Among the most notorious figures in twentieth century poetry, Ted Hughes will forever remain Sylvia Plath’s husband. They never officially divorced, leaving him heir and literary executor, so he couldn’t escape anyway. To quote Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “deserve”‘s got nothing to do with it. Writing a craggy, gnarled poetry about animals at their most feral and inscrutable, he became an unlikely best-seller and poet laureate, culminating in the publication of Birthday Letters (1998), a series of (at best mediocre) lyrics about his life with Plath. I avoided him because these anthropomorphic exultations are rarely as weird, funny, or weirdly funny as key influence D.H. Lawrence’s own animal poems.
When poets give me trouble, I read their early work: the moments when the voice comprised a riot of competing influences vying for ascendance. Published in his first collection and an immediate anthology piece, “The Thought Fox” has the heavy-lidded portent in which Hughes’ later poetry specialized for the sake of the only subject young writers understand well, i.e. writing.
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.