Thu 25 April 2019
Current Issue
Current Issue
Forthcoming Issue
Previous Issues
Article Search
Submissions
You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > Prose poetry and a sense of place: exploring the influence of Ted Hughes on voice, nature and gender
Back
Prose poetry and a sense of place: exploring the influence of Ted Hughes on voice, nature and gender
Author: Anne Caldwell
Anne Caldwell suggests a better way of conceptualizing a writer’s exploration of Northernness, especially in relation to the genre of prose poetry.

Abstract

This paper explores my relationship with the locality of Calderdale in Yorkshire (UK) and the writing of its foremost poet, Ted Hughes. It examines the connections between his work and my own, exploring how I have used his poetry as an inspiration as well as drawing on the actual landscape about which it was written. It therefore begins by exploring my own place in the poetry of the north of England and more generally, in writings about nature. The paper discusses the question of gender and asks whether this is the chief reason why I approach writing about the natural world in a different voice and tone from Hughes. Through an examination of these issues and by drawing on the insights of feminist theory, new nature writing and visual art criticism, this article suggests a better way of conceptualizing a writer’s exploration of Northernness, especially in relation to the genre of prose poetry. It concludes with an exploration of where my own creative work sits in relation to new writing about place and ecology. 

 

Keywords:  Prose Poetry, Place, Gender, Nature, Writing Process

 

Introduction

Ted Hughes’s book-length sequence, Remains of Elmet (1979) explores the landscape of his birthplace and was a seminal influence on the genesis of my prose poetry sequence, “Alice and The North”. Both works draw inspiration from the landscape of West Yorkshire, where I have lived for over fifteen years and where I have my strongest experience of a sense of place. The main theme of my writing is an exploration of Northernness. I therefore aim to examine Hughes’s influence on my understanding of this concept and outline the key differences in our poetic techniques and viewpoints, topics which form the sub-sections of this paper. I begin by exploring Hughes’s perception of the natural world and its relationship to motherhood and place and compare his writing with my own treatment of these themes. I consider how our similarities and differences are reflected in both the tone and voice of our writing. This work enabled me to develop the hypothesis that my own relationship to place is more fluid and interconnected with the female body than Hughes. I consider how the feminist theories of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray have shaped my writing process and deepened my understanding of a northern female identity. In order to develop this idea further, I then return to the photography of Fay Godwin in Remains of Elmet, which plays a pivotal role in visually shaping my sense of the North. Her images lead me to examine ekphrasis as a writing technique and to consider the significance of white space in my own work. Notions of fluidity and change are also reflected in my choice of prose poetry as a genre and deepen my understanding of this form. I conclude this paper by placing my work in a wider context; namely, the contemporary concerns of eco-poetry, environmentalism and regeneration, which are playing a role in the re-drafting of my collection and mark a significant departure from Hughes’s own cultural context.

The context of Hughes’ work is often played out against the backdrop of two World Wars. The critic Margaret Dickie Uroff described Hughes “as a poet obsessed with physical cruelty” (Uroff 1979: vii). She goes on to say, “English critics have reacted vehemently to the violence in his poetry” (Uroff 1979: 8). I would not put forward the simplistic argument that this violence is somehow inherent in Hughes’s work because of his gender but I do think it gives his work a distinctive voice that has echoes of the early twentieth-century male war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon:

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun 
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun, 
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud 
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one, 
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire. (Sassoon 1918)

The use of strong verbs such as “smouldering” and “menacing” and the inclusion of the image of the sun is reminiscent of the diction of Remains of Elmet. The critic Susan Bassnett observes how this influence could be seen to shape Hughes’s work:

He could equally be labelled as a nature poet or a war poet. However, unlike poets writing directly out of their own wartime experience, he is a war poet at one remove, writing out of the impact of memory. (Bassnett 2009: 54)

The stereotype of Hughes as a “misogynistic” poet is evident in the locality of Calderdale where I now live. The name “Hughes” has been consistently effaced from Plath’s gravestone in Heptonstall, Yorkshire. The publication of Birthday Letters helped to redress some of the misreadings of his work. Yet the film critic Roger Ebert crystallized a widely held, popular myth about Hughes. When the film Sylvia was screened in 2003, Ebert wrote: “her death was blamed on his adultery, and in the 35 years left to him, he lived with that blame” (Ebert 2003).

Through a close reading of the work itself, rather than concentrating on biographical representations or misrepresentations, I hope to re-evaluate Hughes’s influence on my own development as a poet. One of the ways I can achieve this aim is by exploring similarities and differences in our approaches to nature, place, theme and voice. 

