely on Hughes as a public figure than on his personal life. She aims to explore the environmental and ecopoetic richness of Hughes’ work, and to also pay attention to the intersection of environmental preoccupations with other themes. She argues that one of the main reasons he became an environmentalist was to restore mankind’s broken relationship with “the source”. In that Hughes sought to restore this disrupted relationship via writing as well as environmental campaigns, it is ecocriticism, ecopoetry and his idea of ‘nature, that will be explored in order to find out how he did this.

The first chapter proper (or book, if you like) Hughes, Ecocriticism and Ecopoetry is a tour d’horizon that takes the reader on a guided exploration of the thickets of the ecocriticism of Hughes’ poetry. Given the density of the terrain it’s a credit to the clarity of Reddick’s prose that it always seems like a manageable journey. Beginning with an exploration of Hughes’ developing concepts of ‘nature, and of what we may mean by the meanings and oppositions of the human, the animal and the ‘mechanical’, she goes on to curate/summarise the categories and sub-categories of the ecocriticism world. It’s a complex, imbricated world, but through a dense range of citations and references, there’s an assured voice that keeps the reader on track. Each shift to a new topic is signalled by capitalised subheadings. It’s a note-maker’s dream, and literature students, as one, will give heartfelt thanks.

Subsequently, the book follows a chronological course through Hughes’ development as an ecopoet (and subsequently, as a public ‘activist’); it was this that I found particularly helpful, having the reassurace of a quasi narrative. I know where I am with a story. The next chapter, which deals with Hughes early life in Mytholmroyd and Mexborough (drawing especially on recent work by Steve Ely), and the next two, on Hughes’ ‘green’ literary influences were the ones I found most satisfying, the ones that illuminated the work in new and intriguing ways. I don’t necessarily agree with Reddick about the relative forces of authenticity and myth, but it was good to be reminded of his working in a tradition that included Wordsworth, Blake, Yeats, Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, as well as the influence of his reading of Jung, and of Graves’ The white goddess. It’s particularly interesting to be shown how poets he was drawn to as an undergraduate at Cambridge influence the technical elements of his verse as well as their concerns.

Chapter 5, on ‘Animal agency, America and early environmental views’, is a welcome reminder of Hughes and Plath’s setting off for the USA in 1957, and that Hughes was anything but parochial in his reading and thinking. It also explores his fascination with native Americans, with the shaman and the animal, and his uncompromising assertion that if you are chosen ‘you must shamanize or die’. The density of this chapter defies summary, but it throws an interesting light on the genesis of The thought fox, and on the apparent preoccupation with violence in the animal poems of Lupercal. I relished the beautifully contextualized readings of Hughes’ passionate realisations of the jaguar and macaw, the otter and pike, and the hawk roostingAnd one thing that shone out, even though it’s only mentioned briefly. Lupercal , Reddick reminds us, is focussed on hunger. And she highlights something from a draft of the Birthday Letters where Hughes refers to an ‘ever-hungry childhood’. I hang on to that when I come to the later chapters exploring the conflicting moralities of farming, hunting and fishing. I’m 76, and even at this age, I was in the first generation of British children not to be hungry. Friends of mine, the same age as Hughes, were children between the wars, and remember the hunger. And I think that’s something well-fed critics need to keep in mind when then getting in a moralising stew about Hughes’ ‘inconsistent’ attitudes to hunting. This, for me , is the most engaging chapter; 40 deftly-marshalled pages of close and contextualised reading of the the early ‘animal’ poems and those in the aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s death…engaged readings of the poems for ‘what is there’ rather than for ‘what fits this or that thesis’. Amongst other things it will teach literature students a thing or two about being a reader.      

Chapter 6 places a reading of Crow in the context of the emergence of the environmental movement, via The silent spring, into environmental activism and Hughes’ growing role as a public/polemic theorist….though my interest was caught mainly by the character of the trickster Crow in his post-apocalyptic and degraded landscape, whilst Chapter 7, in its focus on Hughes the farmer, provides a context for readings of Moortown, Season Songs, and, to a lesser extent What is the truth?. Chapter 8 does a similarly efficient job with River(which I’ve never managed to properly engage with) and Hughes’ imbricated relationship with the art and ethics of fishing in the context of the pollution of rivers throughout the world.

The final three chapters explore in careful detail the poet’s increasingly public and ‘political’ involvement in green/environmental issues, in hunting, in conservation, and are evidently informed by scrupulous research of a recently released and substantial body of articles and correspondence in the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. Which is the point at which ‘the common reader’…me, that is…became less involved, less careful about the reading. Reading comprehension and reading purpose have to work together. All I’d say is that any student- reader engaged with the politics of environmental conservation, the human relationship with the natural and animal world, and where the artist’s notional responsibilities may lie, will almost certainlyfind this as elegantly informed as I found the readings of the poems.

