Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Spivack on the suicides of Plath and Sexton

    On page 224 of Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and His Circle she writes, "It was easy for Plath and Sexton to think of death as a way out of their dilemmas: the swirl of forbidden emotions, unshared and unsupported, exhausted them.  Sylvia's betrayal by her husband, Anne's seduction by her psychiatrist -- these events seem to have left both women defenseless.  They thought of suicide reflexively as a solution, in the same way that other women poets, not as mentally unbalanced, might think of going to bed for a few days, or getting away to the country.  I don't think either of them realized the finality of suicide; they talked of it, played with it in their minds, and attempted it, as we see, in the hopes of getting a Rest, not a Death, out of it."

    Can this be true?  Can someone commit suicide looking for Rest and not Death?  Perhaps Spivack's concision sounds like an over simplification, but we know that the world is full of people doing things without taking the consequences into consideration.  In my younger days I did a lot of ambitious hiking and in some of the areas Rangers would describe finding inexperienced hikers in rest-rooms frozen to death.  These hikers started out down below on a sunny day, looked up and saw the mountains and decided to go up there.  They went too far or got lost.  They were wearing flip-flops and tee shirts and eventually crawled into a restroom partly because it didn't seem as cold as outside and partly in hopes that someone would show up to help them.  How could anyone be so stupid I wondered?  But is it stupidity or just the inability to plan ahead, or plan ahead in certain regards?
     I took groups hiking years ago, one hike every two or three weeks, and would insist that they bring certain things with them, things that most of them wouldn't have brought if I hadn't insisted, like enough water, layers of clothing, food, and emergency equipment, and then, not trusting them, I carried extra water and emergency equipment in case they hadn't brought enough.
    Also, our prisons are full of people many of which committed some spur of the moment crime that they are paying for with years of imprisonment.   Some of these crimes weren't committed with any idea of trying to get away with it.  Couldn't they imagine the consequences and control themselves?  And every day young people take up smoking and taking drugs.  Don't they realize that the dangers of smoking and drug habits are prohibitively high?  Can't they plan ahead?  And the charging so much on credit cards that one has to declare bankruptcy is so common that it is banal.

    OTOH, one of my brothers-in-law, years ago committed suicide.  He was a lot like Willy Loman, a salesman, always expecting the next job to make him rich and then when he lost the job or it didn't make him rich, he would become depressed for a while.  One night he got drunk and killed himself, using his only weapon, a Dirty Harry 44 Magnum.  He admired Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.  Willy Loman really was a failure and so was my brother-in-law.  The lack of planning on my brother-in-law's case, I'm sure meant that he didn't take into consideration the pain he would be causing his sisters or his girlfriend.  A better documented case is the effect the suicide of John Berrymans's father's suicide had on him.  His father's suicide seemed to make his own easier.

    Also, guilt played a big role in Willy Loman's suicide.  He had an affair that his son Biff found out about but he still kept from his wife.  His suicide and the money his wife would get from his insurance policy would, he decided, make up for his unfaithfulness.  Enough is known about John Berryman to believe that guilt "might" have had something to do with his suicide -- not everything could be explained by his father's suicide.  He engaged in many well-reported embarrassing (at least I assume he was embarrassed the next morning) and scandalous acts while drunk.  Anne Sexton was probably (her poetry suggests this) ashamed of many things that she engaged in.  I don't know about Sylvia Plath, but Sylvia and Anne were not simply looking for a rest from all the abuse they were enduring, probably no one is.  We all have a bit of Willy Loman guilt as well as the ability to deceive ourselves, and as Will Munny said in The Unforgiven, "we've all got it coming."
    But, we (most of us) learn from our mistakes.  Sure we feel guilt from some of our past acts, but we don't repeat those acts . . . or do we?

    Will Munny: I ain't like that no more. I ain't the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin' whiskey and all. Just 'cause we're goin' on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to bein' the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up.
Ned Logan: You were crazy, Will.
Will Munny: Yeah, no one liked me. Mountain boys all thought I was gonna shoot 'em out of pure meanness.
Ned Logan: Well, like I said, you ain't like that no more.
Will Munny: That's right. I'm just a fella now. I ain't no different than anyone else no more.



Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lowell's Long Summer

    I'm just about done with Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and his circle -- haven't read any of her poetry yet -- have a couple of her books on order.  Will be disappointed if I don't like some of it.  I'm very impressed with this With Robert Lowell book, and so I've returned once again to Lowell.  A while back I ordered several (most) of his individual volumes of poetry though I already had his Collected Poems.     
    In Jonathan Galassi's introduction to Notebook 1967-68, he writes, ". . . he had written to Elizabeth Bishop back in 1959, 'My trouble seems . . . to be to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness.'  Here [in Notebook 1967-68] constraint was loosened as perhaps never before.
    "Lowell had hit on an endlessly expandable form, and it proved irresistible. . ."  
    As a penance for condemning Lowell after reading Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964) I decided to read as extensively as possible Notebook 1967-68. 
On page 5, Long Summer (1) is a sonnet I liked upon one reading, perhaps to some extent because it refers to the sort of parties described in Spivack's book.  On the first reading I thought it pretty good.  I'll read it again:

