Rating: 4 stars
I have never read any of Ted Hughes’ poetry for grown ups. I’ve only read his books for children, The Iron Man and How The Whale Became. I remember really enjoying them, and getting a dark thrill from how inventive and other worldly they were. I wouldn’t have put it like that back then, it was probably more of a gut thing.
I decided I would read Crow as a result of reading Grief is the Thing with Feathers. I get what Max Porter has done with that novel in a different way now. I see the origins of Crow in that book more clearly.
I borrowed Hughes’ Crow from the library. I’m glad I did. It was an original 1970 edition, and I enjoyed the traces of its library life almost as much as the poetry. My mum worked in libraries for 44 years. The brown cardboard sleeve for this book’s original lending card stuck to the inside front cover brought back memories of “helping” in the school holidays, putting the lending card with the borrower’s ticket in another brown cardboard sleeve.
Its accession stamp reveals the book to be of an age with me, to the month if not necessarily the day.
I also liked the original date stamp sheet, with a later sheet stuck over it, still requiring renewal to be by post, telephone or in person. And then the addition of a barcode for a more modern system. It’s a history of book issuing in one pair of pages.
On the front fly of the jacket, these words set my expectations high:
Ted Hughes has been working for several years at this brilliant sequence of poems in which the crow is the central, unifying symbol. It contains the passages of verse from about the first two-thirds of what was to have been an epic folk-tale, and the subject was originally suggested by Leonard Baskin, the American engraver, with the idea of making a composite book of texts and engravings, to be printed on his Gehenna Press.
The result is one of the most original, and remarkable, poetic achievements of our time.
I agree. It is remarkable. It made my head swim, it is so good. On the first page, in the second of the legends, this.
To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
The feeling of portent, the ancient darkness associated with the crow, the brutality of life, the way we pretend to be a higher species but are still bound to the earth and its rhythms, are all encompassed in this poem cycle. Some of the poems hover on the border between the conscious and unconscious, between waking and dreaming. Some challenge religious beliefs. Crow is present at significant points in the Christian creation story, messing things up for God, diminishing his standing. Others are a visceral expression of grief and guilt. St George kills his family, thinking he is slaying a monster. A man possibly kills his children, haunted by memories of conflict. The poems were written in the years following Sylvia Plath’s suicide and published the year after Assia Wevill committed infanticide and then suicide, hence the dedication of the book to Assia and her daughter with Hughes, Shura. It might be reading too much into the poems to suggest that these events influenced Hughes’ writing, it might not. The poems feel sick with grief and anger at times.
One thing I thought I regretted at the start was the lack of engravings depicting Crow, but as I read on and Hughes’ words conjured images in my mind, I was glad the book is not illustrated. I could picture some of the scenes graphically. I didn’t need anyone else’s interpretation.
I thought about why I hadn’t read any Hughes as an adult. And then I remembered. I have read some Hughes. I have a copy of Birthday Letters. So I checked and found it reshelved with a bookmark at page 48. I can’t recall anything of reading it. But before I remembered, while I was still thinking about why I had a Hughes and Plath sized gap in my reading (I’ve read The Bell Jar and the collection of her poems selected by Hughes), I decided that it was because so much has been written about their private lives, so much myth and legend has been constructed around them, and they have inspired such obsession. I had the idea that much of their reputation as writers must be untrustworthy. I have odd ideas at times.
In fact, while I was reading Crow, the media got into a tizz about rediscovered letters from Plath to her therapist accusing Hughes of beating her in the days before she miscarried. They weren’t a perfect couple, but who is? It does make appreciation of someone’s work more difficult when you know he was probably violent towards the women in his life. These are great poems. Plath also wrote great poems as a result of her relationship with Hughes. Sometimes ugly lives produce beautiful art.
I will read Birthday Letters. I will re-read Hughes’ selection of Plath’s poetry. I don’t think I will find either as gutturally satisfying as Crow, though.