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An Appreciation

Poems Captured Hughes' Essence

October 30, 1998|CAROL MUSKE DUKES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Carol Muske Dukes is a poet and professor of creative writing at USC

And for all rumors of me read obituary.

What there truly remains of me

Is that very thing--my absence.

--from "Gaudete" by Ted Hughes

One of the 20th century's most important poets has died. Ted Hughes, dead at 68, leaves behind him a formidable body of poems connecting him to the great literary traditions--and to the more fluid epitaph (as Keats has it on his gravestone, "Here lies one whose name is writ in water") of his own literary reputation.

What we have left of him, as Hughes says in his poem, is his "absence"--the profound presence of the empty chair, the riderless horse, the shuttered window. And for the many readers of Hughes' poems throughout the world, the eloquence of that emptiness is familiar. Ted Hughes was always elusive in his poems--he was a hovering, ready-to-disappear presence: a hawk in the sky, a quick-eyed crow, a dead animal vanishing into the earth, a fish leaping into light.

If a trout leaps into air, it is not for a breather.

It has to drop back immediately.

Into this peculiar engine that made it

And keeps it going . . .

--from "Ophelia"

Hughes could be called a poet of the rough pastoral folk tradition of the English countryside, a tradition that can be traced through John Clare to D.H. Lawrence, with its motifs of ecstasy, pessimism and natural power.

Hughes had been dramatically influenced, as a young poet, by Lawrence's notion of "blood knowledge" and his dark gods. Hughes' own poems came to wield an ax of Teutonic myth--he wrote of nature's cruelty and violence, astrology, animal life and death as a kind of Trickster-narrator. He was protean, a lone wolf, piratical marauder--and this persona persisted, its embodiment in lyric becoming Hughes' recognizable style.

A typical Hughes poem scatters a furious gritty lift of syllables, a hard Anglo-Saxon spill of consonants unraveling beneath a cold traveling eye. People did not appear in his poems as often as animals: badgers, crows, owls and snakes.

The grim badger with armorial mask

Biting spade-steel, teeth and jaw-strake shattered,

Draws that final shuddering battle-cry

Out of its backbone.

--from "The Grass Blade

Is Not Without"

With the recent publication of "Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a highly controversial volume of poems addressed to his long-dead wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath--this sharp-edged relentless vision reinvented itself as spun-out domestic narrative.

Readers witnessed the dark myth-maker suffering an agonized metamorphosis of poetic identity before their eyes. The poems revealed a man tortured and grieving for his famous genius wife--but also an angry victim of a woman whose suicide (as he portrays it in the poems) was preordained by fate, predicted by her "fixed stars."

The accusations of exploitation and self-justification that flew at the book's publication earlier this year ignored the literary merit of the work itself--which was considerable, if flawed by a too steady imposition of his will: the desire to win a final argument. Now, in the face of his death, the argument diminishes beneath a new tone of double elegy.

Hughes was poet laureate to Queen Elizabeth. In his lifetime, he published 40-odd books of poetry, fiction, children's stories, translations, plays and critical essays. This enigmatic, dramatic poet of "present absence" will remain with us, his fluid epitaph the poems themselves.

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More on Ted Hughes' death in the main news section.

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