Week 244: You Hated Spain, by Ted Hughes

1998 saw the publication of Ted Hughes’s ‘Birthday Letters’, a verse-chronicle of the poet’s troubled marriage to fellow-poet Sylvia Plath. I read it when it first came out, which is a touch hypocritical of me since I have reservations about how far famous poets should go in feeding the biographical industry that tends to spring up around them. Of course it can be argued that an understanding of the life is necessary to a full understanding of the work, but I don’t know – is our appreciation of the ‘Iliad’, for example, really much impaired by our knowing nothing whatsoever about Mr Homer’s personal life, let alone Mrs Homer’s? Still, when these things are on offer it is hard to look away, and I have to admire Hughes’s striving for what must often have been a painful veracity. 

Inevitably with a collection like this the quality of the poems is a bit uneven, but there are plenty marked by Hughes’s characteristic raw energy and startling powers of observation. I pondered which to feature. ‘Daffodils’? ‘Flounders’? ‘Red’? ‘Robbing Myself’? (there really should be more poems that give a starring role to potatoes). But finally I went for this piece with its darkly sensuous imagery and, at the end, its wistful tenderness.

You Hated Spain

Spain frightened you. Spain
Where I felt at home. The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel. Bosch
Held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.

Ted Hughes

Week 243: Mein Bruder war ein Flieger, by Bertolt Brecht

One of Bertolt Brecht’s most famous antiwar poems, an ironic celebration of Germany’s role in supporting the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, in particular of the pilots forming its Condor Legion, who were involved among other actions in the bombing of Guernica. You don’t go to Brecht for subtlety, but he sure knew how to make a point. The translation that follows is my own.

Mein Bruder war ein Flieger

Mein Bruder war ein Flieger
Eines Tages bekam er eine Kart
Er hat seine Kiste eingepackt
Und südwärts ging die Fahrt.

Mein Bruder ist ein Eroberer
Unserm Volke fehlt’s an Raum
Und Grund und Boden zu kriegen, ist
Bei uns alter Traum.

Der Raum, den mein Bruder eroberte
Liegt im Guadarramamassiv
Er ist lang einen Meter achtzig
Und einen Meter fünfzig tief.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

My brother was a pilot
His papers came one day
He got his kit together
And took a southward way

My brother is a conqueror
Our people need more space
And winning territory by war’s
An old dream of our race

The space in the Spanish mountains
My brother got to keep
Measures just six feet in length
And is five foot deep.

Week 242: From ‘The Prelude’, by William Wordsworth

Wordsworth was, as far as I recall, the first of my poetic influences: I read ‘The Prelude’ in my early teens and admired it greatly, the more so because it chimed so well with the kind of wandering, reflective, close to nature childhood that it was still just about possible to have back then, and which I had myself enjoyed, though in a rather less rugged environment than Wordsworth’s Lake District. Later I came to be not exactly disenchanted with Wordsworth, but to feel that he was no longer quite what I wanted or needed: what he offered, it seemed to me, was a leisurely ramble in the hills that offered you great views at some points but also involved a lot of slightly tedious plodding in between, and I was beginning to feel that a poem should be more like a fell run, taut and unrelenting all the way to the top. But here, for the sake of that early admiration, is my favourite passage from ‘The Prelude’, that I think shows the poet at his vivid, immediate best, and if I now wish that overall his gait were just a little less leisurely, I remain grateful for those visionary viewpoints that from time to time it takes us to.

From ‘The Prelude’

And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us – for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six, – I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures, – the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain; and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me – even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

William Wordsworth

Week 241: Perfection isn’t like a perfect story, by P.J.Kavanagh

This is one of several poems that P.J.Kavanagh (1931-2015) wrote in memory of his first wife Sally, who died tragically young two years into their marriage. He commemorates her in his partial autobiography ‘The Perfect Stranger’, a book which like this poem manages to be both grounded and luminous.

Perfection isn’t like a perfect story

I think often of the time I was perfectly happy,
And sat by the harbour reading a borrowed Cavafy.
You were there of course and the night before we
Played bar billiards, green under lights, in the café,
Postponing our first shared bedtime and every ball
That didn’t come back made us look at each other and down.
I collected the key and we crossed the late-night hall
And seeing the room you cried, it was so small.

We were too close. We bore each other down.
I changed the room and we found that you were ill.
Nothing was perfect, or as it should have been.
I lay by your side and watched the green of dawn
Climb over our bodies and bring out of darkness the one
Perfect face that made nothing else matter at all.


Week 240: Walking Away, by C. Day-Lewis

I tend to think of Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) as the archetypal career poet: his work accomplished, urbane, but a little manufactured, a little safe, not often charged with the excitement that real poems bring, that sense that something not entirely under the poet’s control has taken him or her by the scruff of the neck and said ‘Oi! You! Listen up!’. But I do very much like this wise, empathic piece that must surely resonate with anyone who has ever been a parent, and if it should prove in the end that a poet’s fate is to be remembered for just one poem, well, that most of us should be so lucky.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still.  Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

C. Day-Lewis