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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This review is taken from PN Review 15, Volume 7 Number 1, September - October 1980.

PERCEIVING WHAT IS Thom Gunn, Selected Poems 1950-1975 (Faber and Faber) £4.50
Ted Hughes, Moortown (Faber and Faber) £5.25

The protagonist of Gunn's Misanthropos recovers from the subjective hallucinations of illness: he comments,


                                  I know
I must keep to the world's bare surface,
I must perceive and perceive what is:


His task is the perception of 'what is'-certainty resides in the provable surface. To enter the darkness beyond the surface, either that of the self or of the things of the world, is to venture into a subjective area of doubt, to invite hallucination. To leave the surface is to leave certainty. Again and again throughout Gunn's Selected Poems 1950-1975 the poet attempts to catch the play of light on a surface-it is the recurring metaphor of the play of poetic intelligence, so instinctive that Gunn himself probably does not consider it as metaphor at all, but as the simplest truth. A surface is illuminated, the mind perceives 'what is'.

It is instructive to compare this concern with a poem by Hughes from his new volume Moortown. The poem is 'Speech out of Shadow', a kind of love poem. It begins,


Not your eyes, but what they disguise

Not your skin, with just that texture and light
But what uses it as cosmetic


and so the poem continues, anatomising the woman's body and systematically rejecting all that is visible in favour of some inapprehensible truth, a truth evoked but hardly defined by the images of a hidden central source:


The unearthly stone in the sun

The glare
Of the falcon, behind its hood


The differences in approach apparent in these two poems seem to me to point to the fundamental disparities between the poetic worlds of Gunn and Hughes. For Gunn truth is a matter of what is visible, common, verifiable: his poetry is intimately concerned with surfaces, and therefore with limits: his poems typically move toward definition. They isolate some aspect of experience, examine it, and define it as a separate entity from the surrounding darkness-the darkness unilluminated by the mind. Hughes' poems do not define but evoke-his typical poem is an act of empathy that attempts to enter the secret quiddity of its subject, and just because what he attempts to grasp is dark and secret, something not on the surface, he is driven to convey his meaning obliquely, by image and comparison. For Hughes truth is inward-the surfaces of things are a 'cosmetic' to be broken through. He wants the central hidden secret of his subject, whether it be a cow or the universe. Gunn avoids this inward darkness-for him it is an unverifiable region of hallucination-he wants a light in which he can discriminate: 'Denial of the discriminating brain/Brings the neurotic vision' and he takes it as self-evident that the neurotic vision is not what we are interested in. Hughes runs the risk of entering that wholly unverifiable inwardness of things, where the discriminating brain is at a loss, blinded by darkness.

For Gunn, man (and especially man's consciousness) is something absolutely distinct from the rest of the universe, and this distinction is something Gunn is at pains to maintain (how many of the poems are concerned with guarding, combat etc.) though he is aware of the incipient sterility of his position. It is this that gives his language that lack of resonance of which some critics have complained-there is a refusal to enter into the being of things, so that words are used as counters or symbols standing for experience but not invoking it. Because this is deliberate, part and parcel of the integrity of his position, such language is wholly right for his work; critics who have deplored it have, I think, been misled into expecting that poetic language should always imply a degree of empathy with the subject, as Hughes' language does. Hughes is not interested in maintaining man's separateness from the rest of the world (and when man enters his poems it is usually at his most abject, at the mercy of some wholly physical need, like hunger or the desire to escape pain). Where Gunn defines man against the universe, Hughes suggests a sense of the vast interchangeability of the stuff and energies of all being (hence his constant invocation of devouring as the world's most fundamental activity)-an interchangeability from which man is in no way exempt. Man interests Gunn in so far as he differentiates himself from the non-human: he interests Hughes in so far as he embodies and represents that universe. To compare 'Misanthropos' and 'Prometheus on his Crag' (from Gunn's Selected Poems and Hughes' Moortown respectively) as myths of poetic consciousness is to see Gunn's protagonist as wary, individual, reaching out tentatively toward a wholly separate and strange world; whereas Hughes' Prometheus suffers and is devoured-he proceeds from the fact of the violation of his separateness, from the vividness of pain.

Gunn's instinct for definition and Hughes' for evocation and empathy is also the source of their stylistic divergence. Gunn's poems are definite, precise, they separate themselves off from the world. They proceed logically, trusting the mind's verbal logic (syntax) as a way of making sense of things. They arrange and illuminate and work to a conclusion. His free verse does not proceed by a series of images but by a gentle onward rhythm, a rhythm that gradually explores and eases around its subject (this is clearest in a poem like 'Touch'). Hughes' verse is distrustful of limits-he has given up the obvious limits of metrical verse, and does not use free verse as a means of exploration like Gunn, but as a medium of evocation and statement, the images as it were circling and calling to the central (ineffable?) truth. It is obvious when we come to the end of a Gunn poem that something has been defined, an end has been reached-but this is rarely so with Hughes' poems where we feel that the images could continue indefinitely.

It is possible and perhaps profitable to trace these differences (of basic attitude, subject matter and style) to literary models (most obviously D. H. Lawrence for Hughes, Winters and perhaps Racine for Gunn), but the final difference is perhaps temperamental. And a reader's final preferences also will be temperamental (my own being for Gunn's definitions rather than Hughes' evocations). What we should keep in mind when comparing them is that their very concepts of what it is to be a poet are divergent (if not opposed) and that to apply the same criteria to them is therefore to miss the point.

Gunn's own selection is an admirable introduction to his work- the peripheral poems have been dropped, the best retained, and how splendid they are. On the evidence of this volume 'Misanthropos' stands out as his major achievement to date. Hughes' new volume contains no surprises; the empathies, the devouring, 'the Almighty Presence/Of Everything' are all there. We receive a very vivid image of Hughes' consciousness and the poems read together have a savage cumulative effect although (and this is particularly true of the opening section) individual pieces are often very repetitive.
Dick Davis

This review is taken from PN Review 15, Volume 7 Number 1, September - October 1980.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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