Crow – Ted Hughes


So, here we are: after many months of dipping in and out, of struggling and re-reading and feeling mystified, I have reached the end of Crow. I was absolutely determined to like it, and to begin with it was sheer bloody-mindedness that kept me going. But little by little, I did start to ‘get’ it and by the end, I was hugely enjoying it.

Crow, feeling his brain slip,
Finds his every feather the fossil of a murder.

– from ‘Crow’s Nerve Fails’

Poetry is a big hurdle in the world of books that I am determined to get over, and reading Crow has definitely left me feeling like I’m edging towards that goal. My instinct with poetry has often been to dismiss it as pretentious and deliberately cryptic, and trying to read it has always felt like a self-conscious attempt to drag myself into some realm of sophistication, like trying to persuade myself that tea is a nice beverage (still working on that one) or that there’s no need to dive under the nearest table whenever the landline rings (given up trying to change that).

I think part of the problem when I read a poem is that I actively hunt for what it’s trying to say, the message it’s supposed to convey. This is probably a result of only ever coming across poetry in an academic context, where the words on the page are always seen through sheaves of analysis and criticism. But through the course of reading Crow I came to realise that maybe there doesn’t have to be a ‘point’ or a ‘message’ – the words are there to evoke images in your mind, and you can take something away from those images or just let them arrive and leave. There were undoubtedly poems that sailed straight over my head, whether that’s because a lack of familiarity with religious texts meant I missed a host of biblical allusions, or whether it’s because I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I sat down to read. But there were also poems that struck a chord with me, and it didn’t matter in those moments if I didn’t have the faintest idea of what a poem was ‘saying’. The point is that it conjured up something in my brain and made me feel something – and no one, not even Ted Hughes, can say that any genuine reaction to a poem is wrong.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers definitely helped along the way, because I was motivated by wanting to discover the original Crow that had inspired and spawned the character in Max Porter’s breathtaking novella. Since initially reading Grief (which continues –and rightly so– to accumulate awards), I have also listened to the audiobook. It was just as devastating and funny and brilliant the second time around, and hearing the Crow sections read aloud was particularly effective. So I went on the hunt for readings of Ted Hughes’ poems, and came across this gem of a video, which brings together three Crow poems (read by Hughes himself) and adds an evocative soundtrack and abstract, fluid images. Put all together, it really encapsulates the dark, raw, visceral atmosphere of Crow.

I love that the poems are linked into an overarching concept, and the sense of continuity is such that an image of Crow slowly builds up, each poem adding a new facet to his hard-to-pin-down character. By riffing on and remoulding established Creation stories and ancient folklore, Hughes has created his own vast myth, providing a fresh lens through which to view the world. And that view is a disturbing and bleak one of violence, darkness and death.

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.

– from ‘Crow Alights’

One thing is for sure: Crow has been a pretty awesome introduction to Ted Hughes’ work and to poetry in general, and there is no doubt that the character of Crow, both Hughes’ original and Max Porter’s subsequent creation, will reside in a pocket of my brain for many years to come.

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