One of the more startling aspects of Philip Larkin’s literary judgment is his dismissal of Ted Hughes as (I quote from a recently published letter) ‘no good at all’. Now, I can see why some of Ted’s wilder vatic utterances might lead one to the view that he was a bit bonkers, but surely scattered through his perhaps over-generous oeuvre are enough fine pieces to make Larkin’s judgment inexplicable. Here’s one that I particularly admire, a Breughelesque view of a football match that one feels only Ted could have written.
Football at Slack
Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill
Men in bunting colours
Bounced, and their blown ball bounced.
The blown ball jumped, and the merry-coloured men
Spouted like water to head it.
The ball blew away downwind –
The rubbery men bounced after it.
The ball jumped up and out and hung on the wind
Over a gulf of treetops.
Then they all shouted together, and the ball blew back.
Winds from fiery holes in heaven
Piled the hills darkening around them
To awe them. The glare light
Mixed its mad oils and threw glooms.
Then the rain lowered a steel press.
Hair plastered, they all just trod water
To puddle glitter. And their shouts bobbed up
Coming fine and thin, washed and happy
While the humped world sank foundering
And the valleys blued unthinkable
Under the depth of Atlantic depression
– But the wingers leapt, they bicycled in air
And the goalie flew horizontal
And once again a golden holocaust
Lifted the cloud’s edge, to watch them.