Clic on pictures to enlarge...
Poetry did not exist for me before I discovered the work of Ted Hughes.
The time is late October 1998; the place is Cardiff, Wales. Jacob's antique market to be exact and I’m browsing its top floor book shop now long defunct. (All the bookshops I have loved are no longer standing). For reasons I don't remember, I bought a beautiful hardback edition of 'Crow', powerful cover art by Leonard Baskin included. (His scratchy yet solid depiction of ‘Crow’ seemed to buzz and boil with anguish and indignation; Crow seemed to be shouting ‘What the fuck is I doing trapped on this book cover! Get me the hell out!' And there was no doubt that this was a male of the species - Baskin has even added an angry pair of pert balls to Mr Crow).
As I say, I've no idea why I bought this book then. Although a voracious buyer of books, I was certainly not in the habit of buying poetry. School had killed any potential interest in this particular art form. Even the very word 'poetry' seemed inclined to lean in on itself with a heavy and portentous density. Some part of me still associated poetry with the wasted, baking afternoons trapped within the long ago classrooms of early summer. Outside the world is bright and green, a fiesta of frantic sexual motion and kinetic energy while in here all is musty, stifled and gagged. An all boy’s school rank in the broiling heat of early June is not the time and place to study the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. The agony is upped when one is instructed by teacher as to exactly what the words are meant to mean and precisely how one should feel upon reading them.
Yet years later and on my own terms (by now no one had forced me to read poetry for over a decade) ‘Crow’ flew straight into my hands eyes and heart. Flicking through the pages at random, the third poem grabbed me. It was ‘Examination at the womb door ' that did it.
"Who is stronger than hope?
These words blew some nameless chamber within me wide open. I closed the book and said 'Fuck' out loud. I reopened the book. The poem remained upon the page while inside me something had been eerily rearranged. Transfigured.
What was weird about reading 'Crow' for the first time was that it didn't seem like a one way process. As much as I was reading it, it felt like the words, the poems themselves, were simultaneously taking something vital from me.
Now that I was hooked I began to not only investigate Hughes' huge body of work further but I began to appreciate other poetry too – in particular Larkin, Carver, Yevtushenko, and Montale. Clearly some inner block, some emotional log jam had been cleared within me - blown away, in fact, violently and unequivocally.
I caught Hughes' final classic a year after it came out. 'Birthday letters' amongst other things was a eulogy for the almost mythical union between him and Sylvia Plath. The details of which, while exciting others rabidly, for some reason left me cold. (Simply put, I guess I've never particularly been excited by the sex and/or emotional life of those outside my own personal juridistriction). The Hughes obsessed Sunday Times seemed to consider the pair as a contemporary version of Orpheus and Eurydice and it was probably only this classical connection that raised the tone of the almost endless articles on the two to that above mere tabloid soap opera.
Ted Hughes – The So called patron saint of adultery, the feminist's Bette Noir, passionate hunter and fisherman, ladies’ man, Royalist and close friend of Prince Charles – this caricature was barely out of the broadsheets between '98 and 99. These posthemous appearances in the Sunday supplements were for many the only point of contact with Hughes. His actual raison d’être - the Poetry - seemed almost incidental in this context.
Revealingly, friends who had received complimentary copies of 'Crow' from me remained either un interested or overly disturbed. 'I've put it in a box in the basement' one told me. 'And I shall open it when I'm fifty'.
Discovering Hughes now marked another personal habit; that of getting into people soon after they died. As with pop music, I would always discover a band to find that they had broken up the Christmas before.
In 2000 I was recording an album, my sixth by then. As a matter of routine en route to the Harlesden studio via tube and train, I would listen to tapes of Hughes reading his poetry. One track I was then working on ('Just so you know') was built around an undulating drone, a heavy flat orchestral loop that suggested the slow motion shimmy of the earth's crust or the great nervy plates that make up Californian fault line.
‘And this is neither a bad variant nor a try out
Beneath the dense currency of Hughes' rich vocal timbre, the music swelled and inverted upon itself ceaselessly.
As I continue to work my way through Hughes' oeuvre I continued to discover and was impressed by the sheer breadth of his range. A musical comparison would have been with 'Prince' at his mid eighties peak.
The very work that had been my introduction had also shaped one of the poets clichéd images ; it was because of 'Crow' that many saw Hughes as merely the King 'Goth' of English poetry. Yet as I began to discover, his work also embodied tenderness, whimsy and even humour. There was the delightful playfulness of probably his truest Children's book, 'Meet my Folks’ contrasting cosmically with poems about watching two spiders fucking through a magnifying glass.
Yet again there was 'Moortown' his diary of life as a cattle farmer. By the time I discovered this book, I myself was living in the country and because of owning a horse, visited a farm twice daily. I was astounded at the realisation that the reading of 'March morning unlike others', from the warmth of my study made me feel as if I were standing in a field much more than actually standing in a field did.
This led me to another paradox - how could a Hughes Poem, like 'Crow's song of himself' seem to occupy the same emotional space as a novel?
A year on from 'Pibroch' writing the words for the title track of the final Jack Album 'The end of the way its always been', I made a nominal effort to harness some of what Hughes called the 'Super ugly language' of Crow. I tried to apply the same kind of armoury to the subject matter - my immediate environment. I was at this point living in the very first year of the twenty first centaury a citizen of, as I saw them, the sub apocalyptic streets of East London's Dalston.
‘Bad dreams are Bass in Shallow water
The inspiration of language behind these lines and the rest of the song was pure Hughes.
But if this example of Hughes inspiring my own work is the most explicit I can quote its perhaps the most superficial too. Because if my own work relates to my true self at all, then it’s a self irrevocably moved and enhanced by the poetry of Ted Hughes.
I took a profound step along the trail of my own personal evolution when in the last years of the twentieth centaury as a boy in my late twenties, for reasons that remain a mystery to me now; I bought a second hand copy of 'Crow' from a second hand bookshop in Wales.