Saturday, 11 June 2016

Fox Thoughts

 Since becoming Poet in Residence at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, my thoughts have naturally turned increasingly to the poetry of Ted Hughes.  One important element of this residency that I intend to focus on is my wavering relationship with Hughes' work, and my ongoing quest to explore and embrace the aspects of his poetry which delight, move or inspire me.  I have often struggled with the great body of poetry which comprises Hughes' published work, of which I have, at best, a pedestrian knowledge.  And yet, somewhat ironically, though not untypically for poets of my generation, Hughes was one of the poets whose work I grappled with, and loved, as a teenager. I refer in fact to one poem in particular - The Thought Fox.

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Hughes' first line reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Windhover; his second is positively chilling.  I think of The Traveller by Walter de la Mare, yet in a more brooding atmosphere, as the coldness of the clock and the poet's blank page seem to shiver in a halo of frost.  The next stanza maintains a feeling of uncertainty, with Hughes now casting a glance into the night outside:

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

The colon intensifies our sense of the approach.  As the "Something" from the forest begins to emerge, the poem unravels into a kind of metaphorical double bluff: just as Hughes begins to lift the veil, we find that the fox's nose which Cold, delicately as the dark snow ... touches a twig is not representative of a real, living creature - but the foot prints padding into the snow of the poets mind.  Hughes, with his shadowy thought-fox lagging across the clearings of his imagination, has transposed a poet's muse, his consciousness, the inner workings of his brain, into the animal Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about its own business and entering the dark hole of the head until finally

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed. 

Published in 1957, The Thought Fox first appeared in Hughes' debut collection, was often his opening poem at readings, and one which he would sometimes describe as "my first animal poem."  Hughes also chose to start the selections in his Selected Poems and New Selected Poems with the piece - suggesting, as surmised by the poet and literary critic Keith Sagar, that the Edenic invocation of its opening words - I imagine - implies that he thought of it as an overture announcing the central theme of all his subsequent poems.  It would seem fitting, then, that like many other readers I had my first introduction to Hughes through this poem, with its quiet, delicate and yet very solid imageryAround twenty years ago now, I encountered the poem while studying English, in an inner-city comprehensive, surely a world away from Hughes' midnight forests and deepening greenness, yet immediately felt grounded in the senses of the cold, starless and lonely scene described - and visualizing the imaginary fox with a tangible sense of physical reality.

I first saw a fox in the early hours of a London morning, its fiery body weaving in and out of the alley-like warrens of east-end streets which jutted off the High Road in Leytonstone, stopping momentarily to fix me in a cautious, inquisitive, considered stare, before swooping back into the snickets and leaving me in the lamplight, impressed and somehow changed.  That part of London, with its endless takeaways and overflowing litter bins, was a magnet for the urban fox, while its greener stretches, where the town tapered into open fields and the wide green space of Wanstead Flats, no doubt provided an environment conducive for its untroubled domesticity - save that is, for the constant threat of traffic from the M11, winding round the greenbelt like a skeleton - or a noose.

In the early days of 2005, in a car on the outskirts of Leeds, I saw a fox in very different circumstances.  The so-called "ban" on Hunting with Dogs had come into effect days earlier, and was the stuff of much controversy.  It ought to have been fitting to have glimpsed such a creature, on a winter evening.  But sadly this fox was dead, a road casualty laid by some kind soul for its own posthumous dignity on the central reservation, its drying blood staining the snowy grass in a deep dark residue.
It would be some years before I saw a fox once more in the prime of life - but when I finally did, it seemed like the cork had been popped on a bottleneck of foxes.  Over the years I would watch them, diving and plummeting into undergrowth in urban woods, drifting through the long grass in the roadside copse of the suburb where I lived, or prowling like Hughes' thought-fox, by stump and in hollow.  

