Week 4: Now You Have To Push, by Ted Hughes

Now You Have To Push

Your hands
Lumpish roots of earth cunning
So wrinkle-scarred, such tomes
Of what has been collecting centuries
At the bottom of so many lanes
Where roofs huddle smoking, and cattle
Trample the ripeness.

Now you have to push your face
So tool-worn, so land-weathered,
This patch of ancient, familiar locale,
Your careful little moustache,
Your gangly long broad Masai figure
Which you decked so dapperly to dances,
Your hawser and lever strength
Which you used, so recklessly,
Like a tractor, guaranteed unbreakable,

Now you have to push it all –
Just as you loved to push the piled live hedge-boughs –
Into a gathering blaze
And as you loved to linger late into the twilight,
Coaxing the last knuckle embers,
Now you have to stay
Right on, into total darkness.

Ted Hughes

I see Ted Hughes’s oeuvre as a sort of marvellous midden; some of it lies beyond the range of my sympathy, or perhaps I should say comprehension, but every so often you come across a poem like this heartfelt elegy for his father-in-law Jack Orchard that simply stuns you with its power.


4 thoughts on “Week 4: Now You Have To Push, by Ted Hughes

  1. A very high-risk technique, fraught with the temptation to use explosive rhetorical bombast as a substitute for a more metrical flow of rhythm and diction of the kind he eschewed after ‘Lupercal’. He’d finally got that under control by the time he finished the published version of ‘Birthday Letters’. Heaney was no doubt a good influence, whereas the people who egged him on to be the Great Existential Desperado platform-star in the ’60s and ’70s were not – I met them both [briefly] after a South Bank bash in the early ‘seventies, courtesy of a poet-friend of ours. Heaney off-platform was courteous and diffident, but Hughes….. ‘holding court’ is probably the right description. I was too cocky and young to put the questions to Hughes I’d’ve liked him to answer with benefit of hindsight, but noted the sycophancy around him at the time, and his huge dominating physical presence. Stardom is not good for any poet, but I agree absolutely with your own verdict.

    • It had not occurred to me to take the title as other than a fairly literal and slightly macabre play on the idea of the body pushing, or at least being pushed, out of this life, with a suggestion of cremation in the line ‘Into a gathering blaze’. I don’t think there is any suggestion of rebirth into another state – that would not fit with the closing words ‘into total darkness’. But I could be wrong.

      • There are memorable descriptions of Orchard at work in other poems in “Moortown Diary”. As you say, “a gathering blaze” might be a reference to cremation. It’s as if the destruction of his body is one last task for Orchard to accomplish (with his usual strength of body and singleness of purpose)?

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