Millions of Strange Shadows
The appearance of new books by Anthony Hecht and Ted Hughes raises the question of the merits of two kinds of writing, the poetry of limits and the poetry of extremes. Hecht makes a good representative of the one, Hughes of the other. The poetry of limits depends on form, on gradations of tone, on language that is deliberate, obviously selected. The poetry of extremes depends on deep, often shocking, images, on sudden leaps in mood, unpredictable reversals of tone, on language that sounds uncalculated. The poetry of limits suggests clarification emerging from uncertainty; the poetry of extremes suggests mysterious emotions in conflict.
The difference between the two is not one of subject. A poetry of limits may reveal intimate facts about the poet, as Snodgrass does. It may convey horror, like Auden’s “Gare du Midi.” It may respond to a holocaust. Milton’s sonnet on the Piedmontese Massacre deals concretely with genocide but is written in an exquisitely controlled form. The poetry of extremes handles emotions which are not only intense but in open process and left clashing with one another, as in Ginsberg’s “This Form of Life Needs Sex.”
The actual source of such emotions may be limited indeed. It may be a quarrel between lovers (Snyder, “To Hell with Your Fertility Cult”) or a minor accident (Plath, “Cut”). But the response is formidable or even frenzied. The appropriate figure of speech is hyperbole.
In the poetry of extremes the author usually implies that he does not avoid the rending emotions, that to do so would be hypocritical or cowardly. As an artist he implies that by exposing oneself to such strains, one becomes a true poet. To suffer them unflinchingly is a power that separates insight from bland conventionality. The poet may even sound like a martyr, sacrificing his peace of mind in order to confer on humanity the benefit of his art: Berryman touches this note.
On the other hand, the poetry of limits can deal with pathos, tragedy, misery—the most painful of human situations. But in dealing with them, the poet establishes a distance between the self that suffers and the self that creates. His usual method of doing so is formal: careful syntax, to suggest that he is a reliable narrator; definite form, which provides a stable frame for the changing emotions; gradations of tone, to maintain continuity of discourse and make us feel the same person is speaking throughout. Wilbur’s “The Agent” is a subtle but frightening account, in blank verse, of a spy betraying a friendly people to their ruin.
Anthony Hecht certainly practices the poetry of limits. Yet he often handles obnoxious subjects: a description of the rotting corpse of a monkey (“Alceste in the Wilderness”), the horrors of war (“Christmas Is Coming,” “Drinking Song,” etc.), the destruction of the Jews (“Rites and Ceremonies”), the Lisbon earthquake. One of his least forgettable poems tells of the capture, humiliation, torture, and flaying of the Roman emperor Valerian (“Behold the Lilies of the Field”). But he manages the frightfulness within a perceptible design.
In the account of Valerian, for example, the teller of the story is anachronistically the patient of a psychoanalyst, as well as being a former high officer in the emperor’s army. The analytical session becomes a formal ritual which stylizes the hideous details without weakening their power:
Then the king [who had captured
Valerian] made a short speech to the crowds,
To which they responded with gasps of wild excitement,
And which was then translated for the rest of us.
It was the sentence. He was to be flayed alive,
As slowly as possible, to drag out the pain.
And we were made to watch. The king’s personal doctor,
The one who had tended his back,
Came forward with a tray of surgical knives.
They began at the feet.
And we were not allowed to close our eyes
Or to look away. When they were done, hours later,
The skin was turned over to one of their saddle-makers
To be tanned and stuffed and sewn.
When Hecht takes up quickening subjects—fatherhood, the praise of landscape, sexual tenderness—his sweet-and-sour tone gains force from hints that he also has in mind the death-bearing experiences. A knowledge of pain refines the edge of pleasure, as a knowledge of pleasure sharpens the acid of pain. It seems appropriate that Hecht likes to indulge in oxymoron: “dirge of birth” (“An Autumnal”), “awkward grace” (“Peripeteia”).
In “Message from the City,” the poet in town addresses his mistress at the shore. He is occupied with his children as she is with hers—a fact which both connects and separates them. The emotions tend toward ambivalence, but the speaker chooses to end his epistle with a bit of seascape which he sees in his mind and she may see in reality; and this, in its oxymoronic way, brings them together. So the poet carries his divided emotions to an honest resolution:
Perhaps your casual glance
will settle from time to time
on the sea’s travelling muscles
that flex and roll their strength
under its rain-pocked skin.
And will see where the salt winds
have blown bare the seaward side
of the berry bushes,
and will notice
the faint, fresh
smell of iodine.
