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The Last Ditch

Crow

by Ted Hughes
Harper & Row, 84 pp., $3.95 (paper)

No Jerusalem But This

by Samuel Menashe
October House, 88 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Briefings: Poems Small and Easy

by A.R. Ammons
Norton, 105 pp., $6.00

Uplands: New Poems

by A.R. Ammons
Norton, 68 pp., $5.00

Collected Poems

by James Wright
Wesleyan, 232 pp., $7.95

In an illuminating interview about Crow, published in The London Magazine (January, 1971), Ted Hughes, commenting on the poetry of Vasko Popa, remarks: “In a way it’s obviously a pervasive and deep feeling that civilization has now disappeared completely. If it’s still here it’s still here by grace of pure inertia and chance and if the whole thing has essentially vanished one had better have one’s spirit invested in something that will not vanish.”

Civilization—at all events, when it is talked of in this way—is a matter of consciousness. It has monuments and accretions in architecture, books, institutions, and manners: what is called the Tradition. But unless these things come alive within contemporary consciousness, they are simply the graveyard we live in, and we have no more connection with their past than we have with the corpses turned and turning to clay under the soil. The churches and the tombstones—which must not be mistaken for the spirits of the architects and sculptors under them—survive, as Ted Hughes says, “by grace of pure inertia,” the marble and stone pressing through time by sheer weight and density, or by chance, the chance that certain things have not yet been destroyed by bombs or highways.

…better have one’s spirit invested in something that will not vanish. And this is a shifting of your foundation to completely new Holy Ground, a new divinity, one that won’t be under the rubble when the churches collapse.

Whereas Eliot and Auden, although also accepting what Hughes earlier calls “the whole hopelessness of that civilization,” thought that they could nevertheless reconnect with the sacred on the Holy Ground of the Augustan Eternal City of God (which is not liable to the destruction overtaking the temporal City), Hughes rejects such faith—evidently because he sees the churches as products of the same finished-and-done-with civilization. We have therefore to find a “new divinity,” though I suppose Hughes would not claim that he has found one in Crow any more than John Berryman, presumably, would advertise his Henry as John the Baptist.

What Crow really represents is consciousness in a Last Ditch situation. He is like some new mutation—radiated and thalidomided—which grotesquely survives the concentrated fire upon its person of all the effects of atomic warfare, detergents, frozen foods, and tranquilizers. Crow is the spirit of survival incarnate. And the suggestion implicit in this is that the poet / anti-poet should be the prime example of such a survivor, whose final reductio ad absurdum aim is to verbalize a strategy against the results of war-game programming. On the jacket of Crow, A. Alvarez—the critic who is the leading advocate of anti-poetry—is quoted as writing: “With Crow, Hughes now joins the select band of survivor-poets whose work is adequate to the destructive reality we inhabit. I think he is the only British poet to have done so.”

Alvarez seems to imply that a poet has to share the attitude of the survivor-poets to be any good. This seems too sweeping and dogmatic. For a critic’s idea that a poet should have a certain attitude toward destructive reality is not a critical standard. He cannot judge that a poet’s work is inadequate if the poet does not share the attitudes of a select little band of “survivor-poets.” To say that it is inadequate is to suggest that the external reality imposes on living poets certain attitudes, approved by the critic.

It may, though, be true to say that contemporary consciousness of the surrounding destructive reality is multiple and that, in its presence, attitudes that ignore it are stupid, insensitive, or narrow. But even if the poet is conscious of it, a critic risks making bêtises if he attempts to dictate what the poet’s attitude should be. What is required is sensibility to destructive reality, not predictable attitudes which, on analysis, turn out to be reflexes conditioned by it. “In the destructive element immerse.” Yes. But having immersed a poet may be intelligent to emerge again as more than a survivor. Probably Alvarez would agree with this; but his criterion for being a survivor-poet seems to be based on immersion rather than emergence.

The exceptional sensibility of young poets to contemporary reality does provide a challenge which their contemporaries have to meet. Early on in the present century Eliot and Pound provided their contemporaries with this kind of challenge. Certain poets—for instance the Georgians, burying their heads in English haystacks—looked stupid, others looked minor, as a result of this challenge. But it did not mean that Eliot and D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams all had to have the same attitude toward the already doomed civilization. What it did mean was that to be worth considering seriously, poetry had to show awareness of the challenge of an attitude that regarded reality as destructive.

Ted Hughes provides the same kind of challenge, but he does not himself offer, or share with “a select band,” any attitude which is obligatory. What he provides is a vision of a crisis which has deepened since the early part of the century. Reviewing Crow together with other volumes, one asks oneself, “Do Ammons and Menashe and James Wright confront the same destructive reality as Hughes?” One does not ask, “Do they invent figures of survival comparable to Crow?” Ammons and Menashe do confront the same reality. With James Wright, I am not sure.

