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Ted Hughes Gets An Appropriate Memorial

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Time to buy a pair of Wellies and book a flight to England. The Ted Hughes Poetry Trail has just been dedicated in Devon, in southwest England, and it sounds like just the sort of memorial any writer would want.

This memorial to one of the English language’s finest and fiercest poets (who moved to Devon in 1961 and lived there until his death in 1998) consists of a trail marked with posts, each dedicated to one of Hughes’ poems. One of the stops along the trail is dedicated to “The Thought-Fox,” which ranks just behind Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” on my All-Time Favorite Poems list.

The poem describes the process of literary creation with the precision and economy of a great watercolor, and as with all of Hughes’s best poems, it can leave you feeling that a ghost has crossed through the room and trailed its fingers along your back as it passed:

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive

Besides the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

I was introduced to Hughes’s work through, of all things, the lyrics printed on the back cover of Paul Simon’s album Still Crazy After All These Years, which offered a few lines from Crow as the epigraph to “My Little Town.” That was a reckless move on Simon’s part – “My Little Town” (the occasion for the first of his money-spinning reunions with Art Garfunkel) is one of his tritest songs, and those few lines of Ted Hughes annihilated just about every word of Simon’s album. Until then, I’d only vaguely known of Hughes as the husband of Sylvia Plath, one of the original Womens Studies Martyrs, but I quickly tracked down Crow and Hawk in the Rain and from then on I was hooked.

How appropriate to use a nature trail to memorialize a poet whose work was so fully grounded in the natural world. Hughes’s feeling for the English landscape was such that he requested his name be placed on a memorial stone in a remote area of Dartmoor, between the sources of the rivers Teign, Dart, Taw and East Okement.

Maybe I’ll remember something more later on, but right now the closest comparison I can think of for this memorial would be the series of plaques along the streets of Dublin that mark Leo Bloom’s small-time epic journey on June 16, as described in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Maybe that’s a bad comparison – Joyce hated Dublin with some of the same green rancor Frank Sinatra reserved for Hoboken. Hughes, on the other hand, not only loved the English countryside, he was for several years the poet laureate of Old Blighty, in which capacity he would compose private poems to be sent to the Queen. (Of all the privileges of royalty, that sounds like one of the most enviable.) Looks like Devon has found a perfect way to return the favor.

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  • Susan C. Periano

    Wonderful article! When in Devon, I will definitely look forwarad to visiting this trail.

  • Rodney Welch

    I dug up my old LP of Still Crazy After All These Years and looked at the Ted Hughes poem excerpt. I don’t think the words annihilate much of anything.

    To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
    Bent in emptiness
    over emptiness
    But flying…

    Sorry, I don’t really get it. Well, actually, I do get it, or I think I do; I just don’t get the appeal. Simon apparently used the quote because his own song has a black rainbow in it, and maybe one inspired the other.

    On the other hand, words like

    Twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun
    Leaving nothing but the dead and dying
    Back in my little town

    is a slam-bang image that brings together restlessness, desperation, and the thought of killing people who are already spiritually dead. Great song, great album.

  • Steven Hart

    You’re probably right about the black rainbow image. I think the lines Simon quoted referred to the act of creation: the arc of a crow forming the black rainbow over nothingness. The crow exists nowhere, but it lives.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on “My Little Town.” I thought it was a throwback to the sophomoric phase that produced “Richard Cory” and “A Most Unusual Man” — also done with Garfunkel. His writing had really moved forward on his first two solo albums, so it was depressing to hera him return to that mode. (Needless to say, he shook it off after that.)

  • Tom Moore

    Digitizing old vinyl and finding the Ted Hughes couplet brought me here. I have to agree with Rodney Welch about My Little Town. It is glib to toss off a line like “Simon’s tritest song” without even the slightest rationale. Feelings about “my little town” are some of the deepest things I harbor. When “Still Crazy” came out I was angry about my childhood and “twitching like the fingers on a gun” was a wonderful fantasy, so extreme that it alerted me to my own feelings. Now I’m more mellow and have few bad feelings about my home town, and appreciate that most of my problems stemmed from features of my personality that I would not trade in. Is that trite? Well, perhaps. But I bet I could find triter songs by Simon, say “Kodachrome”. Or is someone here a sensitive photographer?