    At dawn, the crisp goodbye of friends; at night,
    enemies reunited, who tread, unmoving,
    like circus poodles dancing on a ball --
    something inhuman always rising on us,
    punching you with embraces, holding out
    a hesitant hand, unbending as a broom;
    heaping the bright logs brighter, till we seat
    and shine as anointed with hot oil:
    straight alcohol, bright drops, dime-size and silver. . . .
    Each day more poignantly resolved to stay,
    each day more brutal, oracular and rooted,
    dehydrated, and smiling in the fire,
    unbandaging his tender, blood-baked foot,
    hurt when he kicked aside the last dead bottle.
    On a second reading I saw a few problems.  After a night of drinking, even if the course of this affair made enemies into friends, I doubt that the morning goodbye would be "crisp." 
    I'm not sure the "tread, unmoving, like circus poodles dancing on a ball" works.  The poodles wouldn't be moving relatively to the position of the earth, but can anyone read this without imagining their little legs moving furiously, or if they dance in a way that might seem most logical then they and the ball they are on will move.
    And then the "something inhuman always rising on us, punching you with embraces" seems wrong.  I've read this several times but it ought to read, it seems to me either "something inhuman always rising on you, punching you with embraces," or "something inhuman always rising on us, punching us with embraces."  And then, what is this inhuman thing rising on us?  If it rose in us I suppose it would be human, but if it is inhuman what is it, and how does it rise on us?  Can anything "rise on us"?  I don't immediately see the logic of this image.  A panther might rise up from the shadows and pounce upon us but rising upon us falls far short of that.
    In the 6th line, isn't the "hesitant hand" the same one  that "punched you with embraces?"  Punching you doesn't seem very "hesitant" to me.
    In the same line "unbending as a broom" doesn't seem to hold up.  Surely the handle of the broom won't bend much but the straw (or plastic) bristles on the floor certainly will.  No doubt "broom" is an image we are invited to figure out, but I haven't gotten it after two readings.
    Next they heap logs on the fire and sit so close to it that they glisten, it is after all summer, but not with sweat, they shine from "straight alcohol."  I don't get that.  This was a drinking party but no one drinks straight alcohol.  I also don't get "bright drops, dime size and silver. . . .  "Dime size and silver" seems awkward since dimes were made of silver.
    In the line "Each day more poignantly resolve to stay," I suppose it is the party goers or at least the ones who get to stay and don't have to provide their "crisp" goodbyes at dawn who are "more poignantly resolved to stay."  However in the next lines we are told that "each day more brutal, oracular and rooted, dehydrated . . ."  Why would anyone want to be poignantly resolved to stay if "each day" was more "brutal, oracular and rooted, dehydrated" than the previous?   To Lowell the poet the "oracular" however that came to be part of the event, would make the day worth while; so it probably isn't his guests who are "resolved to stay," or if they are it may not be for the same reason; it is Lowell himself who is getting something poetical out of it, something oracular.  I'm not sure what "rooted" means in the this sequence unless it is amplifying his resolve to stay. 
    And so, if we are right and Lowell is gaining oracular sustenance from such long summer days no wonder he is able to be "smiling into the fire," even if he does so drunkenly such that he burns his foot as he kicks aside the last dead bottle.  And, we note, he writes this after he has kicked this bottle with his bare foot and is able to sit there with his bloody foot bravely unbandaged while he stares into the fire.

    Perhaps some poems shouldn't be read more than once.  Lowell didn't like to be called a "confessional poet" even though as Galassi writes above, he strove to loosen up in his poetry, but this one seems rather more confessional than loose (depending on what Galassi means by the word "loose).  But what Lowell objected to in "confessional" poetry was going too far.  Spivack wrote, "While Lowell supported the work of Sexton and Plath, he could be very hard on a poet who violated the canons of good taste.  Denise Levertov was a poet he admired, but she fell from grace.  Cal and I were walking toward the inevitable late-afternoon cup of tea at a cafe, and puzzled, he took my elbow.  'You know,' he said, in a strained, musing way, 'Denise used to be a very good poet.  One of the best women writing in America today.  But I just heard her read in New York.  And she read her poems -- some good ones -- and then,' here Cal paused, lowering his voice, with half-concealed mischief in his eyes, 'she read a poem about her cunt!  How she didn't like it, and oh, how horrible it was, she described it in detail . . .'  His voice trailed off, only to resume in a musing way,' and then,' long, wondering pause, 'she decided she liked that cunt poem so much she read it to us a second time."  Cal was shocked, and Denise, alas, was relegated to the ranks below minor. . . ."  [the referenced Levertov poem is entitled "Hypocrite Women" and appears in Poems 1960-1967]
I don't recall any Levertov poetry but I have read some poems by Anne Sexton that I thought broke the bounds of good taste, but now, looking again at this Long Summer Lowell poem he seems to be violating current standards of good taste.  No doubt this isn't fair since all the poets back then (it seems) were heavy drinkers and not above bloodying a foot in disappointment by kicking the last (empty) bottle into a fire. 

