One of those serendipitous times where I have in a few spare minutes plucked a book off the bookshelf that I got maybe halfway through, then moved on to something else: last night I found myself reading an extraordinary letter from Ted Hughes (in two drafts, no less) to Bishop Hooker on the connections between Church and poetry.
I had always rated Ted Hughes quite highly as a poet, ever since I read his visceral and blasphemous ‘Crow’ as a Sixth Former. I wanted to know what he was trying to say about Christian narrative, at the very least.
Maturer reflection on his work such as ‘The Birthday Letters’, and the cult of Ted Hughes, bound up with his relationship with Sylvia Plath and his extraordinary, cabbalistic understanding of the workings of creativity lead me to see him as a highly intelligent artist, perhaps more of an enthusiastic theorist than someone who ever quite made good his promise as a poet. That is in spite of the fact that some of his pieces, especially about animals, are a staple of the classroom and some of the best poems to teach ‘independent reading’ and encourage personal interpretations that I know.
One of his observations runs thus:
It may be – one supposes that it is unquestionably so – that a full religious life, and particularly the Christian life, locates and embraces and redeems pain, and expresses the redemption, more fully and all-comprehendingly than any system human beings have yet devised.
I find it quite touching that he recognises the all-embracing demands of Christianity. Poetry is a beautiful thing, but it has to bow to theology ultimately. But what Hughes tackles that is so interesting is that sacred/secular divide. The issue has always been: are you a writer, or are you a Christian writer? I’m sure Hughes would see it more in terms of artistry. Let me quote more:
…that chief characteristic of poetry – that the spirit of it refuses to be directed…regard [poetry] as nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction – whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain – and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.
Ted Hughes then goes on to suggest that only religious pain can be treated by religious poetry. I like the fact that he earmarks the late R.S. Thomas as one of the few poets (and one of my early heroes) who retains a secular following as a poet as well as being a practising minister. I don’t think you would have to be a Christian to appreciate the power and spirituality of R.S. Thomas’ writing, but he provides an especially compassionate and childlike readings of the biblical material in his wonderful, terse and distinctive poetry (with an emphasis on his later rather than his earlier, earthy pieces).
Here I wanted to have a conversation with Hughes, and to say to him: actually, it is not only the relationship between the poet and God in which the poet can authentically be poetic. In fact, all of life is sacred. All of life is spiritual. Everything that we do can be and ought to be an act of worship. We do not breathe without the free and good permission of God. As a preacher reminded our church on Sunday, God is good to all He has made, but his grace is especially for those who have believed.
Final quotation from Ted Hughes for now:
…poetry seems to point, on one bearing or another, towards a spiritual life of sorts, or perhaps towards something that is a substitute for a spiritual life as it is understood by the Church. And I suppose there have been many occasions where poetry, in this way, has awakened readers towards the spiritual life – readers who have gone on to a more whole-hearted self-involvement with the Church. I don’t know whether poetry can be thanked for this. It may be that the superficially mystical aspect of much poetry is the first thing noticed by people who are willy-nilly starting on an inner psychological change, whose goal is, poetry or no poetry, eventually a full religious life. I think that is most likely…. this incidental use of poetry as a sort of vestibule or pronaos to orthodox communal worship…
It is this analogy between poetry and worship that I often find myself. The same stirrings in my spirit arise when I read powerful poetry, as when I lift my heart up in devotion. How could it be otherwise, when the God who made me is interested in every part of my life? Hughes was a gifted poetic voice, and yet he could write to Bishop Hook: “I don’t know what purpose poetry serves.” I don’t either. I don’t know what purpose a relationship with my Creator serves. But both are real, and both do something. We worship, because it works. We appreciate poetry, because it shows us something we didn’t see before. Perhaps what we are most afraid of as humans is blindness, is ignorance, is deception. Hughes speaks of the ‘voice of pain’. Can we really be redeemed? Can I see myself as I really am? Can I see something about me, about you, that I haven’t seen before?
Hughes said that the spirit of poetry refuses to be directed. This singles it out from all functional writing, even from the narrative drive of novels and stories. It also makes the spirit of poetry sound rather like the Wild Goose of the Holy Spirit. We cannot harness God and use Him for our purposes. We can only step out into the spaces where we know we will find Him, and the search for Him is what we have been waiting for all our lives.