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An Excellent Introduction
on 14 May 2009
In the "Poet to Poet" series, a contemporary poet advocates a poet of the past or present whom they particularly admire. By their selection of verses and their critical reactions, the selectors offer intriguing insights into their own work. Hughes himself also features in this series as the selector of poetry by a number of poets including Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and, almost inevitably, Sylvia Plath.
The 83 poems in this selection of the poetry of Ted Hughes have been carefully chosen by fellow Yorkshireman Simon Armitage. To journey through the collection is akin to be taken on a personal guided tour through an art exhibition guided by the curator himself.
Poems from the major landmarks in the long career of Hughes are all represented here, from 1957's Hawk in the Rain and 1970's Crow to Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998) both of which ignited renewed interest in the work of the Poet Laureate towards the end of his life. (Hughes dies in 1998).
Tennyson's epithet of "Nature, Red In Tooth And Claw" could have been tailor-made to apply to much of the work of Hughes which is, as Armitage states in his helpful and personal introduction, often written in a "sort of agricultural dialect of the Bible." Bedtime reading these poems most definitely are not! But whether figuratively poking around in the entrails and broken bones of a farmyard animal ("Ravens" and "February 17th", for example) or dissecting the remains and memories of a concluded relationship, Hughes achieves this with a characteristic tension between delicacy and grittiness.
If there is one minor - and it is only minor - reservation, it is that as the poetry of Ted Hughes is so closely entwined with his relationship with Sylvia Plath, it would be helpful for the individual pieces to be annotated with their date of composition so that the reader could place them within the chronological landscape.
If the purpose of any selection from the work of a great poet is to encourage the reader to explore in further depth the work of the poet, then this small volume has achieved its objective.