Monday, February 15, 2016


    Am I content to return to dust
    With the certain conviction
    Susan had?  She died knowing
    She’d go to the Lord.  I watched
    Her go, heard the musical sound
    Of her breathing until falling
    Asleep near her on the couch

    I was awakened
    By her silence.  How
    Can a journey of such
    Eloquence begin without
    A sound, without her animate
    Smile, her convincing words?
    Here now loosed, having seen

    Her go, taking the chain that
    Bound us with her  “Dost
    Thou not know in heaven
    There will be neither marriage
    Nor giving in marriage.”
    I haven’t the Lord’s appeal.
    Even taking my poetry

    He would say it was His
    Inspiration that I wrote from.
    She would shake her head
    In mild rebuke that I’d
    Presumed to think even these
    My own invention.  She’d
    Move away to hear Him more.

    I’d feel the poetry turn to ash
    Along with all I thought and
    Felt.  Why not turn now with
    Resignation to the long tunnel
    That shortens with every
    Faltering breath?  I try to
    Remember those fading

    Words, her form and
    Face wasting, resolutely
    Staying near from duty not
    From wishing to prolong her
    Life at expense of the next.
    Language crumbles like sawdust
    Fed to the great kiln of time.

    Consider an ant, marching
    To certain death with
    Equanimity, no thought that
    He wants it otherwise while
    I watch the smoke from all
    These poems burned by
    The loss of her breathing.

Troubadours, ancient and modern

    Thanks to Speranza* for the excellent overview and details pertaining to troubadours and others.  My probably-outdated information came from the early 1800s and translated in 1860 by by G.J. Adler -- hardly a scholarly approach to the matter, but back when I read it I had no access to large libraries and the buying of books was a chancy and time-consuming matter.  I was engaged back then if I recall correctly in one of my many (and soon abandoned) exercises to increase my knowledge of the language I was writing poetry in.  This book, The History of Provencal Poetry wasn't that, but it looked interesting, was available to me, and if one lived back then in a "barbarous or remote" area, one took what one could get.   Thanks to the barbarous area in which I still live are not quite so remote.  Of course if one had no access to a major library that is still somewhat limiting, but enormously more books are available today.
    A point I had in mind but failed to make is implied on the first page of Fouriel's book:  "I shall therefore divide the history of Provencal literature into two great epochs, of which the one extends from the second half of the eighth century to the year 1080, and the other from 1080 to 1350.
    "Of these two epochs the first is, as we can easily presume, by far the most obscure, the one from which the smallest number of monuments are left us, and concerning which history furnishes us the scantiest information.  It still however offers us many curious and interesting facts -- facts, by which the literature of the South is linked, on the one hand to the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and on the other to the glorious epochs of he Middle Age.
    "The fundamental fact, to be examined in this first epoch of Provencal literature, is the origin and formation of the idiom which was destined to become its organ.  The creation of every language presents to us certain obscure and mysterious phrases which will not admit of an absolute explanation.  But this being granted, there is perhaps no idiom in the world which furnishes us so many data for the construction of its history, as does the ancient Provencal; and from this circumstance alone, it is entitled to a particular attention.  A careful and critical examination of it enables us to distinguish the various ingredients, which have successively entered into its composition, and the different languages to which these ingredients respectively belong.  In the Latin substratum, which constitutes its basis, we find still enough of Greek to attest the long residence of a Grecian population in the countries in which it originated.  We also discover considerable traces of the three most ancient languages of Gaul, all of which are still alive in barbarous or remote countries, which have served them as places of refuge.  One of these languages is spoken in France by the inhabitants of lower Brittany, and in England by the Welsh; the other in the mountains of Scotland, and in the interior of Ireland; the last in the Pyrenees by the Basques."

    In English literature we find critics referring to certain poets, Shakespeare and Milton for example, as being "immortal," and various poets (Milton, not Shakespeare if I recall correctly) seeking immortality through their their poetry.  In looking at the panorama Fouriel has provided, what chance does the English we speak let alone poets writing today have of being understood even a thousand years from now?  Further, as Speranza tells us, "Troubadours performed their own songs. Jongleurs (performers) and cantaires (singers) also performed troubadours' songs."  We know the names (more names that I recalled from reading Fouriel) of many Troubadours, but do we remember the names of as many Jongleurs and cantaires?  And if we do surely we remember nothing of what made them significant in their day, the sound of their voices and their instruments as they performed the music of the troubadours.
    Today there are many more people benefiting from modern-day troubadours, most of which haven't the ability to "perform" their own writings.  Psychiatrists forced Anne Sexton to perform her poetry at $1,000 a performance in order to pay them.  Ted Hughes used Sylvia Plath's writings to obtain money enough to buy a vacation home for his new wife and family.  But even today publishers and book sellers are benefiting from the writings of Sexton and Plath far more than they themselves did.  Perhaps the greed of these people will cause the poetry of Plath and Sexton to approach more closely to immortality than the writings of better poets who never achieved the celebrity of a madness culminating in a romantic suicide providing a plethora of critical remoras who benefited and still benefit from their debris.  Surely the practical minded publishers and book sellers are wiser in choosing the money to be made from poor or dead poets than the poets themselves who have given their lives for nothing that has a chance of living more than a few centuries.  Surely the pessimistic Koholeth was far ahead of his time -- or have we always been like this?


