Gods, Heroes and Foxes
December 7, 2011
Robyn reflects on Ted Hughes, and Kay on Christopher Logue, who died on 2 December.
The only time I heard Ted Hughes read was at Westminster Abbey in 1985, when the stone honouring sixteen poets of the First World War was unveiled. He had an incredibly powerful presence – I could have listened to him read all day. It was the year he became Poet Laureate, and he wrote to his old friend Terence McCaughey: ‘What is most strange of all is the role I now play in the rusty locked-up heart of the Anglo-Saxon common man woman and child. Very peculiar.’ Now it’s his turn to be honoured, with the stone unveiled yesterday, adjacent to that of T.S. Eliot, his publisher. Hughes’s stone is inscribed with lovely lines from his poem ‘That Morning’: ‘So we found the end of our journey / So we stood alive in the river of light / Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.’
Liz Lochhead has recently been down to Mytholmroyd, Hughes’s birthplace, to judge the poetry competition run by the Elmet Trust. I asked her what her favourite Hughes poem is, and she plumped for ‘The Thought Fox’, that vivid evocation of the animal and the arrival of a poem. Hughes himself remarked that ‘occasionally I could enjoy the beautiful experience of breaking though a sound barrier and floating at a speed beyond sound, effortless; that happened in the little poem Thought Fox.’
Saying these things Patroclus died.
And as his soul went through the sand
Hector withdrew his spear and said:
It was the right poetic encounter at the right time. As a third-year undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, with an embryonic dissertation title on a post-it note (‘MYTH & POSSIBLY RETELLINGS?’), I put out a plea: what am I missing? A friend on the other side of the pond responded with the passage above, from Christopher Logue’s War Music, presented without comment. And she was right.
To say War Music blew the cobwebs away is an understatement: it was more vivid than any action sequence on film, with moments that couldn’t have been more different from my standard diet of nineteenth-century books about books. In one case ‘APOLLO!’ fills the spread of two pages , to be followed by ‘Who had been patient with you, / Struck.’ The god’s strike is after the turn of the page and in standard type size: a tiny gesture from a massive presence, and a perfect illustration of the positions of gods and men in Logue’s version of Homer’s epic.
Everything, including the short introduction, bore reading again and again. Like my friend, I went on to press it on others with urgency and to read the subsequent additions: Kings (1991), The Husbands (1995), All Day Permanent Red (2004) and Cold Calls (2005). Its stamp on my mind is indelible.
All power to the poets, whose work never dies.