 

Hughes and Nature

A key similarity I can observe between our approaches is in the genesis of Remains of Elmet and my own poetic sequence, “Alice and the North”. In a letter to Fay Godwin in 1976, Hughes wrote “my first idea became an episodic autobiography —nothing connected. Just poems anchored in particular events and things” (Reid 2007: 378). I can relate to his notion of “episodic autobiography” and can recognise a similar starting point for my own creative work. Thus, my opening draft prose poems include an exploration of a childhood territory, rooted in a specific, observational event, as shown in this example:

She thinks of all the people she’s seen reflected in shop windows. Her mother, stone-hearted and frazzled with chores, the shadow of her dead father and his large, black umbrella, her three sisters arguing as usual, with bright red gloves and sour faces, that shabby man on the corner, rooting in the bins. (Caldwell 2016)

However, this childhood landscape lies along the Cheshire/Staffordshire border: a suburban setting that is less bleak than the mill town and moorland “wilderness” depicted in Remains of Elmet. Hughes’s letter to Godwin, quoted above, continues:

What grips me about the place, I think, is the weird collision of that terrible life of slavery – to work, cash, Methodism —which was an heroic life really… inside these black buildings, with that wilderness, which is really a desert, more or less uninhabitable. (Reid 2007: 378)

Hughes’s own forward to Remains of Elmet clarifies this bleak overview of this part of the North, which is portrayed in his poems and in Godwin’s photographs:

The Calder Valley, west of Halifax, was the last British Celtic Kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hideout for refugees. [….]Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. (Hughes 1979: ii)

The critic Edward Hadley suggests that nature is seen as the only redeeming influence in this poetic landscape: “here, the only survivor among these remains, the only 'thing' to flourish, is nature as it reclaims the land from those who inhabit it” (Hadley 2016). However, I think the final poem in the book suggests that a more complex interpretation of the work is warranted. Nature is a nuanced theme in Hughes’s work: at times benign or a symbol of regeneration, and elsewhere, elemental and apocalyptic. For example, his poem “The Angel” paints a vision that combines the beauty and terror of nature. Hughes moves away from a documentary approach to place and, with echoes of William Blake, paints a picture where the valley is on the edge of destruction from the forces of nature itself:

The full moon had crashed on to Halifax.
Black Halifax boiled in phosphorus.
Halifax was an erupting crater. (Hughes 1979: 179)

 

A Sense of Place 

A brief look at definitions of place and landscape is useful here. The British geographer Denis Cosgrove defines landscape as comprising “the external world mediated through subjective experience” (Lippard 1997: 12). Robert MacFarlane takes this further in his award-winning book Landmarks. In a chapter discussing the writing of Barry Lopez (author of Arctic Dreams 1999) and the poet Peter Davidson, MacFarlane states:

Both Lopez and Davidson are north-minded – and both are topographic humanists. They see landscape not as a static diorama against which human action plays itself out, but rather as an active and shaping force in our imagination, our ethics, our relations with each other and the world. (Macfarlane 2015: 220)

This is a useful conceptualisation for a creative writer because it suggests that we have a more complex relationship with the land: one that is filtered through the writer’s own psyche. I agree with Lucy Lippard, an American art critic and theorist, when she suggests that traditionally this view has not always held sway:

The idea that “nature is a place where we are not” has ruled for centuries; at least since Newton. Nature, like woman, has been seen as powerful, uncontrollable and threatening on the one hand, and inferior and subordinate (though necessary and convenient) to human culture, on the other. (Lippard 1997: 14)

This powerful “mother” nature imagery can be seen throughout Remains of Elmet. The book is dedicated to Hughes’s own mother and opens with a reference to a biological mother in the first poem, “The Dark River”: “My uncle raises my mother’s face” (Hughes 2003: 466). This theme of the mother is then developed in the next poem, “Where the Mothers”: 

Where the Mothers

Gallop their souls
Where the howlings of heaven
Pour down onto earth. (Hughes 1979: 455)

Here, the imagery has become apocalyptic in tone. Hughes’s “mother” is developed into a complex and rich set of symbols in the poems that follow as he combines images of birth mothers, mother nature, the real women of the Calder Valley, and religious/mythic mother figures in the work. Ann Skea suggests how this theme functions in the context of the book:

In Remains of Elmet, the first and last poems of the sequence suggest two major, closely linked themes on which the other poems have been built: the theme of “The Mothers”, which has strong regenerative aspects; and the theme of the imprisonment of divine light, or soul, in matter and its eventual, apocalyptic release. In these poems, too, we can discern strands of the mythical/religious beliefs which form part of the complex structural fabric of this work. (Skea 1994)