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Spivack, Sexton and the Troubadours

Toward the end of her life, Anne Sexton had a $60,000 Psychiatric bill so she went on the road in order to acquire enough money to pay it.  She would saunter up onto the stage, kick off her shoes, light a cigarette, take a puff, breath it out as she looked about at the audience and then in a beautiful husky voice say something like, "you need to know what kind of of poet I am; so if you aren't looking for my kind you may as well leave now.  Here's the kind of poet I am," and then she'd quote her poem,

    I have gone out, a possessed witch,
    haunting the black air, braver at night;
    dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
    over the plain houses, light by light:
    lonely thin, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
    A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
    I have been her kind.

    I have found the warm caves in the woods,
    filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
    closets, silks, innumerable goods;
    fixed the suppers for the worms and elves:
    whining, rearranging the disaligned.
    A woman like that is misunderstood.
    I have been her kind.

    I have ridden in your cart, driver,
    waved my nude arms at villages going by,
    learning the last bright routes, survivor
    where your flames still bite my thigh
    and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
    A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
    I have been her kind.

And of course the audience exploded.  They loved her and they loved her poem.  I read this poem way back when I first bought To Bedlam and Part Way Back and wasn't terribly impressed, but upon reading Kathleen Spivack's description of Sexton's "performance" I was much much more so.  I would have applauded like the rest had I been there to here her, but since I wasn't, since I had just the bare words to read back when I first read it, I was not nearly as impressed.  Even now if when I try to divorce myself from the image  of the performance Spivack created I don't know that I would class the poem as great.  It has definitely gone up in my current estimation but there is something of her psychosis in it, the last two lines especially.  She wrote about death a lot and then later on committed suicide.  It is possible to read the poem as though she were a sort of combat veteran.  She survived her wars and therefore is to be admired as a person.  But from our vantage point she didn't survive.  Does that fact affect worth of this poem.  I feel ambivalent when asking myself that question. 
    Spivack wrote, "Anne committed suicide partly as a reaction to her psychiatrist's making love to her during her sessions and then suddenly jilting her when he was afraid his wife would find out.  The violation of Anne's trust by at least two of her psychiatrists was appalling.  Not only were they unable to help her during her life; they seem to have been unable to control their lust for sex, financial profit, and notoriety through her.  It is blind profiteering that has led others to justify this exploitation.  What is clear is the extreme violation of ethics."
    Spivack admits that these psychiatrists were only partly responsible because Anne was truly psychotic, if clinical depression is a psychosis and I think it is.  The same thing was true of Sylvia Plath but in her case it was her husband Ted who engaged in "profiteering" after she committed suicide.  One notorious example is his completing her novel "The Bell Jar" after her suicide in order to use the profits to buy a vacation home for his new wife and family. 
    And then back in 1994 I read the excellent History of Provencal Poetry, the 1860 translation by G. J. Adler of C. C. Fauriel's French original.  It had a powerful effect, probably more so than I can remember or describe, but I recall that very little is known about those early troubadours.  Some poems have come down to us in the Provencal language but not the music that went with them.  Troubadours went through something that would today be called Troubadour school.  Perhaps they would make up the melodies as they sang, or sing melodies that would change from troubadour to troubadour. 
    The troubadours sang about love.  Fauriel (translated by Adler) wrote, "Arnaud de Marveil is one of that very limited number of Trobadours who are known to have admired and celebrated one lady only.  This unity of object would give an additional interest to his pieces, if all of them were yet extant, or if we could only succeed in arranging those which are left us according to the order in which they were produced.  Sweetness and an elegant correctness constitute the principal characteristics of his poetry."
    These troubadours wrote their own material.  I don't recall if troubadours borrowed each other's stuff.  Since they were singing their deepest love to some particular lady it doesn't seem reasonable that they would, unless they were being devious. 
    Moving back into these modern times, it seems that we can now preserve not only the words of songs but the singing of them as well -- a very recent development.  If one listens to the poor recordings of opera singers of the 1920s one must take the word of critics who claim they were great, for we can't tell it from the very poor recordings.  But these singers, we now note, were the performers of the music written by others and if they lived before technology made it possible to listen to them at their best, their performing ability has been lost but not so the written compositions.  The creative artists were the composers who may or may not have performed their work as well:  Rossini, Mozart, Bellini, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, etc.
     But today it seems enough, more than enough, to be an excellent performer, actor, singer.  We don't care so much about compositions any longer and of course poetry is all about composition so who needs it?  We could say that Anne Sexton was a superb performer, but that wasn't her goal.  She was doing it to pay the Psychiatrists who were hastening her death.
    Now it is true that if a poet acquires celebrity, grows her name, it will benefit her in the eyes of those who aren't poets.  But the day will come when some professor like Hughes will ask his class, "what do you think of Anne Sexton, major or minor?" And when no one in the class has the courage to voice an opinion, he will waggle one of his hands and say, "minor, I will say," though her poems and the biographies about her will maintain her celebrity in good condition, probably for a long time.