In many poems Hecht gives the quickening experience an advantage. He does not imply that life, for any long period, is free from pain. On the contrary, he implies that pain and grief mix so homogeneously with the stuff of existence that we may assume their omnipresence. Love, beauty, and wisdom do not cancel them out and do not spring from them (alas!) but descend as a gift in spite of them. The graces of life barely compensate us for the omnipresence of grief or pain. This lowering truth is a reason for dwelling on the graces.
In the poetry of limits the common relation between form and meaning is ironical. The form is tangible and suggests design bringing order to chaos. The meaning suggests chaos pressing against form. The neat or hymnlike stanzas of Dickinson’s poems, the elaborate versification of Hardy’s, make their sad comment on conventional faith and hand-me-down hope. Elaborate forms challenge Hecht’s imagination. His most personal and tender poem of guilty love, “A Letter,” is in a complicated, rhymed stanza that might have been used by his admired George Herbert.
In the new book, Millions of Strange Shadows (see Shakespeare, Sonnet 53), Hecht sounds more comfortable with the difficult forms and allows himself fewer archaisms than in his earlier work. But he still observes the fundamental human experiences through the settings and alternatives which oppose or threaten them: foregrounds seen through backgrounds, love through war, an impulse of vitality as a reminder of death.
In the opening poem, “The Cost,” a young motorcyclist and his girl appear to hang still while circling the Column of Trajan, on which forgotten legions march nonstop: the poet thinks of brief moments of ecstasy bought with untold hours of wretchedness. In the second poem, “Black Boy in the Dark,” the solitary black attendant at an all-night service station appears to guard the civilization in which he cannot participate.
Matching these attitudes is Hecht’s response to landscape. It is the inbetween moments that he values, the monochrome luminosity that clarifies the obscure world just at the point of dawn; the shadowless hush between a sudden wind and the storm that must follow. “After the Rain” evokes the pleasure one feels in the gray cleanliness of morning after a stormy night—“The air is a smear of ashes / With a cool taste of coins”—and Hecht characteristically links this pleasure to the seductiveness of death.
Two poems deserve unusual attention. One is “Green: An Epistle,” which employs the theme of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny in order to connect the process of maturing and aging with a springlike burgeoning of malice or envy as it takes hold of the fully developed, narcissistic personality. The other is “Apprehensions,” an autobiographical exhumation of the anxieties planted by wealth and discretion in an imaginative child during the 1930s.
It is not surprising that Hecht, though different in sensibility, should have made a penetrating comment on the poetry of Ted Hughes. Just as Hecht might be mistaken for a writer in the British tradition, so Hughes’s work might suggest American origins. The drama of Hughes’s poems, said Hecht (ten years ago),
consists in the frightening and insoluble paradox that man at his peril…denies his animal nature, but at the same time that very nature, when it gets out of hand, makes him bestial and hateful and can also kill him. By the same token, man’s consciousness, while useful, is also dangerous, and when divorced from his deepest nature is feeble and useless.
In Gaudete, Hughes continues the line of Crow (published in 1970). There, in some dozens of short poems, all in propulsive lines of free verse, Hughes surveyed the career of a mythical crow, supposed to have played a decisive part in the history of the world and of mankind. Cruelly or clownishly, the black superbird usurped the role of God, got in his way, spoiled his designs, and in general accounted for the senseless and evil aspects of human experience. In “Lineage,” a parody of biblical “begats,” Hughes reverses the familiar descent from creation to crucifixion. The poem begins with agony (“Scream”), progresses from animate to inanimate, music and labor, to Adam, Mary, and God,
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never
Who begat Crow
Screaming for Blood
Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth
(This is perhaps a more plausible explanation for the present condition of the world than the Christian sequence.) When God wants to teach him to say “Love,” Crow tries but instead spews out the first shark, bluefly, tsetse fly, and mosquito:
“A final try,” said God. “Now, LOVE.”
Crow convulsed, gaped, retched and
Man’s bodiless prodigious head
Bulbed out onto earth, with swivelling eyes,
And Crow retched again, before God could stop him.
And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened.
The two struggled together on the grass.
God struggled to part them, cursed, wept—
Crow flew guiltily off.
“Crow’s First Lesson”
The story and lyric poems of Gaudete (Latin, “rejoice”—viz. for the birth of Christ) elaborate a myth which I presume is to guide men toward some means of coping with the conditions against which the poet protested in Crow. It is a myth of death and resurrection, involving sexual misconduct and bodily violence on a scale that suggests a fusion of blue movies and animated cartoons with the Bacchae of Euripides.
