I am thinking of a walk I took in the last of the late summer of 2019. I am reminded of it by the sound of the trees that I now hear every morning from my new office on the other side of the house. These are big, graceful, beautiful trees which are clustered along one edge of a field and horse stables, land belonging to a farm in the village I live in. My morning routine is an early one, i like the dream time at the beginning of the day, when my brain hasn’t settled itself into worry and routine: meditation, journal writing, coffee, work. The first thing I do each day is to pad, barefoot, into the new office, my writing room, and open the window for the breeze and the trees. I feel I breathe better around trees. I don’t think it’s the extra oxygen or anything to do with any sort of chemical reaction, I think it’s the sound. I have loved the sound all my life. And today I am reminded of a Ted Hughes poem because I am reminded by the trees, by the sound of the trees outside my writing room. I am reminded of a walk I took last summer when it was not something unusual to seek out the landscape and the feel of muscle burning, feet gripping, the push and climb of walking. I had driven to a spot I know, somewhere I came across while I was a professional dog walker. I had seen a sun rise here once and wanted to capture it with my camera. It was early, not even six. There was just me. I slipped out from among the houses of the nearby village, where I had parked the car, and climbed a steep slope to the woods. I did get the picture I was looking for: the sun rise, I got it coming over a hill which was smoothed to white with morning mist, the scene broken by rolls of hay bales.
I entered the woods with reverence for this quiet, creaking place of unseen wings flapping, and the breaking of dry twigs by who knows what. There were deer here, I’d seen them before, and I’d seen a sparrow hawk here too. The sun filtered silently down. Though I tried to walk quietly, it was impossible not to crunch and scrape over the dense detritus of the forest floor. I must have alerted all animals in the area to the fact I was there. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife except the roe deer. This was a plantation forest, neat, except where it wasn’t. I don’t know the first thing about plantations, but at some point the straight, chalky path fell away and the trees were different, straggling, their roots exposed. There is something watchful about forests, about trees. After doing quite a lot of research around them for a course I ran last year, I genuinely believe they are watching, communicating with each other, testing the air for chemical danger signs. In the darkest part of the forest there was a dead bird, it had once been a pigeon, but now it was just wings, a rib cage, not much else. It lay among the soft detritus of the forest floor. I don’t know why I would remember it so keenly except that its coloured had muted and it seemed to be becoming the forest, as if through osmosis it was being absorbed back into the earth. That image arrived in one of my own poems years later. At some point I sat down on some exposed roots and inhaled the smoky, earthy smell f the trees. I closed my eyes and listened to the slight movement that had begun as a breeze began to lift from the coast. I breathed it in. And then I saw the deer. They were doing nothing, and by that I don’t mean that they were stood still and listening, they were doing nothing: not sleeping, not resting, they were laid delicately on their knees, or stood by the trees staring into the middle distance, as if they were at the side of a stage waiting to go on. They were not aware of me, I must have been down wind and I realised that the way I had always seen animals was really the way they were reacting to me, I realised that I had very rarely seen a roe deer simply being. It reminded me of this Ted Hughes poem, which I am reminded of today as I watch the trees from my window, because poetry speaks like that, doesn’t it, in ripples.
THE HORSES, TED HUGHES
I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,
Not a leaf, not a bird-
A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood
Where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness
Till the moorline – blackening dregs of the brightening grey –
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:
Huge in the dense grey- ten together-
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,
With draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.
I passed: not one snorted or jerked its head.
Grey silent fragments
Of a grey still world.
I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.
Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted
Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,
And the big planets hanging-
Stumbling in a fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,
And came the horses.
There, still they stood,
But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.
Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys, in the red levelling rays-
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.
I had to get my battered old copy of The Hawk in the Rain out to find this poem again and to help me to re-experience the first time I read it. This was one of my starter poems. One of my guiding poems which helped me see that there was room for me in the poetry world. I didn’t really know who Ted Hughes was when I found this collection on a shelf in my local library. But reading it opened something in me. I could feel my own connection to land and nature in it. How wonderful is a poem, that it can be a box in which so many connections are stored. Ted Hughes is not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s difficult to separate the personal and the artistic, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving his work. Why do I love this poem? You can spot a Ted Hughes poem a mile away, and this is definitely one. I like the space in it, all that white around the (mostly) couplets. And look at those line lengths, the poem is moving in and out and in and out. It’s alive, it’s breathing. There’s a rhythm in it, and a great deal of word repetition. One of the things that people critiquing poems pick up on as a negative is the same word used more than once in a poem. But here Hughes knows the power of repetition, and that there is no one rule that fits all poems. This repetition is bold, it works:
making no moves/making no sound.
Frost making stillness/ a world cast in frost.
It’s all about the rhythm, and Hughes poems, especially from this collection, which is early Hughes (1957) are very rhythmic. He is tapping into the oral tradition here, using it, utilising it, building around it and playing with the imagery of gods and myth and magic. He places imagery like monoliths or henge stones. The language itself is also big, gripping, powerful; I want to say masculine, but what is masculine, what is feminine? It’s almost biblical, this narrative in which al things are given personality, power. I think my favourite line of the poem is this:
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.
Isn’t that just the most beautiful, enigmatic, atmospheric line? I would strongly suggest you read this whole poem out aloud, slowly, letting the words rest on your tongue. Go on, do it, you won’t be disappointed.
Jeanette Winterson says: a poem is an act of memory.
Ain’t that the truth. Look at those last four lines, the way the poem circles around and comes back to what is known about life by the narrator.
When I think about Ted Hughes poetry I think of him as being a bridge between the language of the wild world; which is movement and blood and bone, and the language of communication; which is emotion and experience.
Now I am away to re-read The Hawk in the Rain, with the window open and the trees moving in the breeze.
Stay safe and don’t forget I am still taking bookings for the new online course starting 1st May 2020: Walking and Writing