Anthologies are the reluctant poetry readers’ hedging bet. There’s a good chance that something good will turn up and prove a winner. They sell well – they are the infrequent poetry buyer’s punt for a gift that will please at least in parts. So Alice Oswald’s compilation of Ted Hughes’ animal poems into a Bestiary will certainly put more cash into the Faber vault. But few complaints – anything to get more people reading any poetry cannot be bad.
Oswald discusses her approach to the selection in The Guardian:
She picks up Hughes’ own early image of his poems as creatures with a “vivid life” of their own. He condemns poems which fail to possess this coherent vitality as likely to walk with a pronounced limp – a wonderful way, I’ve found, of imaging that elusive ‘rightness’ of a poem for students and workshoppers. Interestingly though, there is a shimmering, vacillatory quality to others things Oswald writes and this comes directly from Hughes himself. His animals are very much themselves yet they are expressive of human qualities too. Oswald quotes from Moortown Diary; Hughes on the poet “getting close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye”. Held in tension with this are other Hughes’ statements such as this, in a letter, warning of the dangers of mere observation: “When a man becomes a mirror, he just ceases to be interesting to men.”
Oswald goes on to suggest that it is the “percussion” of Hughes’ language that instills such vivid life into his poems, quoting from ‘Skylarks’:
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,
For the struggle
In the rocketing storms of the breath.
Like a bullet
Life from its centre.
If it is a percussive effect that is critical here it is more Mozart than Stomp. Oswald has precious little space to develop her argument, but what I find in such a passage is Hughes’ distinctive manipulation of scale and perspective, not unrelated to his paradoxical comments above. Microcosm and macrocosm are continually leant against each other here, or – it being a more metamorphic, high-pressured process – they are spun about each other till it’s hard to pick one from the other. The tiny body of the lark is a warning to the globe; its braced, needle-thin ribs conjure images of Andean mountains; its crested, whippet head seems to speed lethally through remote forests. The three stanzas focusing on the “leaden” nature of the bird – less weight it seems to me, more loaded with quiddity, self-ness – provoke the reader to focus closely on its body, only again for our attention to be spun outwards to “Earth’s centre . . . rocketing storms”, vulnerable life beating at its “centre”.
In part, what Hughes achieves is a sense of interconnectedness – which he would have intended in both spiritual and environmental terms. What the reader experiences is a sudden inflation or deflation of scale and perspective, a magical effect, an effect created through language, an effect achieved so skillfully and instantaneously that one might well have some sense of a percussive, explosive or implosive quality. I don’t hear or feel a noise as such – my sense of the world pulses, is stretched or compressed in the most exciting fashion. An effect with a moral dimension to it as well – a serious, ludic experience, in which we see and re-see our own place in the world.