We learn from the Faber publicity blurb that Ted Hughes’s appointment as Poet Laureate is the ‘most inspired’ since Tennyson’s. We also learn that Hughes, in discharging his Laureate duties, ‘has found the means to express a comprehensive vision of reality and nationhood that goes far beyond the courtly doggerel of most of his predecessors’. Comprehensive vision of reality? Well, call me a barbarian, but bollocks to that.
Where is Ted Hughes coming from? These impenetrable poems, with their dense allusions and clotted metaphors, have me completely flummoxed. What on earth do the royals themselves make of them? Knowing the Queen Mother’s penchant for Ken Dodd and music hall medleys I wonder how she coped with ‘A Masque for Three Voices’ (written for her 90th birthday) posing such riddles as: ‘Being British is a mystery/Can you see/That is it you or you or you and me?/1 do not understand how this can be .. .’ And what, I wonder, did the Queen make of the poem for her 60th birthday, ‘An Almost Thornless Crown’, which begins: ‘Let the first be a Snowdrop, neck bowed/Over her modesty/Her spermy, fattening gland/Cold under the ground’? And what of the Duke and Duchess of York? It’s my hunch that the baffling ‘Song of the Honeybee’ (written on their marriage) is certainly not hanging in a frame above the Sunninghill House mantelpiece.
No. This collection must be seen for what it is: a cry for help. I think the Poet Laureate has bitten off more than he can chew. Where is the poet who might not crack under the strain of being a Royal Command Performer? Where is the poet who can honestly say, with hand on heart, that royal weddings, christenings, birthdays and the like set the creative lava boiling through the brain? Hunched behind his typewriter, stressed out, obliged to come up with patriotic poems at the drop of a hat … Hughes must often feel as if he’s banging his head against a brick wall in this brutal age when Karaoke, shell suits, Viz, the Sunday Sport, Republicanism, Julie Burchill and people who say ‘I’m gutted’ call the tune. Is it any wonder that he knocks out such bewildering obfuscations (and here I pick a few lines at random) as, ‘Her lion dreams. His colour runs/Into her corgis . . . ‘, and ‘And of the exultant larvae in the Earle’s shrunk trench, their filaments/ablur like propellors, under the churned ceiling of light’, and ‘Deep chested Nightingale convulsed/In the Soul-catcher’s/Star tangle … ‘
In fact the more you struggle through these poems (and through Hughes’s even more perplexing accompanying notes) the more you yearn for the ‘courtly doggerel of Laureate predecessors’ so snidely dismissed by Faber’s blurb writer. You find yourself shouting ‘Come back Betjeman with your “Wet banners flap. The sea mist clears/Colours are backed by silver stone/Moustached hereditary peers/Are ranged in rows behind the throne … “‘(‘A Ballad of lnvestiture’, 1969). Come back Tennyson with your rousing ‘Where shall we lay the man whom we deplore?/Here, in steaming London’s central roar/Let the sound of those he wrought for/And the feet of those he fought for/Echo round his bones for ever more . . . ‘ (‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’, 1852).
Those were the days. Those were Laureate poems to warm the cockles of the hearts of the man and woman in the street. And it was not simply because they rhymed, scanned and made sense (in which matter, it has to be said, that I do not always see eye to eye with the Literary Review‘s esteemed editor, being a fan of the Liverpool poets, Bob Dylan and even Hughes himself when he’s not in Royal mode). Absolutely not. People enjoyed, and still enjoy, the poems of Tennyson and Betjeman because they were real poetry.
Which brings us to the question of what is real poetry? Few people would call Raincharm for the Duchy real poetry. Read it and ask yourself does it lift the veil, as Shelley put it, from the hidden beauty of the world? Does it, in Dylan Thomas’s definition, make the toenails twinkle? No, it does not. Interestingly, poetry and how to define it comes under scrutiny in Graham Swift’s recent, brilliant novel Ever After (savaged, it should be noted, by numerous smart-arsed critics who wouldn’t recognise genius if it peed over their feet). ‘Yes, the thing about a poem is that it is beautiful, beautiful!’ observes one character, stating what, to most people, is obvious. Remarking how the simplest, tritest words have the power to touch us with pure delight, he quotes from Sir Walter Raleigh’s lines written on the eve of his execution, and marvels how such simple words can ‘catch us up and speak to us in their eloquence and equilibrium’.
Hughes’s fatal inability to ‘catch us up and speak to us’ is his great downfall. His Laureate poems speak with neither eloquence nor equilibrium. Nor, for that matter, are they beautiful. Even worse, the lack the common touch. ‘A Lament for Fergie’ or a ‘Roundelay to Salute the Royal It’s a Knockout’ would surely speak to the British public more than, for example, ‘A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of Prince Harry’ (1985). I’ve read it. I’ve read Hughes’s extensive notes (although in my view notes are a cop-out on the part of the poet, for surely poetry should be able to communicate itself without notes?) and I’m still in the dark. What, for heaven’s sake, does this extract mean – ‘And the Tamar, roused and blinking under the fifty-mile drumming,/Declaiming her legend – her rusty knights tumbling out of their clay/vaults, her cantrevs assembling from shillats,/With a cheering of aged stones along the Lyd and the Law, the Wolf and/the Thrushel …’ ? I read this poem aloud to a sniggering young friend who punched the air and chortled ‘Cor! I bet he drinks Carling Black Label …’ And who would blame him if he does?
Either that, or Mr Hughes is having us all on. ‘Born Court Jesters tout their parts/Hire out their tongues, cash in their hearts/To the tabloid howl/That tops the charts …’ begins a verse from ‘The Unicorn’ (first published in the Daily Telegraph 1992) and, as I puzzled over it, I had a sudden irreverent vision of our reclusive Poet Laureate running across Chagford moors, making excitable V-signs, shouting ‘Up yours, Queenie’ and laughing a tormented, maniacal, North Country laugh. Is this book, perhaps, a brilliant literary hoax? The very thought is enough to make a spermy, fattening gland turn cold under the ground.