However, I do not think the wider theme of Mother Nature is consistently one of regeneration. In the poem “The Big Animal of the Rock”, Hughes’s mother becomes a cannibalistic, mythic creature:

At the Festival of Unending

In the fleshly faith
Of the Mourning Mother
Who eats her children. (Hughes 2003: 466)

Furthermore, in the last poem of the sequence, the narrator specifically addresses a more recognizably Christian, religious mother figure:

“Mother”, I cried, “O Mother, there is an angel – 
Is it a blessing?” (Hughes 1979: 124)

There is a complicated subtext at work in Hughes’s poetry. Through my examination of how the theme of Mother Nature operates in the text, it should become clear how the themes of matriarchy, otherness and wilderness are linked in Remains of Elmet.

In order to understand this set of relationships, I shall now turn to the work of the French feminist writer, Luce Irigaray, who has explored women’s identity and sexuality through her studies of language, philosophy and psychoanalysis. She argues that, traditionally, our patriarchal language structures set up an opposition where the male is seen as rational and the female is irrational. Jan Montefiore summarizes Irigaray’s viewpoint in this way:

She analyses the underlying structures of thought in Freud, Plato and Hegel, arguing that these men’s intellectual systems are based on oppositions, in which the second term is understood as a devalued opposite to the first; within such definitions, whether overt or covert, woman gets assimilated to the negative pole. (Montefoire 1987: 147)

As a writer, I am interested both in this gendered, binary view of language systems and the mother/daughter relationship. What might this notion mean for a female poet? As Montefiore elaborates:

The maternal role holds another, greater problem for women, which is also an aspect of the lack of meaning which we suffer: namely the little girl’s alienation from her mother. […] We need to repossess our identities through reclaiming as women our lost “Imaginary state”. According to Irigaray, “the important thing is to try to understand how the mother could change the actual system”. (Montefiore 1987: 148)

Irigaray’s work is often nebulous and difficult, especially when it comes to the practicalities of being a female writer. It is clear to me that plurality and imprecision are important characteristics of female identity and this has led me to consider the use of voice in my own work.

In my draft collection, I have linked together prose poems using the device of a central female character called Alice, who becomes a mother herself as the prose poems unfold. Hughes’s mother also never speaks, and is introduced in his work through his male narrative voice. Similarly, in my own text, Alice’s mother first appears as a character who struggles to speak and is in conflict with her daughters. When Alice’s mother does find her voice, she warns her daughters about female sexuality and coming of age:

Her mother sterilised Kilner jars in the oven, pursed her lips. She filled a larder with the summer’s glut. She slow-cooked meringue, brittle with resentment and sugared love. It can all happen in an instant, she said, darkly. Alice had some idea of what this meant. These were days of rust and nettles. (Caldwell 2016)

As my prose poem sequence develops, after the birth of Alice’s own child and the death of her mother, there is a suggested reconciliation and regeneration of the matriarchal line. The days of “rust and nettles” have been replaced by the symbol of the re-planting of her mother’s irises. The Roman Goddess Iris traditionally symbolized a rainbow, linking heaven and earth. The tone of this poem is correspondingly down-to-earth and practical. It is less prophetic than Hughes’s but the flower image shares his theme of regeneration: “Alice cannot throw them out. This year she will buy fresh sand, gravel, lift and divide with a sharp spade, lay them in a bed of well drained compost, in a sunnier spot” (Caldwell 2016). I prefaced this poem with a quotation from a book called The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck, to emphasize this connection between mother and daughter and the recovery of a shared language:

I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice. (Gluck 2009)

I have used the name Alice as a means of recognizing the similarity of tone and view of nature to that of the contemporary poet, Alice Oswald whilst simultaneously alluding to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Oswald’s book-length poem sequence, Weeds and Wild Flowers, is a collection of character sketches of plants/people that create a “flora” of the human psyche, interspersed with woodcut illustrations. I particularly empathize with Oswald’s intention, outlined in her preface:

My hope is that the experience of reading and looking at the book will be a slightly unsettling pleasure, like walking through a garden at night, when the plants come right up to the edges of their names and then beyond them. It is not, for that reason, a reliable guide to wild flowers, though it may be a reliable record of someone’s wild or wayside selves. (Oswald 2009)

Keith Sagar, in his book The Art of Ted Hughes, pinpoints Hughes’s distinct voice and tone, describing “Hughes [as] a master of hyperbole. Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration, not intended to be taken literally, to express strong feeling or make a strong impression” (Sagar 1975: 14). This technique is especially evident in Hughes’s poem, “Long Screams”, where repetition of the word “dead” creates a sense of high drama:

Unending bleeding.
Deaths left over
The dead piled in cairns
Over the dead
Everywhere dead things for monuments
Of the dead
And now this whole scene, like a mother
Lifts a cry
Right to the source of it all. (Hughes 2003: 460) 

Like Hughes, I have alluded to a mythical relationship with the land in some of the prose poems in “Alice and the North”, but also depicted the central protagonist, Alice, as a creature that is part of the landscape itself: “Alice is a giantess lying across Yorkshire, her legs bent in sleep, slightly parted, curving along the river” (Caldwell 2016). The county of Yorkshire is not the only locality that I have written about, but it does provide the backbone to my collection, paralleling the way that the Pennines (and Alice) form a spine for the north of England. Alice is not separate from the land but part of it, whereas in Hughes’s work the voice of a central male first-person narrator is present as a character in many of the poems. Bassnett points to the way Hughes creates a sense of a masculine voice through the use of autobiographical material, memory and male characters in the text:

Along with these elegiac poems about the physical fabric of the Calder Valley are more explicitly autobiographical poems, scenes from Hughes’s childhood – a cricket match, a game of football, a boy fishing in a polluted canal. […] Along with the images of childhood are the ever-present old men, survivors of wars and a lifetime of hard labour in the mills, who watch the world changing with stoicism and resignation. (Bassnett 2009: 49)

In my own writing, I am more interested in a merging of the idea of the female body and the land itself. I echo Hélène Cixous’s assertion that the idea of writing about the body, and from the body, is vital to women artists:

By writing her self, woman will return to her body which has been confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. (Cixous 1976: 880)

A singular, feminine “self” is not present in my prose poem sequence. Instead, there is a shifting sense of Alice’s character in the work. This is what Julia Kristeva refers to as a “subject in process”, arguing that in Ruth Robbins’ words “any text is polyvalent, polylogical, plural and unfixed” (2000:127). I certainly see the character of Alice in these more fluid terms, metamorphosing from a child to a figure from classical mythology: to a lover, a mother and a writer as the sequence unfolds. 

 

Persona and Voice

As my prose poetry developed, I began to perceive a more complex relationship with Hughes’s work and drew on it for further inspiration. For example, one of the manifestations of Alice is as the goddess Medusa. This persona emerged after I had returned to Hughes’s early collection, The Hawk in the Rain (Hughes 2003). This collection also stands out for me because of its strong depiction of Hughes’s Calderdale childhood and depiction of the north of England. The book foreshadows some of the key themes of Remains of Elmet, particularly in its close investigation of the elemental power of the weather and the natural world.  My prose poem “Winter” was written in direct response to the widely anthologized Hughes poem, “Wind”, (Hughes 2003: 36), which is set in Heptonstall. I read this poem as a child and have often returned to it in my adult life. When writing “Alice and the North”, I went through the act of re-reading the poem “Wind” and examined it alongside photographer Fay Godwin’s image of Heptonstall which can be found in Remains of Elmet.

Quickly and instinctively, rather than as a critical thinking process, I made a list of Hughes’s most vivid nouns and noun phrases and used them as a starting point for writing: coal house, brunt wind, tent of the hills, magpie, black-back gull, fire blazing, hearing the stones cry out” (Hughes 2003: 36). I then wrote notes in a “free writing” style, incorporating some of these ideas: “she lives on the same contour line, across the Craggs from Heptonstall and wind hits her house like a tent, taut on its guy ropes. Wind sneaking through mullions, through any amount of felt or flags.”

After further drafting, a new version of Alice, my narrator, emerged:

Alice became Medusa – she was a line of Heptonstall venom, she was The Craggs spitting, hitting her house through all the fire and felt and flags. Hair hissed Alice through the mullions, wind solid as stone walls. The roof hurried inside, the Velux window turned to salt or was bent into a Lowry figure. (Caldwell 2016)

Cixous presents a very positive image of the goddess Medusa in her seminal work, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, which I found very useful as a reference point in reworking my relationship with the original myth. As Cixous puts it: “you only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (Cixous 1976: 880).

Alice’s anger in this poem merges with the house and its landscape, and she becomes the wind itself. There is an allusion here to the character of Alice and Emily Bronte’s Cathy from Wuthering Heights as both characters share a close identification with the wildness of the West Yorkshire moorland landscape.

