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Big Bad Ted Sings Songs for Little Ones

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I don’t mind saying it: reading Ted Hughes frightens me. Has for years. At first it was just the idea of reading his poetry that frightened me — the poetry that had, in my disarrayed young mind, killed Sylvia Plath’s. The stuff had lethal properties. It took several years, but at last I got around to actually reading his work, in an ugly New Selected Poems. That was when I realized the truth of the matter, past the pat mythology and instinctual aversion: Ted Hughes was about the most frightening poet imaginable. His work invests every corner of existence with menace and unmanageable intensity. I remember reading a few of the early ones — “Otter,” maybe “Pike,” definitely “Hawk Roosting” — and actually having to put the book down. Poetry is not supposed to make you put the book down.
So it came as a bit of a shock to find out that Ted Hughes was, in addition to everything else, a marvelous poet for young people. The Collected Poems for Children draws from no less than eight separate collections across his immense and shambolic publishing career. The book is 249 pages long (illustrated, no less!), and could fit on the most risk-averse nursery bookshelf. There are titles like “Bess My Badger” and “The Fox is a Jolly Farmer.” How did this happen?
It’s an interesting mystery. One thing is for certain: Hughes for Kids and Hughes for Adults are very much the same poet. It’s all here. We get the same bestiaries, the same zookeeper’s menagerie of animal otherness barely kept in its cages, the same repetitious insistence (50 poems about the moon, from Moon Whales and other Moon Poems). It’s hypnotic stuff, and crosses and recrosses the line between comforting and disturbing. Presumably there’s no problem for the intended audience, who are innocent of the harsher Hughes — schoolchildren who haven’t read, say, “Crow Hill” will feel no twinge during “The Mermaid’s Purse.” But determining his intended audience is in fact very difficult. Hughes described some of this work as having been written “within the hearing of children.” It was not solely for either group. This does not mean it was written for some tweener middleground; this is not what we could grotesquely call YA Poetry. It just had a deeper ambidexterity, it could pitch both ways. Hence the gorgeous Season Songs is included in his big Collected Poems: a few dozen pieces about calf-birth and calf-death, standing knock-kneed but impressive among the other work.

Comparing a couple of poems on a single subject may illuminate the differences. “Esther’s Tomcat” is Adult Hughes, much-anthologized, from Lupercal. It describes the tom as a brutal “bundle of old rope and iron” laying inert all day, “no mouth and no eyes,” until it awakens at dusk. It becomes a figure of legend: the tomcat
Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings
Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon.
Nightly over the red round world of men,
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.
Now the poem “Cat,” from the children’s book The Cat and the Cuckoo. It begins:
You need your Cat.
When you slump down
All tired and flat
With too much town

With too many lifts
Too many doors
Too many neon-lit
The cat will help you, the poem concludes:
For into your hands
Will flow the powers
Of the beasts who ignore
This world of ours

And you’ll be refreshed
Through the Cat on your lap
With a Leopard’s yawn
And a Tiger’s nap.
Neither poem is feigned. Neither one is less or more true to Hughes’s vision. They both propose the otherness of even domesticated animals as a necessary, powerful counterforce to a totalized human environment.  But the differences are also clear. First, the tone: we would say that “Cat” is somehow too prescriptive, too didactic to work for adults; we don’t quite like being talked to in this manner. Next, the rhythm and rhyme: a little too heavy, a little too rounded-off and lolloping, too sweet. It’s actually inappropriate for adults. In this case, it’s the grown-ups who need to be dealt with gingerly. They need their message delivered with great delicacy, the needed obliquity — too much all at once and they’ll bolt. “Cat,” then, no matter how successful it is in its aims, doesn’t work by our mature rubric. It doesn’t give us what we want, or maybe gives us too much.

But there are places in Hughes’s work where the difference is finer. Season Songs in particular raises fascinating, perplexing questions. It is collected in the kids’ book. The poems are pastoral, lovely, with a vitality that is specifically youthful. But they are also lyrically complex and deeply sad. There’s a description of a doomed newborn lamb:
                                    By evening
He could not stand. It was not
That he could not thrive, he was born
With everything but the will—
That can be deformed, just like a limb.
Death was more interesting to him.
Life could not get his attention.
So he died, with the yellow birth-mucus
Still in his cardigan.
He did not survive a warm summer night.
Now his mother has started crying again.
The wind is oceanic in the elms
And the blossom is all set.
Not a nursery-rhyme, exactly. Elsewhere there are moments of rejoicing that balance this bleakness — “The grass is happy / To run like the sea, to be glossed like a mink’s fur / By the polishing wind.” Day begins “[w]hen the swallow snips the string that holds the world in.” In other words, the poems contain both joy and pain, in huge concentrations. And the joys and pains that they take on feel particularly original and close to the bone: a rehashing of our earliest awarenesses. The runty lamb will not make it; summer will come again and be beautiful; the injured swift in the yard will undergo “the inevitable balsa death.” These are the basic facts into which children must be guided. We adults, on the other hand, have processed these feelings long ago and put them safely aside. Although the experience of reading Season Songs shows that maybe it wasn’t as clean a job as we thought.

The Collected Poems for Children helps you put a finger on one of Hughes’s main traits: all through his career he was, in a sense, the most boylike of poets. (Set that superlative in his trophy case, next to “Most Frightening Poet Imaginable,” “Most Handsome,” and (according to poet-critic Michael Hofmann) “Greatest English Poet Since Shakespeare.”) Calling him boylike may sound like an insult, but it is not at all. It indicates a real feat. Maintaining some kind of childlikeness is needful work for any poet, any person: it means being unacculturated to the world’s murderous norms, undimmed by its darkness, unwithered by its onslaught, not ironicized, ironed flat, or inured — while remaining, everywhere and in all things, absolutely adult and responsible. It’s no mean task. (Become as little children, Jesus said, and if Jesus said it, it isn’t easy.) Hughes carried out this imperative to remain childlike — or rather boylike, to make it gendered for this highly gendered poet. He remained forever the small-game trapper, the hill-stalker, the game-warden’s younger brother, the tobacconists’ son wandering around the shop and reading all of the comic books (of course!). “My first six years shaped everything,” Hughes said, pointing especially to those hunts in the Pennines with older brother Gerald. Indeed he viewed his entire poetic enterprise as an outgrowth of that practice of trapping, catching, bagging. This new method would not kill or disturb the creature, but rather preserve it warm and breathing forever. Hughes gave advice to young writers (he was touchingly concerned with the practical, curricular aspects of creative writing in schools) that invoked these processes. “The main thing is to imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it…You will read back through what you have written and you will get a shock. You will have captured a spirit, a creature.”

It is hard to imagine any writer besides Hughes who could retain such intense connection to what children find fascinating and express it in such superb craft. But it was his secret to work the other way also, to invest his mature writing with the child’s vision, that vast imagination and lidless fixity. In doing so, he became a danger to our safe boundaries of poetics. It’s unsettling to watch in Hughes the gentle unbroken slope upward from the whimsy of the early children’s work to the black horrors of books like Crow — especially with volumes like Season Songs bridging any supposed lacuna. It’s all of a piece, whether he’s writing about the mouse in his brother’s pocket or a talking bird feeding on corpses. More unnerving yet is the sense that I get, after reading enough of the Collected Poems for Children, of a strange inversion. Suddenly it begins to feel like the real thing. The adult poetry takes on a stench of the put-on, the worked-up, the elliptical, the evasive. The adulterated. Meanwhile the children’s work stands hawk-eyed and unblinking. It’s an illusion, surely; in a moment the view returns to normal. Only maybe a little changed.

Surprise Me!