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 …

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