Spivack's With Robert Lowell

  Could I ever "have gone on the road" so to speak?  Poets have a "road" as well as singers and musicians.  I learned about it in college, but struggling on the GI Bill and having married with a kid on the way never seriously considered it.  But had I not married could I have gone?  I have been reading Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and his Circle, published 2012.  Lowell was obviously "on it" as were Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and little Kathleen.  I've never read any of Spivack's poetry, don't really expect much from it but ordered one of her collections just to see.  How can I assume something like that, that though she went on the road and became a successful poet that her poetry won't be great, perhaps not even very good?  She says, in effect, in her book, that becoming a "great poet" is to a great extent about "celebrity."  You needn't be a major poet who writes "major poems" to be successful.  You just need to become a celebrity like Lowell, Plath and Sexton. 
    Lowell before having one of his breakdowns would engage in something Spivack writes as one of his "'mirror, mirror, mirror on the wall.  Who is the greatest poet of them all' monologues."  Spivack doesn't give the impression that she was interested in being one, one who presumed to write great poetry, poetry like Elizabeth Bishop wrote.  Once Lowell asked his class whether they thought Elizabeth Bishop was a major or minor poet.  He loved Bishop and loved her poetry but, reluctantly, rated her not-quite-major.
    Kathleen Spivack was the daughter of Austrians Peter and Doris Drucker.  They fled Austria when they had to and Kathleen was born in 1938 (I think after they got here, but I may be wrong about the date).  Peter was a mathematician, renowned in Austria and before too long became renowned in America.  He wanted his daughter to become a scientist, but she failed all her science classes "on purpose."  Peter didn't understand English well enough to appreciate poetry but when Kathleen published her first poem in a major magazine, Peter was delighted and showed the poem to his colleagues.  He was very proud of her accomplishment, and Kathleen seems to be the same way.  She seems prouder of the fact that she studied under Lowell, became his friend and confident, and played ping pong with Elizabeth Bishop than she is about her poetry.  She isn't crass about it, but she values celebrity as did her mathematician father and, perhaps, as do all those who "go on the road."
    Of course "going on the road" doesn't mean that you can't be a "major poet," in Lowell's terms, but I've often wondered about Lowell in those same terms - that is, is he himself a major poet?  In the past I thought not, but all that celebrity, as seen in articles by PhD's making names for themselves by writing books about him, I succumbed and began reading more of his stuff, much as I've just started reading more by the celebrity-poet Ted Hughes (here in the U.S., I recently read, critics don't like Hughes' stuff, but back in England they think him wonderful, and if there was any problem with his marriage to that American blond Hughes-groupie, it was sure to be her fault). 
    Interestingly Hughes liked Anne Sexton better than he did Sylvia Plath.  Anne was the standout poet (partly because she was the best-looking perhaps -- this isn't a slur.  Spivack assisted him in the selection of students for his classes and he admitted this to her.  His female students needed to be good looking) in his class.  Plath according to Hughes, died before she had written more than five really good poems and so can never be considered major.  Anne Sexton was doing well with her ground-breaking confessional stuff, but she never grew beyond it which was a great disappointment to Lowell. 
    Kathleen Spivack lists names of poets from time to time, names of people she considers to be "fine poets," and perhaps they are, so I'm sending for a few of the books she considers exceptionally fine.  How after all can I trust my own views about such matters?  I started college after I had been a Sergeant in the Marine Corps.  How could such a person bow the knee like Spivack did and follow some celebrity deemed (by critics who followed those on the road) great, someone like Lowell?  I simply had the wrong attitude -- probably still do.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hughes "A Modest Proposal"

Also in The Hawk in the Rain collection is the poem "A Modest Proposal."  The idea that the hawk in The Hawk in the Rain might have been Sylvia was perhaps novel, but there is little doubt that she has become a wolf in this one.  Here is Hughes' first stanza:

    There is no better way to know us
    Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.
    Now neither's able to sleep -- even at a distance
    Distracted by the soft competing pulse
    Of the other; nor able to hunt -- at every step
    Looking backwards and sideways, warying to listen
    For other's slavering rush.  Neither can make die
    The painful burning of the coal in its heart
    Till the other's body and the whole wood is its own.
    Then it might sob contentment toward the moon.