I like to see foxes in the country, but I have seen far more in cities and towns:


of russet muscularity
knee high
and up to your eyes
in dandelions,
most feline
of your kind,
the always searching canid,
sinewy and taut,
prodigal child
of the copse:
no sooner had you
brushed against a fence
emerging from sedge
as if to prove, “I still exist,”
than the glimpse of you was gone—
a second’s shred
in which to see
that tail, ash-
white copper-coalesced
trailing like a newly lit

Of the 280,000 or so foxes here in Britain, around 30,000 are those who have adapted to urban life, 10,000 of which are in London alone.  Their rural cousins were for many centuries subjected to a cycle of abuse, whereby their numbers were boosted to unsustainable levels, beefed up by secret feeding programmes and tricks like "artificial earths, and - once numbers had grown to sufficiently high levels - hunted for sport.  Or foxes were persecuted for a problem they did not create -  blamed for predating on farm animals, despite the wealth of proven alternatives to lethal management.  Today's fox hunting remains as active as ever, but its worst aspects have been subdued by means of various legal loopholes.  Despite my great dissatisfaction with the ban - in reality little more than a rule-change to the sickly "sport" - I would certainly agree that its implementation represented a welcome step forward in the hope of an eventual, complete, end to hunting.  But instead, the rule change looks likely to serve as a time-lock on the practice, with precious little chance of any future government daring to risk igniting the unexpected Parliamentary and media volcano which erupted in the midst of the Hunting Act and its debates - an eruption best (worst?) typified the arrival of a boisterous gang of hunters bursting into the House of Commons, violently abusing those inside, kicking a doorkeeper, shouting and running amok - a display of petulant, threatening yobbery whose thuggish instigators should have been imprisoned.
The brutality of hunting, and the malicious mentality of those who undertake it, are brought into sharp focus by the Rotherham-born poet and factory owner Ebeneezer Elliott (1771-1849) :

What Gods are these? Bright red, or white and green,
Some of them jockey-capp'd and some in hats,
The gods of vermin have their runs, like rats.
Each has six legs, four moving, pendent two,
Like bottled tails, the tilting four between.
Behold Land-Interest's compound Man-and-Horse,
Which so enchants his outraged helot-crew,
Hedge-gapping, with his horn, and view-halloo,
O'er hunter's clover--glorious broom and gorse!

Known as The Corn Law Rhymer for his opposition to that law, it is safe to say that Elliott - whose interest in the welfare of his workers, and the labouring classes generally, earned him a reputation as a fierce opponent of injustice - would not have found himself, like his fellow Yorkshireman Ted Hughes, ever faced with the probability of the Poet Laureateship.  Although its functions and particulars may have changed, the central and defining focus of a Poet Laureateship remains the Monarchy, and it would be hard to imagine any member of the royal family - in Elliott's time or ours - ever appointing such a self-confessed opponent of their favourite bloody pastime to the role.  And it is largely on this point that my feelings towards Hughes are most decidedly cool.

For a lot of years I would not read Hughes - never out of the childish spite of one who shuns the work of those with whom they disagree politically for the sake of doing so (if anything it can be quite interesting to delve into the many different perspectives offered by a wider range of reading, and besides, it is once all is said and done the quality of the poetry, not necessarily its themes or the opinions of its author, which counts) - but because I felt, and feel, that there is always an implied, intrinsic dilution to the spirit of independence so integral to poetry when it is written for (or in celebration of) or funded by, an institution of the State, and especially when that institution is an unmistakable metaphor for the status quo, its historical basis, and the crooked social systems which ensure the existence of a greedy, anti-Democratic Establishment, exemplified by the British Monarchy, with its loot of centuries of plunder, its bloodthirsty ancestors, its current pantheon of parasites, and of course their attachment to the barbarity of hunting.

Many times I have read the argument, posited by the poet William Oxley, that any poet whose literary activities are subsidized by the Arts Council or similar public bodies, immediately becomes dependent on, and therefore an arm of, the State - and any essence of free-mindedness or dissent in what they write is therefore, even if only subconsciously, restrained.  I do not disagree with this argument. But I would extend it to the concept of the Poet Laureateship, and am saddened that Hughes, undoubtedly one of the greatest poets in England's history, whose evocations of the mysterious and majestic fox came in a sense to distill the spirit of his poetry, decided consciously to fasten the flag of his creative freedom to the main and central mast of the Establishment - and to a family for whom killing for enjoyment is a leisure activity.

This weekend, the BBC have imposed upon the nation a nauseating wave of sycophancy, encouraging us to celebrate the vacuous life of a woman none of us know, as "the Queen" enjoys her 90th birthday, with consistent inanity from gushing newsreaders and no suggestion that, for many (including royalists) the use of public funds (and charity money) on such an unworthy cause, at a time when vital services are closing due to cuts, is obscene. 
For me, opposing royalty is not a matter of being left or right wing. In fact, it is not a position I consider "political" at all.  It is those advocating the continuation of this silly system who are, in my view, adhering to a political ideology which serves the interests of a single family and their many hangers-on, at the expense of the taxpayer and of public institutions, as I suggested in my poem Anthem:


God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
While the peasants count our blessings,
May Her Highness reign supreme.

