Dispatches | September 23, 2010

Since I finished Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating last week, I haven’t been reading anything, except for blogs, other web sites, and my own writing.  So I thought I would take the opportunity of this gap in my book-reading to try to figure out what it was that Ted Hughes did to make me cry.  I was nineteen when he did it, reading his 1995 essay collection, Winter Pollen, on the campus of the school where I was often engaged in something it would be generous to call attendance.  I have cried in public only a handful of times, and I think this was the only time a book ever made me do it (publicly, that is), so I have long since wanted to revisit the book, to discern with a more practiced eye the witchcraft at work in it.

I am perhaps the only person who pursued a keen interest in the work of Ted Hughes as a result of watching the film The Iron Giant.  I was one of the few who saw it at a movie theater, for that matter, but I did, and I loved it, so I read the book it was based on – Hughes’s Iron Giant – thought it was weird, and “Devoured his work whole,” as Hughes himself describes his early consumption of the poetry of W. B. Yeats.  By my second year of college, I had made my way through Crow, The Hawk in the Rain, and Gaudete, to Winter Pollen.

I worried that when I dug Winter Pollen out of my Missouri library, as I did at a West Virginia library ten years ago, and read it, I would learn only that I am a more skeptical reader than I ever was before, that I would be stubbornly unmoved by the essays of Ted Hughes – even disdainful, for having been taken in by them so completely in my vulnerable youth.  And I am, sort of, to the extent that since rereading his essays my eyes have stayed relatively dry.

Winter Pollen, I understand as I did not when I was younger, is a loose collection of essays consisting largely of introductions Hughes wrote to collections of other people’s poems, and to Leonard Baskin’s sketches, plus other very short pieces which are, as the book’s subtitle indicates, occasional.  Most of its content, then, is not exactly tearjerking material.  Even in his essay on the journals of Sylvia Plath, his tone is distant, as he writes, “The motive in publishing these journals will be questioned.  The argument against is still strong.  A decisive factor has been certain evident confusions.”  When he references himself in this essay, he does it in the third person:  “The second of these two books [of her journals] her husband destroyed.”  It’s more eerie than moving, I think today, more likely to provoke bewilderment than to draw tears.

In my search for the essay that made me cry, I reread the introduction he wrote in 1968 to a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems.  On the early editorial decision to alter the dashes in her manuscripts and make them into semicolons and periods, he writes that this cannot be done “without deadening the wonderfully naked voltage of her poems.”  It was far from a new observation by then, and I know much more about Dickinson’s dashes now than I did when I first heard of them from Hughes, but these still strike me, as they did then, as a lovely and truthful sequence of nine words.

I think, having looked over many of the essays again, that it must have been “The Burnt Fox” that exploited my tear ducts, ten years ago.  Two pages long, it consists largely of Hughes’s account of a dream he had when a student at Cambridge.  At the time he had it, he writes, “Students of English were expected to produce a weekly essay,” and while he had no conscious problem with the assignment, “I soon became aware of an inexplicable resistance, in myself, against writing these essays.”  The resistance mounts:  “it had a distressful quality, like a fiercely fought defence.  In the end, it brought me to a halt.”

I was, at nineteen, a sucker for testimonies by other people in which they claimed to have as much of a problem with schoolwork as I did.  As disdainful toward that impulse as I am now (I should have better appreciated how good and relatively easy my life was then), Hughes’s resistance to school immediately won me over.

Hughes describes working on one of the last required essays until two in the morning, “exhausted,” until he finally had to go to sleep.  It was then, he explains, that he had a dream in which a humanoid fox – a creature “at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs” – entered the room.  “Every inch,” he explains,

was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding.  Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain.  It came up until it stood beside me.  Then it spread its hand – a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him – flat palm down on the blank space of my page.  At the same time it said:  “Stop this – you are destroying us.”

Today, again, I am unmoved by this – more skeptical toward the veracity of the description of this dream (though it could just as easily be a perfectly faithful account of his dream than not) than astounded by its accuracy to anything I feel today.  But I know, more or less, what I was responding to in this essay.  I knew, at nineteen, that I wanted to do something more substantial than what I was up to then; I wanted to do something more memorable than to sit and weep on college campuses.  Eventually I took up writing, and decided it would do for a more compelling avocation, but at nineteen I was terrified of writing, so I didn’t do it, and when I read Hughes’s story of being ordered by his mind, or subconscious, or whatever a humanoid fox is qualified to serve as a mouthpiece for, to give up his busy assignments for the greater creative work he would ultimately do, crying was the only response I could muster.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

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