Poems for Pleasure 4
Ted Hughes, once Poet Laureate, is also good on animal poems, though his thought and style take a bit of getting used to. I always loved J.H. Cardinal Newman’s statement that “style is a thinking out into language”. Never was a phrase as accurately descriptive as it is of Ted Hughes’s style. One of my favourite poems by Hughes is his marvellous “The Thought-Fox”. You’ll have to read and ponder this poem several times before it works its magic as it were.
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
“The Thought-Fox” is a tough poem, but one which repays any struggles we may have with it. It appeals to me because it is a poem not about a fox per se but rather about the very act of writing a poem. Having written many poems myself, both in Irish and English, I am fascinated by a poem about a poem being made or even making itself. It is complex indeed because Hughes as it were melds two different ideas together into a new hybrid unity – the approach bit by bit of the fox towards the writer or creator of the words and the very act of composing a poem about a fox or about a new reality somewhere in between called a thought-fox This approach is tentative and secretive as it occurs during the dark of the night. There are many paradoxes at work here – snow which is now colourless at night is just one of them.
Then the sheer audacity of the poet to fuse two contradictory ideas together, indeed even more audacious still of him, to fuse the thought of a physical being, fox in this case, with the abstract idea of creating or making a poem. This fusing is itself apparent in the title as he has to hyphenate the new word to describe the new “reality” of animal and thought – “The Thought-Fox.”
Strange and weird indeed! Yet the whole act of creating, composing, making words behave upon a page is a strange act after all. As Edmund Hillary once remarked to a question as to why he climbed mountains, “because they are there”, the reason as to why poets or writers or musicians or artists create is no less paradoxical, namely, “because I have to, or need to, or want to or like to.”
I will leave it to the reader’s interest to read the more scholarly literary criticisms of this great poem. I’ll confine myself to pointing out what strike’s me. “Something else is alive/Besides the clock’s loneliness” I think are marvellously profound lines. This “otherness” is stirring in the darkness – the otherness of a real fox coming towards the house on one level; the otherness of inspiration and certain combinations of words about to form themselves in the poet’s mind and then on the blank page. Other lines like “deeper within darkness” add to the mystery and haunting nature of the poem being created. Then a cold nose, then a pair of eyes, the un-see-able (as distinct from invisible) prints of the fox’s feet in the snow. Then the final verse hits us like a slap across the face. We get the sudden animal stench as the fox is literally eye-to-eye with the writer of the poem, and now with its reader. This daring stinking fox leaps right into our brain, right into the mind, into what is surely not a comfortable sitting room with equally comfortable “mental furniture” if I may turn a good philosophical phrase to some good use here. In fact the mind at work functions somewhere weirdly and strangely within “the dark hole of the head”. And weirdly still we may say that the Fox is the Poem and the Poem is the Fox. Weird and strange indeed is this world we are all part of, and weirder and stranger still the means at our disposal to make sense of it.