So the survivor-poet attitude is not a sine qua non for contemporary poetry. To think so is to take an altogether too provincial view of the civilization which is supposed to have “disappeared completely,” to repeat Hughes’s words. Is it not time to say that civilization—or the lack of it—is not Paris, London, Rome, New York? By this I don’t mean merely that a Chinese would consider Ted Hughes’s remarks to be symptoms of a local Western capitalist disease. I mean that the Waste Land end-of-civilization attitude is local to the Renaissance and post-Renaissance individualist tradition which, when it is confronted by gas chambers, holocausts, or too rapid and impersonal transformation by industrial processes, leads to conclusions such as that arrived at by T.W. Adorno when he wrote that after Auschwitz no more poetry could be written. The reduction of the individual to a mere social unit or ashes in a gas chamber spells destruction to the civilization whose values are based on the supreme importance of the individual. However, Renaissance individualism is not the only tradition of civilization: and the survivor who never stops reminding us that we live amid destruction and ruins is not the only alternative to it.

The New Testament Christian churches may collapse, but there is also, even within our civilization, an Old Testament civilization which takes holocaust and collapse in its stride. Thus the period which two generations of poets, from Eliot to Hughes, have only been able to grasp imaginatively in terms of “the end” seems to have had an entirely different significance for those Jewish poets who are steeped in the Old Testament tradition. In the poetry of Nellie Sachs and Abba Kovner, for example, the holocaust, while being the terrible center of their poetry, is also in some way redemptive, because it has restored to them, as Jews, the sense of belonging to a whole Jewish history punctuated with exile and destruction, and given them a new awareness of the sacred consciousness of the Jewish people, beyond their own individuality.

Samuel Menashe is a poet of entirely Jewish consciousness, though on a scale almost miniscule. He is not one of the prophets, concerned with exodus, exile, and lamentation: but he is certainly a witness to the sacredness of the nation in all circumstances—in life or in death. His poetry constantly reminds me of some kind of Biblical instrument—tabor or jubal—and the note it strikes is always positive and even joyous. His scale is, I repeat, very small, but he can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines:

In the catacomb of my mind
Where the dead endure—a kingdom
I conjure by love to rise

This from a series of poems in memory of his mother, of whose grave he writes:

Bones
Are mortar
For your walls,

Jerusalem

Dust
Upholds
Your street

To see the difference between this and the end-of-civilization view one has only to contrast his use of the word Jerusalem with Eliot’s “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Unreal.”

One might, of course, regard Samuel Menashe as a survivor. He certainly knows all about fire and brimstone and underworlds. He can write darkly—as in “Descent”:

My father drummed darkness
Through the underbrush
Until lightning struck

I take after him

He also sees, like Hughes, the necessity of “investing one’s spirit in something that will not vanish”:

The shrine whose shape I am
Has a fringe of fire
Flames skirt my skin

There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake

Nothing though could be more different from this than the survivor who is Crow:

There came news of a word.
Crow saw it killing men. He ate well.
He saw it bulldozing
Whole cities to rubble. Again he ate well.
He saw its excreta poisoning seas.
He became watchful.

By an extraordinary coincidence (because he cannot have read Crow when he wrote this), Samuel Menashe even has his answer to Crow, prophetically flickering across his pages, and making the poem he calls “Sudden Shadow”:

Crow I scorn you
Caw everywhere
You’ll not subdue
This blue air

Before leaving Samuel Menashe I will say that nothing seems more remarkable about him than that his poetry goes so little remarked. Here is a poet who compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds and no one walking through New York streets seems to wish to chalk up on a wall—among so many things they do chalk up:

Streets at night like decks
With spars overhead
Whose rigging ropes
Stars into scope

The best of writing a review is that sometimes one can persuade someone to read something. I hope, as a result of this, a lot of people will read Menashe.

At first sight A.R. Ammons seems a nature poet, and perhaps, with a difference, this is what he really is. He has the essential characteristic of the nature poet, which is to use observed pieces of nature as the reality of an organic order defending him against the reality of human disorder.

a day pours through a morning glory
dayblossom’s adequate, poised,
available centre.

The morning glory is contrasted with

elsewhere young men scratch and fire:
a troubled child shudders to a freeze
an old man bursts finally….

But, like Robert Frost, he is aware too of the evil within the natural order:

   the caterpillar pierced
by a wasp egg blooms inside with
the tender worm.

He passes the test of nature poets by doing very precise and beautiful things and by occasionally producing a line which has the effect of an explosion on the page, as in the last of these three:

   the quiet world, so
quiet, needs to cut its definitions wide
so snow can rinse across the hard lake.

The new note in his observation is his sense of the impermanence of the permanent-seeming things. At their best, his poems give the feeling of the opaque being rayed through to make it transparent, the most solid being hollowed with tunnels through which winds blow, time undermining timelessness:

nothing on the re-make or come- back: the
crest breaks, whatever side the sea’s on:
the crest bears in and out in a single
motion, not a single point un- moving:
men and women in your love- liness, I cry
nothing against the wall forever giving in.