In the context of the draft collection as a whole, I would argue that anger is seen as a positive force for change and a pivotal moment in the collection. It is the point at which Alice takes charge of a new, potential identity. As an emerging writer, she steps out from the shadow of the other major poets of this imagined locality. Two poems later in the sequence, Alice gently mocks the poetry of Hughes and the younger Yorkshire poet, Simon Armitage:

She drives over a dead fox on the road one morning.  She thinks of Hughes, Armitage and all those who have written in a blaze of red, thinking their fox was the only fox that mattered, with its guts picked over by crows. Here are the murmurs of generations. Here are their bones. (Caldwell 2016)  

 

Prose Poetry and Fluidity

Throughout my prose poem sequence, my overall vision of nature and imagination is often fragmentary: the boundaries between a sense of self, one’s body and the landscape, and the boundaries between the narrator and central character are blurred. The prose poetry form itself facilitates this fluid movement and exploration of imagined ways of being. Charles Baudelaire wrote of the prose poem’s capacity for “undulations”:

Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhyme and without rhythm, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of the psyche, the prickings of consciousness? (Baudelaire 1869)

In the forward to the anthology This Line is Not For Turning (2011), the contemporary critic Nikki Santilli has developed this notion and argues:

The prose poetry form oscillates constantly between what it expresses (presses out) from its miniature physical form and the wider worlds to which it gestures, beyond its own edges. This, of course, is the very stuff of literary writing, which makes the prose poem an exercise in precision applied to a plethora of imagined ways of being.

I am particularly interested in this notion of “oscillation” and the way a prose poem can gesture to a wider landscape, both real and imaginary. I have therefore considered the page margins of my prose poems carefully, echoing the “block” form present in Anne Carson’s book, Short Talks (2015). In this way, the prose poems mirror a collection of landscape photographs. Both my prose poems and those of Carson’s are fully justified. Margaret Christakos’s foreword to the re-issue of Carson’s book talks about its “45 small taut rectangles of poetic address that each frame a seismic smithering of the human condition” (ibid.: 11).

I also chose to write in this hybrid form, rather than using (more conventional) lyric poetry, because of the fluidity and liminality that is possible in writing between genres, within a tight, rectangular frame. It is very difficult to define prose poetry, but other writers and critics, such as Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton, discuss some if its distinct characteristics:

Prose poems [inhabit] an open space that begins where there is no particular beginning and concludes without resolving any particular narrative. They open questions and scenarios…prose poems so often create tropes of indeterminacy and ambiguity where structure and patterning of the kind employed by many lyric poems is present but subdued, and where narrative gestures are partial and fragmentary. (Atherton 2016: 265) 

The third prose poem in my sequence explores this concept of opening space through the use of rhetorical questions that have a surreal quality; where borders and skin, blood and maps are in juxtaposition with each other:

Alice is trying to draw the border. Raided by Reivers, the rules here are whippets. The fort at Housesteads is collapsing. And where is her spine? Either side? Where is her kith and kin? Can she see in between the sheep and goats, find a blood line on a map or the border on her skin? (Caldwell 2016)

If my sequence has an underlying “narrative gesture”, it is in the use of seasonal rhythms and the movement from winter through to spring and summer. One of the characteristics I share with Hughes is his theme of the regenerative powers of seasonal change, as is evident in this extract from my prose poem “Felling”:

She drew them from memory but could not catch the way sunlight had dappled her mullioned windows or the scent of them. That resin, earthy smell that signalled spring. (Caldwell 2016)

 

Regeneration and Feminism

Aside from the themes discussed earlier, I also seek to explore this theme of regeneration as a social and cultural construct. As noted earlier, Remains of Elmet was first published at the end of the 1970s. Since then, the Calder village where I live has been economically regenerated. The fustian weaving shed in Pecket Well has been converted into houses and apartments. The village still includes some local families and farmers, but it mainly houses newcomers from the cities of Manchester, London and Leeds: people working in the arts, media, IT and other growing areas. Owing to the disappearance of traditional farming practices, such as the clearance of drainage in the moors, the valley has started to experience severe flooding in a way that has not been seen before in its history. The regeneration feels temporary and dependent on a new collective approach to tackling climate change; for example, The Upper Calder Valley Flood Prevention Action Group (UCVFPAG) was formed after flash floods twice hit the town of Hebden Bridge.

