Collected Poems, Ted Hughes
(Faber, 1333pp, 2005, £16.99 Pbk)

If, like me, you came to Ted Hughes through the excellent, accessible prose of Poetry in the Making or the photographic collaboration with Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet (1979), and then returned to him later when Birthday Letters (1998) attracted so much media attention with the ghoulish 'at-last-the-whole-story-about-Sylvia' angle, then this doorstep of a book should surprise you and reacquaint you with the often lost idea Ted Hughes the poet. There are a great deal of elements to brush aside to arrive at this particular landscape: the Poet Laureate work, Paltrow as Plath, the vague stereotypical idea of poems about dead sheep to name but three. But seasoned Hughes admirers will be pleased to know that this volume probably represents the first step to clear away such tangled undergrowth.

It will also surprise many of Hughes' readers with the generous chunk of privately published and fugitive material put alongside such familiar collections as
Crow and Gaudete: would you, for instance, be familiar with such limited edition volumes as Orts (1978), Recklings (1967) or Howls and Whispers (1998)? The effect is to reshape and clarify the contours of Hughes' corpus and development as a poet. Textually, poems were tinkered with, rewritten, inserted into later collections, often bewilderingly. Paul Keegan, the editor of this edition, provides welcome lengthy textual notes explaining such complexities. These are not mere scholarly afterthoughts, either: in the case of Crow, a major work, Keegan collects twelve preliminary poems, sixteen later ones and four other uncollected ones, later published in Moortown (1979). Anyone intending to seriously study and contextualise  the Crow poems henceforth must tackle some eighty poems, rather than the fifty-odd in the original volume.

In surveying the content and technique of Hughes' work, it's frightening how fully-formed he was early on: familiar anthology pieces such as 'The Jaguar', 'The Thought-Fox' and 'Famous Poet' all come from his very first volume,
The Hawk in the Rain (1957). Wodwo, Remains of Elmet and Moortown Diary then set out to explore a landscape which he, by and large, had already stalked early on. This is a natural world of elemental savagery, the fortunes of Crow merely a particularly bloody part of it. Creation myths lie glimpsed in puddles, the blood, mud and harsh struggles of farming inhabit Moortown Diary, the ghosts of the First World War (Hughes' father survived the Gallipoli campaign) recur in several poems and there is a microscopic attention, somewhat in the manner of John Clare, on all kinds of birds and other creatures. To revert to the parodic twitch of 'poems about dead sheep' seems particularly unjust as Hughes laboured so long to explore an entire landscape, (often Devon or Yorkshire, but not exclusively so) .

Inevitably an overview like this can only scratch the surface, pointing to reader to the scope of the whole volume, but here are some random observations. Firstly, some surprises: Hughes has a sense of humour, Hughes broods at length over poems, revising, revisiting, rearranging them fussily into later collections. Poems we think we know are rarely completed quickly. Exceptions to this seem to be the early poems, as noted above (youthful energy?) and
Birthday Letters, in which textual notes and redrafting by contrast, seems remarkably sparse or straightforward. Therein may lie the key to the ease of reading which the early and very late volumes share.

Secondly, an enterprise like this shines light into overlooked corners of established careers. For me, the surprise was rediscovering
Season Songs (1976), a volume to which I'd paid little attention and which the general poetry reader rarely sees cited or discussed. Some of the pieces collected from this book read like random nature jottings ‡ la Gilbert White, whilst others recall John Clare in their precision: 'they're gone / on a steep // controlled scream of skid / round the house-end' (from 'Swifts'), or the large harvest moon, from the eponymous poem, 'like a gold doubloonÉ booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon', sunflowers 'tired out, like old gardeners' ('Autumn Nature Notes') or the horse chestnut which 'splits its padded cell [and] opens an African eye.' There is much to savour here in Hughes' quiet control and precise, painterly eye.

Finally, despite their wide acclaim, the
Birthday Letters poems stand as a peculiar bookend to Hughes' career: they focus attention back on Plath, they lay no ghosts and they almost unbalance the arc of Hughes' achievement. Dare one suggest they function better as therapy than as poetry, or is this a trick of perspective? Posterity will begin weighing up Hughes with this volume, and we shall soon begin to know. In the meantime, here is an excellent, copious introduction to a wide poetic corpus, still capable of surprising us.

        © M.C. Caseley 2005