Before I get to madly praising this collection of poems, let me acknowledge that I came to it with some niggling doubts. First of all, Crow: From the Life & Songs of the Crow has been described in some quarters as similar to, or even possibly a response to the death of, Sylvia Plath [Hughes’ wife, as I am sure you know]. And I don’t like Sylvia Plath. At all. There, I said it. I’ve read and studied her poetry and, at its best, it leaves me cold and, at its worst, it annoys the fuck out of me. This isn’t really relevant but, now that I’m on the subject, try these lines from her poem Daddy, swill these around in your mouth and tell me if they don’t make you pull a funny face:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
I’m sorry, but that is all kinds of crap. [Only my opinion, folks; by all means, keep on truckin’ if the above is your thing]. So, anyway, that connection to, that suggestion of, Plath really concerned me.
Another, related, concern was the gothic aspect of the poems. I knew in advance that the poems in this volume are pretty ghastly, pretty gruesome; and that, allied with the black cover [not the brilliant one at the top of this post], and the title, was ringing alarm bells like Quasimodo on E. The last thing I want to read is something like this…
Death, my only friend
The blackness overwhelms my rotting soul
You play with my insides,
Like worms from your garden.
It slips through your bloody fingers
Or some shit.
Thankfully, all my concerns were unfounded, and I am a little peeved I hadn’t read this sooner, because, honestly, it is wonderful. I have tried not to read any reviews prior to my reading, and my attempt to review, so I don’t know if this is true but I imagine that a lot of people focus on how nasty, how horrifying Crow is. And it is, yeah. And I’ll come to that in due course. But I think it is worthwhile to begin by stating, emphatically, that this collection of poems is fun to read, before going on to hammer the horror angle [so to speak]. Cards on the table, these poems made me laugh. And I’m pretty sure I was laughing with Hughes not at him. Oh, it’s dark humour, sardonic humour, don’t get me wrong, but it is humorous nonetheless. Take A Horrible Religious Error, in which the “serpent emerged, earth bowel-brown” [great image , btw], and which concludes “Crow only peered, took a step or two forward, grabbed the creature by the slackskin nape”…and…wait for it…“beat the hell out of it, and ate it.” Haha! I genuinely lol’d.
I don’t know if this is me applying my own experience to the text too literally, but it was no surprise to me that Hughes was a Yorkshireman, because I see that dry northern English sense of humour all over Crow. Northern England is/was the industrial heartland of the country, and it is nearly always pissing it down with rain here; and that atmosphere, these damp grey streets, and ruined architecture, do have an effect upon you, on the way that you see the world, and on what you find amusing. As an aside, I was in an art gallery a while ago and I came across this painting, titled Sheffield:
I reckon Hughes/Crow would get a kick out of that.
When i read Ovid’s Metamorphoses last year I found that, by applying stories and supplying magical explanations for everyday features of our world, it actually changed the way that I look at the world. Hughes once re-imagined Ovid’s work [Tales of Ovid], so he was clearly interested in the same idea. Crow, for me, is his own black take on that concept, those creation myths, that desire to explain the inexplicable. There’s a really brilliant line in one of the poems when our feathered friend kinda vomits up a great white shark while trying to converse with God [again I lol’d; and, well, gasped at the audacity, and, yeah, strange beauty of it]. And, in another poem, it is explained how Crow gets his colour from flying, madly, at the sun.
What of Crow, then? What – other than a bird, of course -is he? It’s hard to say with any certainty. He’s a nightmare, a ghoul, an abomination; he’s responsible for all the bad stuff we encounter; he is, I guess, us. However, one of the most fascinating, most moving, aspects of his character was the sense I got that he isn’t always trying to be bad, that, unfortunately for him, he can’t help but be what he is. Take that line about the great white shark; Crow isn’t deliberately creating havoc, isn’t putting this horrific beast on the earth on purpose, he just can’t help it, it happens because he is what he is. Consider these lines from Crow and Mama:
When Crow cried his mother’s ear
Scorched to a stump
When he laughed she wept
Blood her breast her palms her brow all wept blood
I find that oddly touching.
So, yeah, Crow certainly is brutal, and horrifying, but it is also inventive and witty and sometimes moving. It’s Goya’s Disasters of War with a claw-footed companion. It is: “in rage and madness then they lit their mouths, they tore out his entrails, they divided him among their several hells, to cry all his separate pieces.” It is, in short, amongst the most astonishing, visceral, volumes of poetry I have ever read.