How are these social and ecological upheavals reflected in my own writing about this area? My work suggests an uneasy relationship between the place and people, intimating at a distrust of this change. This viewpoint is reflected in a fictional conversation between Alice and Hughes:

Ted, she thought, you’d scoff at drones, bombs and the Lycra men cycling. You’d recognise this road or the in-comers, but would you take up residence in the sheds where Keighley was once measured by the mills rolling, a day of fustian? (Caldwell 2016) 

Overall, the tone of my work is very different from Hughes’s. It is quieter at times and, in other prose poems, more challenging and subversive, as, for instance, when Alice is confronted by a friend from the United States: “‘You wouldn’t know the North if it came up and bit you on the bottom,’ said her American friend one night. ‘Well, it depends how you define it’, Alice replied, rather too sharply” (Caldwell 2016).

After being shortlisted for the Rialto magazine poetry pamphlet competition in 2017, I had some thoughtful, critical feedback from the poet and judge, Hannah Lowe. She observed that the emerging narrative arc of my poetry collection could be seen as rather stereotypical and feminine: Alice’s journey begins in childhood, she gains a lover, becomes pregnant and then enters middle age. As I wanted to highlight the feminist undertones of the work through the journey and character of Alice, I redrafted and changed the overall pattern of the sequence, writing a new ending. The work now includes a series of short, interwoven narratives that explore themes of sexual exploration (the central character has at least four lovers) and the transgression of boundaries/borders (travelling north beyond the Arctic Circle and including references to Greenham Common and the fall of the Berlin Wall). 

Alice also undertakes an imaginative journey of self-discovery. Her identity is shaped by the act of defining the North through writing, rather than sexual relationships. In the poem, “The Black Cat”, Alice imaginatively inhabits Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but the room is not even limited by a roof:

And once the roof was stolen, Alice never wanted it to return. She woke up watching the Milky Way, the Pleiades or the North star. She woke, soaked to the skin, and was happy. Her thoughts lifted like dust, and she wrote page after page, now the stone tiles, roofing felt and gutters were missing. One evening, her face was covered in snowflakes that melted into words. (Caldwell 2016)

I would argue that the metaphor of the removing of “stone tiles, roofing felt and gutters” in order to write is an indirect reference to a younger writer overcoming the influence of Hughes. It rejects the poetic diction of Remains of Elmet, with its emphasis on the fossilization of the stone buildings and its people:

Hill-Stone was content
To be cut, to be carted
And fixed in its new place.
It let itself be conscripted
Into mills.
Mankind…
Staying in position, fixed, like the stones,
Trembling to the song of the looms. (Hughes 2003: 463)

 

Writing and Environmentalism  

Hughes is such a colossus in poetry, particularly that of the north of England, that I have also turned to other areas of the arts to explore how a creative person can take a familiar source of inspiration and make it her/his own. I see the relationship between Hughes’s work and my own as similar to the way in which twentieth-century, women landscape photographers in the United States saw themselves in relation to male pioneers like Ansel Adams, who was one of the chief figures in the photographic “Boys’ Landscape Movement”. It is a view captured in Carrie Mae Weem’s comment:

Women’s frequently calmer and more intimate approach to landscape is not exciting enough to appeal to a public taste formed by the dramatic (and possessive) spectacle of the “Boys’ Landscape Movement.” (Lippard 1997: 58) 

One of the later poems in my prose poetry sequence, “All at Sea” ends deliberately on the water rather than the land, in order to capture this quieter tone and fleeting moment of intimacy:

They sit still, clamped together in half-light, listening to the boat’s diesel engine, herring gulls shrieking and circling. They were lovers once and now hardly speak of this. But here at sea, he remains her Polaris, her true North. (Caldwell 2016)

I share Hughes’s empathy with the natural world but look at it through a different lens. I do not have his certainty, his visceral, farmer’s knowledge of the countryside and his deep understanding of its people. In the extraordinary poem, “The Rabbit Catcher”, from Hughes’s final collection, Birthday Letters (2003), the narrator is the one who empathizes with the need for people to snare animals for food:

I was aghast. Faithful
To my country gods—I saw
The sanctity of a trapline desecrated.
You saw blunt fingers, blood in the cuticles,
Clamped around a blue mug. I saw
Country poverty raising a penny,
Filling a Sunday stewpot. (ibid.:1136)

Writing a number of decades later than Hughes, I am more acutely aware of the world’s fragility and the effects of climate change on our habitats. The term “eco-poetry” was in its infancy when he was writing. Hughes would certainly not have needed these final reflections: “Alice could show them rare butterflies on the moors, swallows arriving a month too soon, but not today. Not today.” (Caldwell 2016)   

I am not alone in this view of our interconnectedness. Many contemporary writers perceive this link between environmental concerns and writing about the landscape: writers such as Roger Deakin, Nan Shepherd, Helen MacDonald and Richard Mabey. MacFarlane, writing in the New Statesman in 2015, puts forward a vision of nature writing which does not separate it from other environmental movements. He suggests that a new “culture of nature” is changing the way we live – and could change our politics, too. He sees a direct connection between writing and environmentalism: “Literature… can feed into policymaking” (Macfarlane 2015). 