I don’t quote these lines as his best—they seem to slump into abstraction, especially toward the end—but they do make clear what he seems to be attempting in his poetry.

James Wright is the most academic of the poets under review, beautiful in his way but, in spite of his sensibility and fine intelligence, and in spite of the fact that his poems develop and improve throughout the collected volume, he never quite breaks the sound barrier. The early ones are Frostian, though with other influences, notably Yeats. This is Frostian:

Now morbid boys have grown past awkwardness;
The girls let stitches out, dress after dress,
To free some swinging body’s riding space
And form the new child’s un- imagined face.

Then there come Spanish influences—there are some scrupulous translations from Jimenez, Neruda, Vallejo, and others, as well as from the German of Georg Trakl. The Spanish influence shows in lines such as these, to the moon:

Come down to me love and bring me
One panther of silver and one happy
Evening of snow…

The trouble about this prayer is one does not believe it could be made by an American poet unless he had been reading Spanish poetry. Toward the end of the volume there is a very fine translation, “The Pretty Redhead,” from Apollinaire, and a few poems in free verse, which seem to me the most successful and individual poems in this collection.

It will be clear to the reader that in writing this article I have Crow always at the back of my mind. This may give some idea of an impressiveness which makes me tend to compare the others with it. Crow is, as I have indicated, the personified—or crowified—situation of the survivor in a world seen as pure destruction. It is part of Hughes’s strength that whenever he chooses to confront us directly with the bird, we are entirely convinced by its crowishness. But most of the poems are about the crow situation rather than Crow himself.

Hughes has been criticized in England for his sadistic imagery, but I do not share this objection. There is a grittily personal black humor about this poet’s grim view of the world which makes the horrific comic. The voice has something in common with Orwell’s perpetual grousing, a justified looking at the worst side of things which serves the purpose of really making us see that they are extremely bad while we find the speaker rather lovable.

By using his extraordinary gifts to project a state of consciousness which sees the destruction of the world behind everything, Hughes may well be speaking for what many of his contemporaries really do feel. Some of the most terrifying (and terrifyingly funny) passages in Crow give one the sense that this is the nightmare reality behind the American or world dream of salesmanship and television:

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take.
There were screams higher groans deeper
Than any ear could hold.

That certainly seems our time bomb future planted within the smiling present (Hughes makes a lot of The Smile). The endeavor to define an attitude (Crow’s) which meets the situation is genuinely exciting, and a great deal of intelligence has gone into Hughes’s exploitation of old myths, inventions of new ones, and exploration of the whole mythmaking, word-making process.

The defect of the poem, as it seems to me, is that he tends to use the “end-of-civilization” situation—which is the contemporary one—as a metaphor for the whole of life. It is difficult to distinguish in these poems between occasions where they are about our recent history and occasions where they are about the whole of history and the very nature of human existence. There are no contrasts (as in The Waste Land) between the past of an organic community and the fragmented present. Nor would I wish there to be that kind of formulation. Yet if there is no contrasted life with the present horrific destruction, then the picture which Hughes presents is merely the blankly pessimistic view of a man who hates all of life. Because I am certain he does not hate life, I cannot help seeing the lack of some vision of eternal delight under the contemporary darkness as making his poem a partial failure on the order of James Thompson’s City of Dreadful Night or of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, in which everything in the world that is loaded against life is brought to play against chances of fulfillment and happiness.

The danger of poetry written in a monochromatic black is that it simply confronts us with fundamental truisms such as “Life is death” or “Life is Hell.”

Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched- looking face? Death.

Well, although this “Examination at the Womb-Door” is saved by the detailed characterization of Crow’s crowishness, we nevertheless know all these answers. “What is Life? Life is / Birth, copulation and death.” How true, one thinks. And there is really nothing to add except to repeat the observation in various forms over and over again, unless one decides to take death as said, and to construct life upon the hypothesis that something, in life itself, apart from the truism of death, can be said about it.

And so with a great many other things in Crow.

He stuffed the head half headfirst into woman
And it crept in deeper and up
To peer out through her eyes
Calling its tail-half to join up quickly, quickly
Because O it was painful.

When it comes down to brass tacks the space between birth and death is filled with bodily functions.

Blake took an equally depressing view of living in “The Mental Travellers” and yet that poem is not at all depressing, because although giving a cyclical picture of the progression of life which is tormenting and tormented, yet the shadow—or the light—cast by the poem is that of a quite different life which might break out of the circle of torment. From the interview in The London Magazine, it is evident Ted Hughes would like to find new divine ground, new divinity, but I do not think that “Glimpse” gives us very much to build on:

O leaves,” Crow sang, trembling, “O leaves—“
The touch of a leaf’s edge at his throat
Guillotined further comment.
Nevertheless
Speechless he continued to stare at the leaves
Through the god’s head instantly substituted.

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