    [Plainer English in the first line might have been, "there is no better way for us to know each other," so did Hughes mean more or something else than that?  He doesn't seem concerned about anyone else knowing them in the rest of the poem so I'll assume not.
    The next seven lines seem straightforward which pretty much describes the human condition for the more intense of us.  I can understand "Till the other's body" is desired, but "the whole wood"?  At this point owning the whole wood isn't clear, but see below.]

The next stanza reads,

    Each in a thicket, rage hoarse in its labouring
    Chest after a skirmish, licks the rents in its hide,
    Eyes brighter than is natural under the leaves
    (Where the wren, peeping round a leaf, shrieks out
    To see a chink so terrifyingly open
    Onto the red smelting of hatred) as each
    Pictures a mad final satisfaction

    [These wolves, Ted and Sylvia, retire to their individual thickets to nurse their individual wounds.  In line three we learn (gratuitously? "Eyes brighter than natural under he leaves" -- surely that would be assumed.  However, the next line perplexes.  Not only are both these wolves under leaves with their bright eyes, but a wren is under there with them (one wren, two sets of leaves).  What is the wren up to?  Is this the Day of the Wren, St. Stephen's Day?  Is the wren betraying one or both of these wolves?  Is he doing that simply because it is his nature?  He seems to be more sympathetic than that.  He is crying out to see "a chink," presumably a bloody chink in one or both of the wolves "terrifyingly open."
    In the next line "Onto the red smelting of hatred" strikes me as awkward.  Had Hughes written "To the red smelting of hatred" I might have imagined the wren warning these wolves that if they kept it up they were risking their passion turning from love to hatred.  "Onto" seems to reach for something more abstract and less sensible.  The last phrase, "as each pictures a mad final satisfaction" describes each wolf imagining the defeat of the other -- something the clever wren might well be shrieking his warning against.  On the other hand he is more probably warning against what is about to occur in the final stanza:]

     Suddenly they duck and peer.
                                                        And there rides by
    The great lord from hunting.  His embroidered
    Cloak floats, the tail of his horse pours,
    And at his stirrup the two great-eyed greyhounds
    That day after day bring down the towering stag
    Leap like one, making delighted sounds.

[One is tempted to conclude that Hughes is here recommending this peaceful alternative to their present violent relationship.   But that doesn't seem likely.  It wasn't in either of them (at least at this time) to become domesticated, to take on the patronage of a great lord, to run at his side making delighted sounds (in their poetry).  There would be no hope of owning the whole wood, for it would belong to the Lord.  One may think of Wyatt's "Whoso lists to hunt, I know where is an hind . . .'  In Wyatt's poem the deer Lord's preserve is dangerous:  "And graven with diamonds in letters plain / There is written, her fair neck round about: / Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,  / and wild for to hold though I seem tame."  But Hughes intends something wilder, two wolves laying waste their powers not hunting (writing) but fighting each other.  They are not able to hunt, which would mean success of a different kind.  They rend each other while the wren shrieks.  On the other hand they can only "duck and peer" at the alternative.  They are after all wolves and not greyhounds.  They make fierce and not delighted sounds -- in the wood, which is the place where poetry is made.  Although, if one thinks forward to Plath's Ariel one sees that she hunted quite well in her fury.]

Hughes’ Hawk Roosting

Whereas in "the Hawk in the Rain" Hughes watches the hawk, admires it, but knows it will one day be smashed, in the uncollected poem "Hawk Roosting" Hughes becomes the hawk.  Perhaps I have been influenced over the years by anti-Hughes rants but he has been frequently described as a predator, chalking up female conquests.  Even if that were not true (and I think it is) I would think he would want to avoid identifying himself (to his readers) as a predator, and not just any predator but one (unlike the hawk in the rain) who holds Creation in his foot.  Now perhaps this “creation” is his writing of poetry, but the poem must stand on the obvious level as well; which means Hughes identifying himself as a predator.

But Hughes is probably a different sort of hawk: "I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed."  I have several photos of hawks sitting near or at the top of trees, but I can't quite picture one sitting at the top of a wood (of course the “wood” is developed more fully in “A Modest Proposal” and he may be meaning the same thing in this poem: the realm of poetry).  As to their eyes being closed, they never seem to miss our approach.  The idea of surprising a hawk in a tree is inconceivable to me.

"Inaction, no falsifying dream / Between my hooked head and hooked feet:"  He isn't moving and if he is dreaming it isn't a false dream.  It is a dream "between" his head and feet" presumably meaning the reality of him, hooked, the hook being weapon-like; although I'm not sure "between" works at this point.  And if he is sleeping and dreams it is all about killing and eating which is what he is all about -- an unconflicted predator (Killing and eating being Hughes symbol, perhaps, of writing poetry).  "Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat."  Why does Hughes anthropomorphize this hawk as himself?  What is killing and eating a metaphor of if not for the conquests he was engaging in prior to the time of this poem? Does it really work as a symbol for his writing?]