I suppose that in any evaluation of any book there will be a but. For me, it’s the fact that, even within its own strictly defined terms of reference, it seem to brush over Ted Hughes’ passionate commitment to education. It was a substantial and significant part of his life. As Melvyn Bragg wrote: in seeking out the ancient ley lines of thought and feeling…Hughes found much of this in children

For a decade or more he was the champion of the The Daily Mirror’s ‘Children as writers’ annual competition (one of the offshoots of which was Jill Pirrie’s On common ground ….now, like so many good things, out of print). I hunted through the index and citations for references to Hughes’ seminal 1970’s lecture Myth and education , a text which, like Poetry in the Making, had a profound effect on my teaching. Another part of my imbricated self; how many of us young teachers (as we were, then) were taught by these texts how we should read and teach poetry? There’s a passage in the lecture which seems central to understanding his core concerns as a poet.

Our educational system differs from what Plato would have called wisdom. Our school syllabus of course is one outcome of three hundred years of rational enlightenment, which had begun by questioning superstitions and ended by prohibiting imagination itself as a reliable mental faculty, branding it more or less as a criminal in a scientific society, reducing the Bible to a bundle of old woman’s tales, finally murdering God. And what this has ended in is a completely passive attitude of apathy in face of material facts. The scientific attitude, which is the crystallization of the rational attitude, has to be passive in face of the facts if it is to record the facts accurately. The scientist has to be a mirror first. He has to be a mirror second too, because the slightest imaginative bias in his presentation of the facts invalidates his findings and reflects badly on his standing as a scientist. And such is the prestige of the scientific style of mind that this passivity in the face of the facts, this detached, inwardly inert objectivity, has become the prevailing mental attitude of our time. It is taught in schools as an ideal. The result is something resembling mental paralysis. It can be seen in every corner of our life. It shows for instance in the passion for photography. Photography is a method of making a dead accurate image of the world without any act of imagination, and the ultimate morality of that was shown in an article I saw a few years ago in an American magazine. This article consisted of a number of photographs of a tiger mauling a woman. The photographs were taken at very close range. The story was that the tiger was really a tame tiger owned by the woman. The photographer wanted to take snaps of her and her tiger. Whether it was the presence of the photographer or his camera or what, the tiger suddenly turned savage and attacked its owner. It didn’t merely attack her – it pulled her down and began to maul her seriously. Meanwhile what was that perfected product of the scientific attitude doing?

The answer is that the photographer went on taking photographs. You can argue about Hughes’ take on photography…I can’t imagine Fay Godwin taking that lying down…but you can hardly argue with his passionate defence of the imagination in the health of the psyche and in our relationship with the ambient universe. It’s a piece of polemic that made me want to learn to read the great myths, the stories that answer the question why?while the scientist answers the question how?  It was this lecture which sent me to the stories that enchant us into a powerfully privileged sense of why we are human, the blurred distinctions between the divine, the human and the animal. 

I was also intrigued as I read Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoetto suddenly think about how relatively few people there are in the poems….think of Causley, Larkin, Fanthorpe whose poems are crammed with people, with individuals. It’s not that Hughes poetry isn’t populated. It’s full of voices and ,for a better word, characters. But how many of them are ‘mythic’? That’s worth thinking about. 

But. There’s room in the world for a book about Ted Hughes as an eco-poet teacher and educator, one which that does justice to books he wrote for children, the ones like Season songs and What is the truth? in particular, and the light they shine on the wider work. It occurs to me that I can’t think of anyone better to write it better than Yvonne Reddick.She’d bring to it the qualities she brings to this one, qualities beautifully summarised in this endorsement:

It is very thoroughly researched, lucidly written and critically acute. An important merit is that is examines each stage of Hughes’s career in historical context, thus avoiding anachronistic retrospective criticism. Perhaps the most important change it makes to our understanding of Hughes is that he emerges as a public intellectual, rather than the reclusive poet of popular perception.’ (Neil Roberts, Emeritus Professor, Sheffield University, UK)

Well, it’s taken me an unconscionably long time to write this. I’m glad I have. I’m glad it’s finished. I won’t need the book any more, so here’s the deal. I’m putting it on ebay. Any money that I get for it will go the Caris Camden project that provides night shelter for rough sleepers. 

Stop Press: It went for a tenner.

2 thoughts on “Critics, poets and the common reader (PartTwo)

  1. John – It’s reading stuff like this that makes me realise how lacking in knowledge I am and what a superficial life I lead! Mine’s always been a “let’s just look at the words on the page” kind of appreciation. Thank heavens for scholarship in others! But I won’t be buying the book, I’m afraid……. Jean x


  2. Now I’ve looked up ‘imbricated’ I can say I’ve read with interest. Your reading of Hughes in the context of children being hungry, his liking for hunting, and his eco-thinking particularly struck home with me. The same kind of arguments are pertinent when commenting on attitudes of ‘other’ people – who might need the food provided by an endangered species. As usual, John, you’ve got me thinking … thanks.


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