J O Morgan: Reprints and Revivals

October 15, 2010

J.O. Morgan on the titles he’d like to see back in print.

Four books by Ted Hughes. Each an example of his interest in artistic collaboration, of different ways to present a book, of books that have a particular singular theme – not necessarily narrative in form. The pictures in these books are not presented as a mere aid to the richness of Hughes’s wording, nor to make the poetry more accessible to younger readers. On each the phrase is  “drawings by” not illustrations. The pictures are distinct within themselves. Their artistry to match in pen and paint what Hughes achieves in language.

1963 – the earth-owl and other moon-people
Six years before Buzz & Neil set their prints into the lunar dust, Hughes showed the terrors that might await them. The fluctuating length of lines and simplicity of the rhymes fit perfectly the playfulness; as intriguingly inventive in form as the host of hostilities the moonscape provides. On the moon, even numbers can kill. R.A.Brandt provides the drawings. They are hazy. Shadowy. Like bark rubbings. A specific indistinctness that allows the horror depicted to complete itself within the viewer’s mind.

1978 – Cave Birds (an alchemical cave drama)
The foot-long format of this book suggests why it received no reprint. On the left of each double page: a poem, as rich in death and viscera as ‘Crow’. On the right: an ink drawing by Leonard Baskin, as scratchily feathered and bloated as the drawing for ‘Crow’. The similarity of form and execution is clear, though the story within: less so. Does each picture match each poem? Sometimes it would seem: no. As though two separate trains of thought had come together inone book, both offered up for careful vivisection.

1984 – What Is The Truth?
That same big-page format. The story:  God and his Son descend by night to the hill top of a rural village, to summon souls from sleep and hear of creatures that the villagers have encountered. The farmer’s soul sings of partridges to be shot, the farmer’s son of his tamed badger, Bess. Chalk and charcoal drawings by R.J. Lloyd intermingle with the text; busy imagery, space-filling; many show the bright circle of the moon. The songs are long, are stories in themselves. The book’s question will be answered by its end.

1986 – Flowers and Insects (Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders)
The most conventional of the four books. Individual poems with a naturalistic bent. With here and there a watercolour by Leonard Baskin; impressionistic plants, sharply detailed beasts. A deft examination of minute complexity in living things. These works exemplify how poetry need not merely be collective, how poetry need not merely be words. If only they were back on the shelves – they wouldn’t linger there for long.

J. O. Morgan’s book-length narrative poem, Natural Mechanical (CB Editions, 2008) won the Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, Issue 6.

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