In the second stanza this hawk is viewing the woods as being for his convenience, the high trees, air's buoyancy and the suns's ray "are of advantage to me" /  And the earth's face upward for my inspection"  [quite an arrogant hawk]  continues in stanza three "My feet are locked upon he rough bark. / It took the whole of Creation / To produce my foot, my each feather: / Now I hold Creation in my foot /"  [One must come to a decision about whether Hughes is identifying with this hawk, as he seems to be, writing as he is in the first person" or disapproving of this hawk's arrogance which, it seems to me, involves reading into the poem something that isn't there.  Beyond that, the symbol being used for Hughes poetic process requires reading even more into his poem.]

Repeating the last line of stanza three "Now I hold Creation in my foot" / and continuing on to stanza four: "Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -- /
I kill where I please because it is all mine. / There is no sophistry in my body: / My manners are tearing off heads -- /"  And on to stanza five: "The allotment of death. / For the one path of my flight is direct / Through the bones of the living. / No arguments assert my right: /" [He needs no arguments to assert his right because his "might" does that for him and in the last stanza the sun asserts his right as well being behind him:  "The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this."]

"Hawk Roosting," according to the note on page 1244 of the 2003 edition of Ted Hughes, Collected Poems was written in 1959.  Hughes would have been 28 or 29.  Was he feeling arrogant back then, was he critical of people who seemed arrogant, or is he merely using the image of the hawk killing and eating as an arcane symbol of his poetic process.

Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain

Perhaps my problem (if it is my problem) is that I don't relate well enough to Hughes.  Take the the first stanza of the title poem of his 1957 volume The Hawk in the Rain.  Hughes dramatizes a walk in the rain by beginning "I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up / Heel after heel from the swallowing earth's mouth, / From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle / With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk /" 

Having had the experience of trudging through a soggy field like the one Hughes describes, my first thought was "what was he doing out there to begin with"?  If I am hiking and see that sort of muck in my way, I do my best to go around it.  Also, I wear boots appropriate to my hikes -- high-top boots and have never had mud get over the top of them and down to my ankles.  But I could imagine that by accident and not paying attention to where I was going getting into some mud like that, but if I did, I would be quite sure I would never see a hawk flying about in rain Hughes subsequently describes.  Hawks around here (and maybe British hawks are different) don't fly about in the rain at least not very far, and they never "hang" in it.  And then too (giving Hughes a bit more benefit of doubt) a Southern California hawk will typically have but a short time to wait before the rain stops whereas a British hawk may have to get out there in it or go hungry.

Though it is raining, Hughes hawk is unaffected:  "Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye." [not to mention the rest of him]/  His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet," [I'm sorry but this Atlas of a British hawk is way beyond my hawk experience.]/ Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air. /  [Are Hughes hallucinations steady?  In thinking back I may have had one or two fleeting hallucinations caused if I remember correctly by the shimmering (and not steady) heat of a summer day].   [Also note that the "streaming air" implies as the title tells us that it is raining.  Hawks do indeed seem to hang in dry ordinary air, but I've never seen one do it in a downpour, but perhaps I was too busy rushing back to my Jeep to notice.  Still, I wouldn't think one could manage.]  "While banging wind kiss these stubborn hedges" [Not only is the hawk "hanging" in a heavy rain but he his "hanging" in wind so heavy that it is killing hedges that Hughes describes as "stubborn" but not so stubborn apparently as to avoid death.]

In the third stanza the banging wind branches out:  "Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,/ and rain hacks my head to the bone,"  [This very superior wind doesn't daunt the hawk:] "the hawk [still] hangs / The diamond point of will [my hawks are rather easily daunted by weather and their "will" doesn't challenge us as we hike along.  They don't let us get too close before flying off to a tree further away.  They don't take chances if they can help it.] "that polestars / The sea drowner's endurance: and I," ["sea drowner"?  What does that mean?  Rain doesn't drown the sea.  Maybe by stretching our imaginations we can say it was raining so heavily that it was almost drowning us like the sea could, but wouldn't such a dense rain prevent us from seeing a hawk?  Not to mention seeing a hawk hang?]

The fourth stanza continues from "and I," / "Bloodily grabbed" [Hold it!  Was it raining so hard that it broke his skin and made him bloody?  I thought I had been out in heavy rain before, but never anything like this.] dazed last-moment-counting / Morsel in the earth's mouth, [I guess the muck that he is walking in, that is sucking his feet, and dampening his ankles like a "dogged grave" might seem in this rain and wind storm strong enough to make him think his "last-moment" had arrived and that the sucking muck he was walking or standing in was like the "earth's mouth," but does he really count his last moment?  No, he "strain towards the master- / fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still / [the only thing that makes sense at his point is that the hawk is imagined, for no real hawk, at least no hawk I've ever seen, would be able, not to mention, willing to "hang still" in such a wind and rain storm.]

