King of Carrion: Ted Hughes

crow-coversIn college my favorite book of poetry was Crow. Brash, bold, and more than a little vulgar, Ted Hughes’ verse struck me as both smart and raw. I hadn’t yet gotten his biography (or read Sylvia Plath) so Crow stood on its own a testament to …something, something the collegiate fool I was found appealing.

Rereading it now meant knowing about Hughes’ complicated life and bringing my own middle aged sensibilities to the reading (a part of those informed by teaching The Bell Jar for years as a high school English teacher and coming of literary age at a time when Hughes, whose second wife took her own life in the same way Plath did after Hughes left her, was considered by some a pariah).

That didn’t stop me from using “King of Carrion” in my first teaching job, pairing it with John Gardner’s Grendel and a handful of other dark texts in a Senior English class. The epic quality of Crow resonated with the material at hand, and even out of context “King of Carrion” squawked true.

His palace is of skulls.

His crown is the last splinters
Of the vessel of life.

His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s
Rack and final stretcher.

His robe is the black of the last blood.

His kingdom is empty-

The empty world, from which the last cry
Flapped hugely, hopelessly away
Into the blindness and dumbness and deafness of the gulf

Returning, shrunk, silent

To reign over silence.”

…and while that wasn’t really about Grendel…

I still thank Hughes for the discussions that filled my first classroom.

But Truth is something slippery in poetry, and slipperier yet in Crow, which ricochets between reality, religion, and a mythos of its own. Often that Crow mythology alludes to Biblical or classical traditions, and sometimes resonates with imagery more indigenous or aboriginal, as in “Crow Alights” in which:

Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.
And he saw the sea
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils.
He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of God.
And he shivered with the horror of Creation.”

Like the trickster of Native American Lore, Crow inhabits a mythic place, cavorting with God and man, and some ambiguous poetic realm in between. In “Crow’s Account of the Battle” Hughes offers a commentary of conflict as real in the Vietnam War era in which he wrote the poem, war today, or when Richard fell at Bosworth Field.

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take.
There were screams higher groans deeper
Than any ear could hold.
Many eardrums burst and some walls
Collapsed to escape the noise.
Everything struggled on its way
Through this tearing deafness
As through a torrent in a dark cave.

The cartridges were banging off, as planned,
The fingers were keeping things going
According to excitement and orders.
The unhurt eyes were full of deadliness.
The bullets pursued their courses
Through clods of stone, earth, and skin,
Through intestines pocket-books, brains, hair, teeth
According to Universal laws
And mouths cried “Mamma”
From sudden traps of calculus,
Theorems wrenched men in two,
Shock-severed eyes watched blood
Squandering as from a drain-pipe
Into the blanks between the stars.
Faces slammed down into clay
As for the making of a life-mask
Knew that even on the sun’s surface
They could not be learning more or more to the point
Reality was giving its lesson,
Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
With here, brains in hands, for example,
And there, legs in a treetop.
There was no escape except into death.
And still it went on–it outlasted
Many prayers, many a proved watch
Many bodies in excellent trim,
Till the explosives ran out
And sheer weariness supervened
And what was left looked round at what was left.

Then everybody wept,
Or sat, too exhausted to weep,
Or lay, too hurt to weep.
And when the smoke cleared it became clear
This has happened too often before
And was going to happen too often in the future
And happened too easily
Bones were too like lath and twigs
Blood was too like water
Cries were too like silence
The most terrible grimaces too like footprints in mud
And shooting somebody through the midriff
Was too like striking a match
Too like potting a snooker ball
Too like tearing up a bill
Blasting the whole world to bits
Was too like slamming a door,
Too like dropping in a chair
Exhausted with rage
Too like being blown up yourself
Which happened too easily
With too like no consequences.

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.

Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.”

What’s there? So much.

Hughes stays mythic even as he slides into contemporary killing machines and buries critique within lists of casualties that he describes as happening “according to universal laws.”

The character Crow’s only appearance in the catalogue of carnage comes in the title, and if the poet’s voice is to be believed, through the idea that this is his account of war. Black bird of death, like Poe’s raven or Stevens’ blackbirds, Crow sees all and chooses not to intervene.

But throughout this collection Hughes’ mythic Crow does act, clapping his beak, “telling loud lies,” mocking God, and futility battling the sun. Poem after poem show Crow to be hungry, mocking, and bold, insinuating himself into stories beyond his own. “Crow followed Ulysses till he turned/ As a worm, which Crow Ate” he writes in “Crowego” and “Drinking Beowulf’s blood, and wrapped in his hide,/ Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds.”

And Crow’s appetite doesn’t stop with mythology. In “A Horrible Religious Error” Hughes takes his readers back to Eden, or some sort of version of Genesis, with Crow.

When the serpent emerged, earth-bowel brown,
From the hatched atom
With its alibi self twisted around it

Lifting a long neck
And balancing that deaf and mineral stare
The sphinx of the final fact

And flexing on that double flameflicker tongue
A syllable like the rustling of spheres

God’s grimace writhed, a leaf in the furnace

And man’s and woman’s knees melted, they collapsed
Their neck-muscles melted, their brows bumped the ground
Their tears evacuated visibly
They whispered ‘Your will is our peace.’

But Crow only peered.
Then took a step or two forward,
Grabbed this creature by the slackskin nape,

Beat the hell out of it, and ate it.”

Crow’s solution to “that double flameflicker tongue” is brutal, simple, and in keeping with the personality given him by Hughes. Crow is the anti-hero of his own book, he is, to quote “Crow Frowns,”

He is the long waiting for something
To use him for some everything
Having so carefully made him

Of nothing.”

It’s the nihilism, I think, that got to me in the end. Reading poems like “In Laughter” as a young person, when poems like that feel so prophetic, is so different than reading them at fifty, when their truth is sobering and the prophecy has come true.

What I appreciate most now is Hughes’ mastery of language. As dark sometimes as Crow can be, and dark indeed that is, Hughes was aware of the power of words and he knew how to bend them to his purpose. In “Crow Goes Hunting” he allows his black bird a taste of that power.

Decided to try words.

He imagined some words for the job, a lovely pack—
clear-eyed , resounding, well-trained,
With strong teeth.
You could not find a better bred lot.”

Brash, bold, and vulgar, Crow may not now be my favorite book of poetry, but its narrative and linguistic power is just as real as it was, for me, a quarter century ago.

Crow is a lovely pack of words with strong teeth.



Continuing this year of poetry next week with William Stafford’s Even in Quiet Places.

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