Wednesday, 19 February 2014

hughes as mythteller

Saturday, March 8
Time: 7:30pm
Location: Point Reyes Presbyterian Church
Tickets: Free event. Donation requested

(get there early - these evenings at the church get very full)

“The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman”
Vocation, Imagination, and the Royal Road of Story

Event Date: Saturday, March 1
Time: 10:00am to 5:00pm
Location: Petaluma ranch location (to be announced)
Tickets: Sliding scale ($85–150)
For details or to register, contact Lisa Doron at

(again - a big demand for places so please don't delay in booking and risk disappointment)

Holed up in the rather lovely Cardinal hotel in downtown Palo Alto preparing for a day with students and our final study of Parzival tonight. Sun is shining and i have excavated part of an essay which includes - not for the first time - a brief defense of Ted Hughes. More soon! M

Mad as the Mist and the Snow
So how do we find a language porous enough to hold red berries and fish scales in its syntax? We turn to a kind of poetics; a raised torrent that pleases the invisible world and some humans. But I do say ‘some’. For others, it is unwieldy.

Ted Hughes, one of the grittiest poets on animism that the English language has ever had, has received consistent criticism for the overloaded, almost violent range of image found in even one line of his poetry. The author Nick Bishop (Bishop 1994), decries Hughes' early work as “wielding language as a broadsword”, it “forcing the head down into submission”. He claims it all arises from some emphatically masculine impulse to ram an elevated literary consciousness down the throat of the unsuspecting reader.
For Bishop, the intense flavours are an avoidance of revealing psychological realities alive in the poet. All this drama – of horses and drumming ploughland – is merely a smokescreen for a hidden Hughesian consciousness. He’s hiding. Much later in Hughes’s timeline, he supports a lessening of ego, highlighting ‘Go Fishing’, a stanza I include here:

Join water
Let brain mist into moist earth
Ghost loosen away downstream
Gulp river and gravity

With these eastern infused lines, Bishop relaxes, far away from the battlefield of the earlier work. This can be approved of, in a wider, slightly vague western approval of eastern‘oneness’. Now Hughes has ensured that there is “no longer an arbitrary division between serenity and beauty above, and violence and beastliness below”. But that division is partially what makes Hughes’s work so compelling. That division and its pains are what the reader experiences as resolutely anchored through their own lives. It makes it relatable, despite its gnostic twists and almost unbearable tensions between ecstatic and hellish. Within myth, that division is called the wound, or the limp. And it's knowledge of it that activates genius. Not enlightenment necessarily, but genius.

Nature has ego, display, bloodied scenes, cruelties, spasmodic tenderness, and it is Hughes' dark inheritance that he allows it to wriggle madly though almost every line. To claim he should somehow get his learning, his spell-crafting, out of the way, to make some kind of more benign flow, is an appalling notion. He is a stag clearing ground in those early years, taking space, claiming air filled with twitters of lesser poets.
He’s not there to make nice.

Sometimes the mythological has far more true expression in it than thinned out ‘I’ statements. Its broad back carries depths that we sense in ourselves, but that are beyond anything we may have consciously lived through. It carries cosmos not just jumbled neurotic history.

Hughes is loyal to both the intensities of a thunderstorm and also to the oral storytellers love of copia – what I described earlier in the book as “the ready supply of inventive language”. His fame is not mistaken. He is truly loyal to his impressions of the living world and a clear vocation as mystic and thinker. His logos disciplines hard craft to the boundaried corral of his mythos abandon. His work is a place to go.
Bishop again takes him to task by suggesting that an early and brief debt to Dylan Thomas somehow makes the poetry less authentic, as if he should he have leapt like a jack-in-the box pristine into the world of 1950s poetry. The mythworld – the world he constantly drew upon – and the storying tradition that comes from it, does not work like that. Certain energies get mysteriously handed down, images find beds in the imaginations of different artists in different generations. Sometimes its a sculptor, or a wandering ballad singer, or a Lincolnshire healer. When handled with grace they are not a steal but a life giving re-visioning. They honour and sustain the echo locations of the earth, something just occasionally caught here and there, far more than just the legacy of that one individual.

Certain images are very precious, and require repetition.

Like the forest trails the hunter takes, when the way is obscured with brambles, something immense is lost. The mythteller carries a sharp bill hook to respectfully re-clear the leafy trail so the image can roar through into consciousness again. This is mythtelling we are witnessing, not just a moment in time, but outside of it altogether. As he stared into the Dart river fishing, the truths of this must have settled in the bloodied lump of Hughes’s brain.

So I hope this book has been true to the notion of an associative mythography. We have soaked our boots in Dartmoor snow, bent our minds to history's radical happenings and book-knowledge, padded loyally after the story itself as it charges through the yellowed gorse and foaming stream – sometimes a jackdaw, sometimes a tor, sometimes words sheltering from icy sleet, tucked in tight with the hay-warm goats.

So yes to wild language, and yes to the discipline of crafting them into a form that can be slowly taken into the body. In the era of Shakespeare, inventive language was true wealth, it refuted the sluggish but built delicate word-cairns in the humming air around the speaker. Men and women would stagger from the Globe theatre, beautifully assaulted with vast armies of flowered language - to be treasured, seeded, unpacked, and cultivated in the strong privacy of ones own chest. It was gold, corn, single-malt, rubies, a salted hoard. You could literally speak a cosmos back to life. Yes to this.

Yes to the storied tongue – the tongue of those Suffolk farm hands,
and to the slathered foam of Devon’s south coast shores, the frost encrusted field, the far distant kestrel, the heavy horse and the orchard, the hare’s joyful lope through the fragrant spring grasses.

How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and the snow?
W.B. Yeats

copyright martin shaw 2014

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