MacFarlane argues that poetry does not need to be didactic or to spell out this message, but it should celebrate the natural world, with a close attention to detail. In exploring the work of essayist Julian Hoffman and the poetry of Thomas Clark, Macfarlane suggests that “they ask readers to approach the living world not as a standing reserve but as a precious gift” (Macfarlane 2015), and he quotes a striking phrase of nature writer, Tim Dee, who notes that “we need bird poems as much as the RSPB” (Macfarlane 2015). I share this approach to the purpose of writing in an era of climate change and have borne it in mind when researching the flora and fauna of the north of England for my collection. I have aimed for precision and accuracy in observing and then describing its threatened wildlife:

Mid-Summer

Today the temperature drops. Mist hangs over the hills, horses feed in high grass, elderflowers bloom. The fever of summer, its constant sneeze, its red-eye itch is soothed. Ferns relax. (Caldwell 2016)

 

White Space and Ekphrasis

Although written in a different cultural context, Hughes’s Elmet is a changing landscape, depicting a period of economic depression. Ultimately, I think a large proportion of the meaning of Remains of Elmet therefore lies in its ekphratic white spaces: in between the poetry and the photographs; between the free verse, poetic lines and the pages on which the poems are written. These white spaces are pregnant with imagery: elegiac of a lost way of farming and a life framed by non-conformist religion. The white spaces could represent the young men who were lost in the two World Wars. Complementing this sense of loss is the striking number of war monuments both in the text and in Godwin’s photographs. When the book was renamed Elmet (1994), it was as if its authors were also aware of the contribution these white spaces made to the collection, such that they wanted to make it more explicit, capitalizing on those most graphic and beautiful photos by Godwin: of the landscape under snow, suggesting that the white spaces were being sucked into the images themselves. The reordering of the book’s photographs and poems gave a sense that the snowy whiteness of the landscape had itself shifted over the years – especially for those that knew the original collection. Similarly, the medium of prose poetry has encouraged me to open up a different kind of poetic space: one that exists between the genres of fiction and poetry. Harriet Staff also observed this impulse in Anne Carson’s prose poems:

It is in this space, the gap between what is known and what is not yet known, that the words are found. The place where the blind storyteller has to continue on past what is known using only his or her senses. (Staff 2017)

Experimentation has enabled me to think about what can imaginatively be created on this threshold between more traditional forms of writing. Sensory details have anchored the prose poems in the natural world, but I have also experimented with surrealism through the inclusion of allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and other texts by the Plath, Carson, William Wordsworth and Mikhail Bulgakov.

 

Prose Poetry and Feminism

As well as this interest in the prose poetry form and what it can liberate, I think there is an emerging voice in my draft collection with the character(s) of “Alice” holding the work together as its/their central focus. I have not tried to sustain a book-length sequence of poems in this way and it has proved a fruitful development in terms of both confidence and style. Alice has an intimate, complex relationship with nature and I am beginning to realize that this character’s journey has a strong feminist perspective as well as marking a fresh departure for me as a writer. In exploring these themes in my work, I find myself challenged by Irigaray, who makes the point that speech is never gender neutral. As Ruth Robbins expresses it:

What Irigaray proposes, both in her practice and in her content, is the need to develop alternative linguistic systems, alternative modes of representation: she seeks to rewrite the symbolic order in such a way that it would allow women a space to speak from and which would permit women to hear their own speech as valuable. (Robbins 200: 155)  

In the light of this further reading, the final prose poem in my collection was written in a more confident, feminist tone. So, while the sequence opens with the character of Alice, who is unable to draw a border on a page and is full of questions, it ends with poems that advance her own definitions of the North. I have used a repetitive, insistent, dactylic rhythm to emphasize this shift. Moreover, the narrator defines Alice’s North as a geological language, with its own distinctive dialect and speech patterns. The north of England is also an inter-textual, literary landscape, rich in cultural resonance. The collection purposefully ends with a celebration of Dorothy Wordsworth’s letters, rather than William Wordsworth’s poetry: 

Its language is gritstone and millstone and shale; volcanic in nature or limestone dissolving in caverns and sinkholes; lost snickets and ginnels, all morgrawm and mizzle:  don’t mither me now, with your fracking and twaddle.

