Turning Language into Animal

Alice Oswald

In curating A Ted Hughes Bestiary, a collection of Ted Hughes’s poems about animals, Alice Oswald has responded to one of the themes Hughes saw in his own poetry—the “vivid life of their own,” the transformation of nature into language and vice versa. Here, she outlines the process of that curation in the introduction to the book.

A Ted Hughes Bestiary selected by Alice Oswald
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Ted Hughes said, in Poetry in the Making, that he thought of his poems as animals, meaning that he wanted them to have ‘a vivid life of their own’. So there is something very distilled and self-defining about his animal poems, almost as if they were prayers to language itself; which is why, out of the mass of his Collected Poems, it has seemed a good idea to gather this Bestiary.

A bestiary was originally a Christian idea — a book of animals sketchily recorded and then reduced to emblems — which sounds inimical to Hughes, whose animals are so radiantly themselves. The purpose of a bestiary (and this purpose was more and more neurotically observed through the Middle Ages) was to find distinctions between Man and the animals; but Hughes always worked in the opposite direction, aiming to show us what they have in common. He was wary of any project that was too narrowly Christian.

Nevertheless, there is some bestiary flavour — half scientific, half imaginative — in the tone of Hughes’s voice. He writes, in the notes to Moortown Diary, about his practice of ‘getting reasonably close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye’; but then also, in a letter to his brother, he finds fault with the watching eye: ‘when a man becomes a mirror, he just ceases to be interesting to men.’

His poems, from one collection to the next, oscillate between these extremes. Sometimes — for example in Moortown Diary, Remains of Elmet, Birthday Letters — they catch the ‘vivid life’ of their subject by standing back, turning down the voice, letting the facts in all their strangeness bend the verse. Sometimes — for example in Crow or Cave Birds — the language comes out tensed and singing, as if by dictation from the Underworld. I’ve tried to do justice to that doubleness. Like a bestiary, this book is a herd of both outward and inward animals, but, unlike a bestiary, there is nothing moralising about its vision.

What is it that turns language into an animal? What gives poems a ‘vivid life’ of their own, such that ‘nothing can be added to them or taken away without maiming and perhaps even killing them’? I think, in Hughes’s case, it’s a matter of percussion. There is something irresistible about the rhythm of a Hughes poem, which makes every word of it connected and essential.

     The lark begins to go up
     Like a warning
     As if the globe were uneasy —

     Barrel-chested for heights,
     Like an Indian of the high Andes,

     A whippet head, barbed like a hunting arrow,

     But leaden
     With muscle
     For the struggle
     Earth’s centre.

     And leaden
     For ballast
     In the rocketing storms of the breath.

     Like a bullet
     To supplant
     Life from its centre.

These are ecstatic sounds, not so much spoken as drummed. They remind me of accounts of ancient dancers, who could disorder their minds and turn into any creature or character by means of music. It’s as if the bodily movement of Hughes’s verse is actually driving him through the shape of a skylark.

The rule of this selection is that the poems included, like the one just quoted, should embody animals, not just describe them, which is why so many of Hughes’s children’s poems, with their ironic, chatting rhythms, have been omitted. On the other hand, I’ve allowed some poems, such as ‘The Lake’ and ‘Thistles’, because, although not strictly speaking animal, they become so in the process of the writing; and, in keeping with the bestiary tradition, I’ve put in plenty of imaginary animals: Wodwo, the Lovepet, Littleblood, the Human Calf, the Phoenix. I’ve aimed to keep a balance between the different books and styles, but perhaps I’ve favoured those poems that have the wildest tunes.

The poems are arranged chronologically, because my focus is not really on Hughes as ‘animal poet’ or ‘eco-poet’, in spite of his obvious and lifelong commitment to the natural world. I’m more interested in presenting his work dramatically as a pursuit or flight. I picture him, like Taliesin, engaged in a kind of folktale chase, hiding himself in different animal forms: from the Hawk to the Fox to the Bull to the Rat to the Crow, ending with that strange final creature, the Prophet:

     Crazed by my soul’s thirst
     Through a dark land I staggered.
     And a six-winged seraph
     Halted me at a crossroads.
     With fingers of dream
     He touched my eye-pupils.
     My eyes, prophetic, recoiled
     Like a startled eaglet’s.
       (‘The Prophet’)

This poem, a translation from Pushkin and one of the last pieces he wrote, might seem an odd choice for a book of animals, but its position at the end, completing the poet’s story, puts the rest into perspective. You do get the feeling, when you read his letters, that he lived life on this dreamed or nightmare level.

Hughes was quite clear about the importance of folktale in balancing the imagination; and quite clear about the role of imagination in balancing our impact on the earth. ‘What alters the imagination’, he said, ‘alters everything.’ My hope is that this anthology will alter people’s imaginations. When I was compiling it, I had to type the poems to work out which ones to discard. About two weeks through the task, I noticed an unusual brightness behind my eyes. It was as if the top of my skull had been wedged open and the poems were moving around in there like animals woken by daylight. Although the poems are here assembled and printed in a book, I challenge the reader to imagine them still unbound — like the Thought-Fox — ‘Brilliantly, concentratedly, / Coming about [their] own business’.

—Alice Oswald

A Ted Hughes Bestiary Ted Hughes

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Alice Oswald lives in Devon with her husband and three children. Dart, her second collection of poems, won the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2002. Her most recent collection, Memorial was awarded the 2013 Warwick Prize for Writing.

Ted Hughes (1930–1998) was born in Mytholmroyd, England, and produced more than forty books of poetry, prose, drama, translation, and children’s literature. His first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957, and his last collection, Birthday Letters, was named the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1998 and won the Forward Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He was appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1984.

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