Blessed be the Princes
Whose bills we toil to pay
While our Nursing Homes and hospitals
Slide into decay.

Who cares if kids get cancer
And die on under-funded wards?
We must not expect our money back
From Princes, Dukes or Lords.

May we subsidize the spongers
Until our dying days,
Funding drawing room refurbishments
And Harry’s holidays.

After all the good they've done us
Ingratitude's obscene -
Which is why we raise our glasses high, and say as one:
"God Save The Queen!"

Certainly, I would consider any piece of writing commissioned by any organization allied to their ilk as a gross betrayal of civilized values.  For others, the idea of royal patronage is an artistic irrelevance or imposition for yet more good reasons.  Robert Graves, who in 1957 turned down a CBE and, in 1984, a CH, hit the nail on the head when he decried the offering of State "honours" to poets as a move by the government to coax writers into The Establishment. 

Was Ted Hughes an Establishment man?  Should it matter if he was?  No doubt Hughes, like many of his generation, would have felt himself, if ever he addressed the subject at all, as a royalist, perhaps nominally (I always sense the presence of an England more rooted in something Blakean and Pagan, than the brashness of everyday political debate, in Hughes' poetry).  But regardless of his personal beliefs, the legacy of Ted Hughes - one of the dominant elements in Calder Valley poetry and heritage - has been allowed to serve the image and cultural purposes of the royal family.  Recently I asked contemporary Calder Valley poet Steve Nash for his thoughts on Hughes' legacy, and particularly the way in which his poetry is publicly received in the context of the Laureateship.
"Something I always find troubling about the BBC’s coverage of Hughes’ work," Steve explained, "is the repeated emphasis of Prince Charles’ appreciation," citing a documentary in which Charles was featured as the prominent closing voice, as if to say, felt Steve,  that for a poet with working class roots, "it’s only possible to be truly validated if they get a nod (or wave) of approval from the royals."

Great poetry requires no validation from any source, and certainly not from State-funded institutions or the members of a narrow, self-congratulating clique.  Yet I feel, sadly, that Hughes himself would have seen this emphasis on royal endorsement as a good thing.   Certainly, he would give short shrift to my complaints against his rubbing shoulders with the fox hunters.  No doubt, again in common with his age, Hughes would have made an unlikely vegetarian, but his relationship with animals was more complex than the typical, if regrettable, field-to-fork attitudes of most meat eaters.  I do not believe that Hughes himself rode to hounds, but I do know that for much of his childhood, and then again in later life, he engaged in hunting and trapping wildlife, was no stranger to shooting, and that many critics have drawn attention to the conflict in his poetry between an alliance with animals, and a lust for violence said by some - perhaps simplistically - to manifest a kind of skewed stereotypical heterosexual masculinity.  This no doubt is fuel for the fire of future essays and discussions, but for my part, as a relative newcomer to Hughes, or one who has returned after a long absence to read the poems in greater numbers and more depth, I must take each poem, and each portion of Ted Hughes' output, individually, sometimes balancing them in the contextual frame of his life and bibliography, at others preferring to isolate the beautiful and timeless images present in poems like The Thought Fox and holding close their power and acutely empathic observations of the natural world.  

 Photographs and Illustrations: 
1. Manfred Danegger
2.Jane Burton
3.Denys Ovenden
4. Jane Burton

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Fallen Stars - The Poetry of Dandelions

Scorned as a weed and resented by many gardeners for their invasive habit and deep taproots, almost impossible to eradicate from the well-trimmed, sensible garden, dandelions - whose leaves were once prized for their medicinal benefits - today are much-maligned, but in my opinion unjustly so, for the flowers that English poet John Clare (1793 - 1864) described as fallen stars in a sea of grass are beautiful and interesting, have a long, varied history - and have had a not inconsiderable impact on poetry.

Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass, states the great 19th Century American poet Walt Whitman, innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, / The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Indeed, throughout this spring I have been enchanted to lay eyes on the gradual blaze of dandelions - first emerging as the frosts of winter began to grudgingly recede, peppering the avenues and verges through a chilly March, braving the unexpected carpet of snow which descended on my valley in the bittersweet spring.  I saw them as the snow melted, and the hedgerows and grass banks gradually twinkled with red campion, buttercups and periwinkles.  I saw them popping up in gardens, delighting the bees, colonizing hillsides and illuminating woodlands, and sheathing rich green fields in fiery gowns of star-like gold.   As John Clare's poem records:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion 
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass, 
Shining like guineas with the sun's warm eye on-- 
We almost think they are gold as we pass

The plants we group under the banner of the dandelions are generally those which are found within the Taraxacum genus - part of the aster (Asteraceae) family, native to much of the Northern Hemisphere and naturalized through most of the world.  They are found often in medowes neere unto water ditches, explained Gerard in his 1597 Herbal, as also in gardens and high wayes much troden.  And it is precisely this habit of springing up in gardens which has gained the dandelion its tarnished reputation - while its frequency in almost all environments and ability to survive the seasons - Gerard (who drew attention to the culinary practises by which dandelion leaves might be cooked into a broth to help with urinary problems, fevers and sores, as well as helping with rest) also says that it will floure most times in the yeare, especially if the winter be not extreme cold - that obstructs the plant from enjoying a more favourable reputation for its beauty: How like a prodigal doth nature seem, / When thou, for all thy gold, so common art! exclaimed the American Romantic poet James Russell Lowell - and how right he was - for surely if this sparkling, attractive flower were less regularly glimpsed, it would revel in shimmer of a sought-after reputation.  If dandelions were seen unexpectedly, if they were brought to these shores from exotic climes or cultivated in extreme conditions, sold as rarities at specialist nurseries, then I feel certain they would be spoken of the way we speak of the Star of Jerusalem or rare herbs like the cloudberry or Snowdonia Hawkweed.  Why?  Because they are both highly distinctive, and startlingly pretty.  

Although, as Gerard tells us, dandelions might weather out a mild winter, they are to most of us a sign of sunnier times, and seem to herald the coming of the spring as colourfully as daffodils.  The dandelion's seasonal salience is elegantly depicted by Emily Dickinson:

The Dandelion's pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas --

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, --
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o'er.  

I would go so far as to say that dandelions are more lovely than daffodils - though no doubt William Wordsworth would disagree.  But stop for a moment and consider the spectacular nature of their appearance - like tiny explosions of glistening garnet, neon Catherine-wheels glowing in the grass, with all the delicious mischief of hopes refusing to be suppressed - and you will surely see that dandelions, far from being pesky or unpleasing to the eye, are plants to be admired.

Dandelions, with their legendary roots and irrepressible habit, are as persistent as they are eye-catching, and despite the best attempts of their determined horticultural assailants, they are difficult to remove from any garden in which they manage to become established. As Culpeper wrote in 1653:

The root growing downwards exceeding deep, which being broken off within the ground, will yet shoot forth again, and will hardly be destroyed where it hath once taken root in the ground. 

If the natural world is yet to withstand the unremitting assaults that humanity has waged upon it in the ways of pesticides, intensive agriculture, over-population, pollution, excessive destruction, "development" and the meat industry, it is surely to be plants like dandelions - who simply do not know when they are beaten and who refuse to give up their claims to the soils they embrace, which are most numerous among surviving species.

And, as we trudge through the embers of a world beset by problems, no doubt sometimes feeling something akin to an End-of-Days, we might glimpse something valedictory about the dandelion also.

Golden lads and lasses / must like chimney-sweepers come to dust writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline, a magical play in which a Classical Universality is distilled into the pastoral timelessness of a quintessentially English landscape.  We can visualize the dissolution of the dandelion in his withering "golden lads and lasses" just as acutely as in the more literal lines of Clare, who concludes his reflections on these fallen stars of flowers, deserving of so much more than the curt lack of appreciation with which they are habitually greeted by ungrateful gardeners, by observing how:

They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter's brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Yet even in the deathly pallor of this shadowy demise, the dandelion exudes a sylvan, melancholy beauty.  Take a look, close-up, at the minute magnificence of its silvery cloud of spherical seed-heads, like icy spiders' webs, slowly fragmenting as the frosty balls of seeds are dispersed by winds, drifting through warm air like calcite-coloured butterflies.  

Watch as the seeds of tomorrow's glimmering flowers are wafted this way and that on a summer breeze, and hopefully you will see the long-suffering dandelion in a kindly light, delighting like John Clare in its starry splendour, and agreeing that far from being an unwelcome guest, this radiant flower is a glittering gem, to be treasured and admired.