This fourth stanza ends with the line "That maybe in his own time meets the weather" [and resumes in the last stanza, stanza five] "Coming the wrong way" [Gosh, if the weather Hughes has been describing isn't "wrong way" weather then British weather must be truly unimaginable -- at least to me], "suffers the air, hurled upside down, / Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him, / The horizon trap him; the found angelic eye / Smashed, mix his heart's blood with the mire of the land."  [Why after building up this hanging super-hawk to such an extent does he find it necessary to dash him to the ground?  And notice that he isn't just dying of old age hanging about, he is "hurled upside down" and then "Smashed" and mixed with the mire Hughes is trudging through.}

And so the poem ends.  The hawk, though hanging unperturbed in the midst of a furious rain and wind storm gets caught later on by a rain and wind storm "coming the wrong way" [do they really have wrong-way rain and wind storms in Britain?] and smashed to death.    What are we to make of it?  All things, even super-hawks die?  Or the nuance, all things even super-hawks hang in the midst of the world's fury, whatever that fury consists of until the world sends a "wrong-way" storm to confound and kill us?]

We've discussed the nature of hawks and what Hughes might be doing in a the muddy field in the midst of a rain storm, but we haven't discussed whether this is a good poem.  Taking it at face value, I don't believe it is.  It fails at too many levels -- even if we learn as we have that Hughes spent a lot of time around English animals.  But there is another way to take this poem.  Sylvia Plath died in 1963 and I read some place that she and Ted had been together for seven years; so the Hawk in the Rain (published in 1957) might have been written in the early days of their relationship (and if not Sylvia then some previous lover); so lets examine it as Ted being an unrequited lover: In the first stanza he feels as though each step is difficult like walking in a soggy ploughland whereas Sylvia hangs ["his"? would Ted mean the hawk to be Sylvia if he wrote "his"?] hangs effortlessly up high, holding all the power in their relationship -- all creation.  The "weather" of their relationship thumbs his eyes, throws his breath and tackles his heart -- an unrequited lover might fancy these hyperboles.  Meanwhile, he tells us, Sylvia is a "diamond point" polestaring his sea-drowning endurance; that is, he continues to strive toward her.  He is bloody and dazed, walking as though each step is his last.  However, Sylvia should be warned; she may one day be in other circumstances where her world is turned upside down -- where she can no longer hang high but instead falls and is smashed into the very muck that hitherto was beneath her.

The biggest flaw in this interpretation is that Hughes refers to the hawk as being male.  Could something have occurred in their early relationship where he referred to her as assuming male-like dominance?  Or, if Hughes was referring to some previous lover, perhaps he changed "her" to "his" so as not to offend Sylvia.

If my hypothesis is near the truth, does that improve this poem in my eyes?  Perhaps a little.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


    Finding the cache of bones,
    Spear-points and skulls,
    Seeing the large bones
    Split for marrow
    Convinced the archaeologists
    Of ritual sacrifice
    Midway through

    The Roman invasion.
    Force was of no avail
    Against its Legions.
    Blood needed to be
    Shed to appease the
    Gods; then even so
    The Romans won.

    Who can say what they
    Would have done given the
    Coercive sway of priests?
    Some would no doubt
    Slip away to avoid a
    Bloody end as today
    Occurs symbolically:

    The insistence on religious
    Rules, bowing one’s head
    To God or God’s priests
    And how you bow
    And sing and suppose.
    Don’t think you’ll slip
    Away without a wound.

Friday, February 5, 2016


    I thought about smoking –
    Should take longer
    Than I’ve got to get
    Cancer – Can’t take up
    Drinking – used to make me
    Wild – more trouble than
    I’ve energy for now.

    No point trying to
    Sing with no one
    But Duffy and Ben to hear,
    Cocking their heads as they
    Would, wondering what I was
    Doing, losing interest – know
    What that’s like.  Down stairs

    For all those years was her
    World – no point saving it
    Now, might keep a few
    Pieces – let people know
    She once lived here and
    Was ready for relatives and
    Friends with smiles to which

    I’d been addicted – inhaled them
    With my eyes.  She didn’t seem
    To mind, laughing with all
    Those others – all those empty
    Saucers and cups – no one will
    Mind if I take them, drink
    Espresso till my thoughts
    Bubble and fizz – glowering
    Up through the trees at the
    Mountain – leaning back
    In my chair – can’t
    Keep dust from covering
    Everything each morning
    With the sun.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


    Outside a mountain restaurant
    We ate submarines, drank
    Coke and looked further
    Then we ever had up from
    My SR500 parked out front.
    I sat near everything back then,
    And on the sand that night

    You bundled up and smiled
    As the breeze ruffled your hair
    Across your eyes sparkling
    With stars.  Drinking espresso
    Now from a corpse powder
    China cup, palpably
    Compressed stress

    Thrummed my mind making my
    Eyelids twitch; something
    In the clouds was humming.
    This might be something new.
    I slid my Marine Corps knife
    Closer to hand, looked over
    At Duffy napping.  Surely he
    Would know.  I shoved it aside
    And took a sip.  Sometimes
    It is just my mind, one or two
    Sounds like words, probably
    Nonsense repeated as though
    There wasn’t enough there already
    And I didn’t know what it meant.