|The Calder Valley in snow - an area with which Ted Hughes grew up|
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
It was these lines from Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The thought fox’ of 1952 which I read as especially resonant with the North of England, the place where I had grown up. The higgidy rhythm of ‘now, and now, and now’ appearing to imitate the coy caution of the foxes I had watched crossing the garden, and the ‘dark snow’ still lies on the grass. Hughes has a vast poetic corpus and served as Poet Laureate from 1993 until his death in 1998, yet such time or ‘the pour and tor of distances’ never interrupted his apparent affiliation with the nature of the North – stemming from his childhood in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire. Hughes grew up rambling on the moors, almost reminiscent of Emily Bronte’s solitary excursions. Both writers shared a certain hardiness in this sense – prepared to involve themselves with nature and its inevitable violence, leaving a lasting imprint. Whilst some may consider Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering heights’ to encapsulate the extremes nature an, humanity Hughes poetry often illuminates the arbitrary aggression of nature in the everyday.
Hughes went on to have many varied jobs including a rose gardener, a nightwatchman and a reader for J. Arthur Rankl A British Film Company.Yet Hughes everyday life when he released his first collection ‘Hawk in the Rain’ was not written in his Northern niche, but largely as an undergraduate and then following his degree in Cambridge. Yet amidst the ‘dreaming spires’, where he had went to study English, Hughes evidently showed a strength of character in rejecting his original course of study – the academic pursuit of literature scraped the beauty of the text away, in his view – and he instead pursued social anthropology,. Although these were decisions made in Cambridge, these can be considered as indicatory of Hughes very Northern ‘roots’, his want to return not only to the past of society, but his own Northern past.
Why? As Hughes himself said upon people ‘ And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own .’ It could be considered that in his poetry Hughes captures a child-like awe for the capacities of nature, though certainly not childish. This is a fine balance Hughes maintains like the ‘Thought Fox’ in his path through the snow, Hughes skimming the surface of the unknown, whilst plunging to new depths in exploring ‘Flowers and Insects’.
It is this fascination for nature and its prevalence in literature which appears particular prevalent regarding Northern poets. Many people may be familiar with the work of Simon Armitage, whose childhood was not only marked by growing up in Yorkshire, but has in turn marked the landscapes - the stanzas stanza project over Ilkey moor and surrounding areas linking 47 miles with poetry conveyed by the rock faces. One such poem ‘Snow’ holds the haunting lines ‘The moor in coma. Snow, like water asleep, a coded muteness to baffle all noise, to stall movement,’, again expressing the overwhelming capabilities to nature. As I read ‘Snow’ the wind whistled around me, whipping the grass, and I knew that nature spoke for itself but in these words and outside them.
In and out then, poetry from the North of England appears to have a particular sense of identity, I feel. Yet whilst Ted Hughes moved away for significant periods from the Calderdale of his childhood, it was in moving into the North of England that Carol Anne Duffy’s verse could be seen as picking up a different voice. Her earliest poems were written in Scotland and the Gorbals area in which she grew up:
my heart stumbled and blushed
as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree
in the scratched old desk under my hands,
heard the bird in the oak outside scribble itself on the air.
Yet it could be seen that her movements in Liverpool around the university in her 20’s and her current basis in Manchester has held a lasting effect on her writing. It is from Manchester Duffy launched her first collection of poetry as Laureate ‘The Bees’. It is interesting that during his return to the North of England on the death of his second wife, Assia Wevill, that Hughes wrote a collection called ‘’Flowers and insects’ – witnessing the operations of nature and intimate detail. It could be considered in a similar way that Duffy uses the metaphor of a bee to explore the contradictory elements of a different kind of nature, human nature – with a bee an image both of blessing and of curse in people’s eyes. The poem ‘The bees’ itself expresses that ‘bees are the batteries of the orchards’ and it is through this bold alliteration in a striking collection that Duffy presents a voice acutely aware of nature.
So is that what the North brings to poetry – a nearness to nature? I believe that this is the case, but not just in an organic sense. Although the north of England may possess its own wild landscapes such as Kinder Scout and Saddleworth Moor, it also possesses its industrial turbulence. How can this be the subject for wandering artists? Ultimately because industry is where human nature wanders, and what is so beautifully documented in the work of many Northern poets. In ‘Birthday Letters’ we see Hughes both reflecting and even mourning of the mechanisation of the land in which he grew up, yet his typing part of that process. In ‘The Bees’ Duffy presents poems such as ‘Echo’ – similarly reminding us of man trapping himself by his own nature, like an echo does. For example, the opening lines of the poem ‘I think I was searching for treasures or stones /in the clearest of pools’ illustrates simple human frailty ‘I think’ in comparison to the superlative ‘clearest’ of surrounding nature.
It could be seen that the Northern poetry captures awareness of environment. Of course, this is not exclusive to the North. For example, considering the work of the great London poets such as William Blake, his piece simply entitled ‘London’ with the haunting lines ‘In every cry of every Man/ In every Infants cry of fear. anaphora and repetition here moulds a consequent echo a little like the title of Duffy’s aforementioned poem; Blake too conveys a profundity of the human condition. However, this is to emphasize that poets both of North and south have a particular power of conveying human, lived experience – and hence my eagerness to continue to support emerging creative talent in The North.
This talent evidently continues today, and as is often the case for Northern poets – unfortunately receives less awareness than Southern work. Helen Burke has been awarded the Manchester International, the Suffolk Poetry Prize, and the Ilkley Literature Performance Poetry Prize, yet I was unacquainted with her work until last week. I was struck by her poem ‘The Rehabilitation Hobbies Room’ especially, where Burke appears to provide an enigmatic speaker for the objects we commonly regard as voiceless, from ‘soft-toy dogs’ to ‘sea-foam and silicone’. In this poem, ‘Rehabilitation’ could appear to take the form of attempted refamilarisation – coming to terms with the human environment and how it has changed. Again, I feel this is a profound element in Northern poetry especially – like Hughes and Duffy, Burke appears to capture the intricate details of loved experience. The metaphor she uses for this is interesting, alluding to the ‘moth’ of sensation with ‘lillac wings’ – and similarly to Duffy’s use of bees, here Burke appears to use nature imagery to convey contradictions – after all, moths are liked by some, loathed by others.
Ultimately, nature can aspire admiration as well as terror.
It is these two elements which seem suspended in the work of Burke, as well as Hughes. Her poem ‘Foxgloves’ allows for an enchanting read:
I eat foxglove, dream foxglove.
I am foxglove.
Here appears an interesting parallelism with the triadic structure seen in Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ – rather than capturing movement, conveying it. whilst Hughes expressed the deft gestures of the wily fox, Burke portrays the particular movements of the foxglove – perhaps stirred by wind or tickled by rain. Ultimately, the northern poetry in tis article seeks to explore nature without its themed romanticisation – there is raw grit the north is often associated with. That is why I am proud of northern poetry, it takes the grit, the black coal of words and moulds it under the pen to something perfected.