The narrative is too complicated and crowded with incident to be summarized in any detail. But for a hint of its quality I can sketch the central and less sensational half. Here, in a chain of vivid, indoor-outdoor episodes reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence, we watch the Rev. Nicholas Lumb, a parson in the north of England, seducing the wives and daughters of his parishioners: item, the sex-starved, thirty-five-year-old wife of an aging army-officer-turned-cattle-breeder, who observes the adulterous couple through binoculars; item, a doctor’s wife, whose woodland rendezvous with Lumb is witnessed by a young poacher; item, a naval commander’s daughter, who becomes pregnant by Lumb and hangs herself in an attic aviary (liberating the birds) while her father, staring through a telescope, sees Lumb caressed by a farmer’s wife. Etc.
The sequence of such performances is interrupted by scenes of jealous husbands, lovers, sons trying to catch Lumb in flagrante delicto and being thwarted. There are also reveries and nightmares: a scene of Lumb communing with landscape and yearning to free himself from the compulsions that have trapped him, then suffering a vision of a room aflame which foreshadows his end; a scene of the dumb housekeeper, Maud, playing with Lumb’s instruments of witchcraft till she magically foresees her own stabbing of Felicity, the girl he will try to elope with.
There is a flashback in which Lumb, while fishing in a lake, is called to rescue Felicity from his own naked double, who emerges from the lake, tries to drag them both into it, and at last tears away, leaving his right hand clutching Lumb’s. And there is a phantasmagoria in which Lumb is thrown out of his van at night during a rainstorm and crawls into a cattleyard where men beat him with sticks in the dark until he escapes among stampeding cattle, then finds himself on the edge of a muddy crater where the bodies of his male parishioners are strewn about, his female parishioners are buried alive up to the neck, and a creature from the center of the crater with a patchwork of faces sewn into one “baboon beauty face” clutches him until a gang of men drag them both to the surface and hold them down while Lumb in agony rises mysteriously out of his body, stands over himself, and is delivered of the baboon woman (like Adam, in Crow, begetting Mary):
Flood-sudden, like the disem- bowelling of a cow
She gushes from between his legs, a hot splendour
In a glistening of oils….
The rest of the story is spicier and more shocking. In a prologue, elemental spirits inhabiting the other world summon Lumb to their aid. He is led to an underground cave where primitive but noble savages, half-animal, guard a woman who is ill. When Lumb fails to ask the question that will heal her, he is subjected to terrible ceremonies in which the trunk of an oak tree takes on his shape and vocation while Lumb himself goes to the other world.
It is therefore the false Lumb, possessed by a spirit like Crow, who undergoes the experiences of the main narrative. These end in an orgy of the parson and his women in the church basement, during which Maud stabs Felicity and the naked bacchantes crowd men-acingly against Lumb. He cuts his way through them, flees from the building, and tries to escape in his car. But he fails, and in mock-heroic chase is hunted down by the enraged cuckolds. Taking refuge at last in the lake, he is shot there. The men carry his body back to the church basement, where Maud proceeds to stab herself. The lynchers heap up the furniture and lay the three bodies on top: Felicity, Lumb, and Maud. Then they douse the pyre with gasoline and set fire to it, terminating the main narrative.
In an epilogue, the real Lumb (who at various points in the main narrative seems to displace his double) returns from an evidently successful mission in the other world and appears on the west coast of Ireland before three girls playing among the rocks. He performs a miracle for them by calling up an otter from the sea, and he gives them a notebook of poems. They tell the story to their priest, who is moved to rhapsodize on the glory of the creation, and then copies out the verses. Gaudete ends with these short lyrics in free verse—over forty of them.
Hughes tells the main story in cinematic, detached episodes, using the present tense and mixing descriptive prose with hyperbolic free verse. Often he merely indicates what the scene is, as if giving instructions to a film director. He shifts from objective to subjective representation but seldom allows his characters the kind of memories or expectations that might draw us into sympathy. Emotions interest him more than anatomical details; and while the matter of his work may verge on obscenity, the effect is more often grotesque or comic than provocative.
The name Nicholas suggests Ferrar, the austere founder of the religious community of Little Gidding. The name Lumb suggests lump, lumber, numb, and of course l’homme, or man. So Hughes’s protagonist and his double (and their crossing-over) call up the problem of body and mind, passion and reason. The noble savages with their leonine heads and their ailing priestesses are primitive beings, perfectly at home in nature. They stand for the primal forces of our make-up, trying to survive and to keep in touch with our overcultivated selves. If a clergyman living in a civilized community reacts against his own repressions and simply tries to live like a primitive, he destroys himself and his society. But by suffering for the elemental spirits, he achieves communion with them, purifies himself, and becomes a priest-poet-savior.