Her North is a jut of the chin or a kipper; it’s mill-loft conversions and Brönte themed day-trips; Branwell with gin in a Halifax tavern; Dorothy Wordsworth, fell-walking all weathers; unquenchable love for an obstinate brother. Her trail-blazing, wonder-filled copperplate letters. (Caldwell 2016)

 

Conclusion

I have discovered many resonances with Hughes’s work in this exploration of Remains of Elmet and his other poems. At times, we have shared the same physical landscape as poets. We have explored similar themes of seasonal change and regeneration and shared a naturalist’s appreciation of the Calder Valley. Hughes’s prophetic voice and elegiac tone document notions of wilderness, motherhood, his own childhood, and a way of life that was disappearing. My own draft sequence is more concerned with the exploration of the prose poem genre, the contemporary forces of climate change and the female psyche. “Alice and the North” is still a work in progress. At present, my writing process has become concerned with the mapping of both a physical and an imaginative landscape, where a search for the North and the language of the body and self, have become intertwined. 

 

References 

Caldwell, A. (2016) Alice and the North, PhD Thesis, University of Bolton. Unpublished material. 

Bassnett, S. (2009) Ted Hughes. London: Northcote House.

Carson, A. (2014) Short Talks. Ontario: Brick Press.

Cixous, H. (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (trans. K. Cohen and P. Cohen), Signs, 1 (4), 875-893.

Dickie, M. (1979) Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois.

Ebert, R. (2003) ‘Sylvia’, Reviews. Available from: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/sylvia-2003 [Accessed March 2017].

Hadley, E. (n.d.) Poetry by Ted Hughes. Available from: http://thetedhughessociety.org/elmet/ [Accessed March 2017].

Hetherington, P. and Atherton, C. (2016) ‘Unconscionable Mystification’? Rooms, Spaces and the Prose Poem, New Writing, 12 (3), 265-281.

Hughes, T. (1979) Remains of Elmet. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (1998) Birthday Letters. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes, T. (2003) Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber. 

Hughes, T. (2007) The Letters of Ted Hughes (ed. C. Reid). London: Faber and Faber.

Lippard, L. (1997) The Lure of the Local: A Sense of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York, NY: The New Press.

Lopez, B. (1999) Arctic Dreams: imagination and desire in a Northern landscape. London: Vintage.

Macfarlane, R. (2015) Landmarks. London: Faber and Faber. 

Macfarlane, R. (2015) Why We Need Nature Writing, The New Statesman, 9 September. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/nature/2015/09/robert-macfarlane-why-we-need-nature-writing [Accessed 2 May 2017].  

Monson, J. (ed.) (2011) This line is Not for Turning: An Anthology of British Prose Poetry.  Blaenau Ffestiniog: Cinnamon.

Montefiore, J. (1987) Feminism and Poetry. London: Pandora.

Oswald, A. (2009) Weeds and Wild Flowers. London: Faber and Faber.

Robbins, R. (2000) Literary Feminisms. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Sagar, K. (1975) The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Sagar, K. (ed.) (1994) The Challenge of Ted Hughes. London: St. Martin’s Press.

Sassoon, S. (1918) 'Attack'. Available from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/57323 [Accessed March 2017].

Staff, H. (2016) Reading Anne Carson’s Reissued Short Talks. Available from:

 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2016/07/reading-anne-carsons-reissued-short-talks/  [Accessed 1 March 2017].

Uroff, M.D. (1979) Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois.

 

Bibliography

Atherton, C. and Hetherington, P. (2016) “Like a Porcupine or Hedgehog?”, Creative Approaches to Research, 9, (1), 19-38.

Armitage, S. (2009) All Points North. London: Penguin. 

France, L. (ed.) (2003) Sixty Women Poets. Hexham: Bloodaxe.

Hetherington, K. (1997) “In Place of Geometry: The Materiality of Place”, The Sociological Review, 45  (1), 183-99.

Irigaray, L. (2008) Conversations. London: Continuum. 

Kroll, J. and Harper, G. (eds) (2013) Research Methods in Creative Writing. London: Palgrave.

Jennings, C. (1985) Up North: Travels Beyond the Watford Gap. London: Abacus.

Mark, A. and Rees-Jones, D. (eds) (2000) Contemporary Women’s Poetry – reading, writing, practice. London: Macmillan.

 

Anne Caldwell is a freelance writer, a lecturer in Creative Writing for the Open University and a PhD student of Creative Writing at the University of Bolton, UK. She is a member of the IPSI International Prose Poetry Project and the author of three collections of poetry. She worked for the National Association for Writers in Education in the UK for over ten years. Her latest poetry collection is Painting the Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press, 2016).

 

 

Back