Hughes’s myth is in part an inversion of the story of Christ, in part a form of the Dionysus legend, and in part an adaptation of Graves’s White Goddess. He has added other elements as well. But the tone of the work is his own. Hughes has always enjoyed portraying animals and rendering them as scary rather than amiable. He likes describing landscapes, but they too become sinister under his hand. The miserable drunken doctor in the story sees the blossoms of spring hedgerows as “piled hairy flowers”; roses, for him, have “strict fierce edges”; and for the reborn Lumb, a primrose petal’s edge “cuts the vision like a laser.” Although the poet urges communion with nature upon us, he continually treats landscape and animals as cruel in themselves and as threatening to the human observer: “a thrush singing—slicing at everything / With its steely voice / Like a scalpel.”
Other moments may be found, attempts to bring out the radiance or holiness of the life that surrounds us. In Season Songs (1975) Hughes devoted his talent to the pleasures of seasonal beauty. These passages and poems rely sometimes on an assumed innocence of sensibility, sometimes on facile personifications, that seem in effect more strained than convincing.
No doubt, the reason for Hughes’s more characteristic and persuasive approach is that his chosen observers eye the natural world with the wrong, possessive, destructive attitudes. Yet Lumb must suffer enormous agonies before he becomes the pure, reconciled poet and savior. Hughes seems to imply that without self-crucifixion one cannot achieve the intimacy with elemental powers which belongs to the enlightened spirit and which nourishes poetry.
Unfortunately, the lyric poems of the epilogue are uncommonly cryptic. Hughes calls them “hymns and psalms to a nameless female deity.” But for some of the poems to be intelligible, the deity must be incarnate in a sublunary mortal. “Waving goodbye, from your banked hospital bed” is hardly the description of a goddess. Nor is this:
I know how your huge your unmanageable
Mass of bronze hair shrank to a twist
As thin as a silk scarf, on your skull,
And how your pony’s eye dark- ened….
The lyrics are also miscellaneous and their tone unresolved. One cannot help feeling that most of these poems might have been longer or shorter, that the lines might have been reshaped or rearranged, with no great harm to them and perhaps some benefit. The free forms may suggest spontaneity and a creative process rather than the stasis of regularity. Instead of irony or distance they may express the uncontrollable intensity of feeling which the poet strives to convey. But to many readers this direct relation of form to sense is not exciting.
In this kind of poetry, deep meanings should burgeon from the images, to which the reader should respond intuitively. It is a question, however, whether the poet does not invite us to impose meanings rather than receive them. I suspect that readers unfamiliar with the literary traditions of such symbolism may hear confusing signals and be left with the incomplete, unresolved sensationalism of the book as a whole. They may be left with the impression of an English critic of the poet’s first book, that the authentic note of Hughes is
contempt for the people who are not accessible to the experience he regards as valuable, and the experience is valuable, not for what it is in itself or for what it might be in a genuine human relation, but because it is violent, because it represents, for the poet, the most strenuous mode of combativeness….
The lack of cumulative power in the closing lyrics seems unfortunate. The bulk of the book deals with persons and actions which the poet deplores. He obviously recommends the myth people at the beginning; he also has some celebratory descriptions of landscape; he portrays some animals with sympathy. The overwhelming tendency remains critical, satirical, grotesque.
In the lyrics one expects to glimpse at last the benefits Lumb has won from his ordeal. But their implications are less exemplary than homiletic. They deal with the longing for vision rather than the experience of it. They remind us that one must die to the world of self-centered materialism and rationality if one is to be reborn to the world of primitive vision. But few of the poems hint at the actuality of twice-born self-fulfillment; here is one:
The lark sizzles in my ear
Like a fuse—
A prickling fever
A flush of the swelling earth—
When you touch his grains, who shall stay?
Over the lark’s crested tongue
Under the lark’s crested head
From the core of the blue peace
From the sapphire’s flaw
From the sun’s blinding dust
As in most poetry of extremes, the power resides in the images. If they stir the reader, the poet has done his work; if not, he has failed. Often Hughes seems to blame those who cannot respond for being unworthy to hear his revelation. The problem he faces is that his imagination seeks out the menacing aspects of the world although he wishes to celebrate the exhilarating aspects. Robert Lowell said of his own work that he seemed to have felt mostly the joys of living but to have recorded—“thanks to the gift of the Muse”—the pain. But Lowell accepted the conditions and worked with his muse. Hughes works against her.