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Poetry: hearts and flowers, or engaging with the grotesque?

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After attending many events at the recent Manchester Literature Festival, one particular reading that captivated my interest was A Celebration of Ted Hughes, with Amanda Dalton, Zaffar Kunial, Carola Luther, John McAuliffe and Andrew McMillan:

Many of Hughes’ best-known poems were read, with affection and praise, and the response was – as often occurs – polite applause and reverence, along with appreciation especially at how the poet manages to capture the beauty or wonder of nature. ‘The Thought Fox’ is perhaps one example in this vein of poem, which can be read as a paean to the imagination. Likewise, Hughes writing on the subject of love – in Birthday Lettersfor example – visibly moved the reader and audience alike. 

Of greater curiosity though, for me, were the readings of some of the darker poems by Hughes. I am thinking of those from his collection Crow, which through its trickster archetype explores more troubling themes, such as doubts about Christianity, despair, and the violence of nature. I found it fascinating to observe and listen to the audience reaction as some of these poems, from various collections, were read: the most disturbing, no doubt, being ‘February 17th’ from Moortown Diary:

The poem, as some may know, deals with the death of a calf in the process of birth. It is extremely graphic and vivid – and Hughes doesn’t hold back from presenting the horror and brutality of the experience. By the end of the poem I heard noises in the audience I’d never heard before at such a reading: gasps and whispers. Hearing the poem had, most likely, been an ordeal for some, just as the calf had passed through its own. I sensed the shuffles, felt the tension. It was as if something taboo and transgressive had occurred, something unexpected, and there was something more than a little invasive about the lingering image of a decapitation.   

From my perspective, hearing the poem reaffirmed the power and capacity of poetry to delve into such subjects and represent ugliness, barbarity and violence. The poems in Seamus Heaney’s Northoffer some comparison, with their depictions of excavated bodies, victims of sacrificial ritual and murder, which again are truly hard-hitting and visceral in how details of the cadavers are presented. Like Hughes’ ‘February 17th’, life and death becomes death in life or life in death, which require a reader with a sense of the tragic to truly acknowledge.     

There is a place for this engagement with the grotesque in poetry; the poet is under no obligation to write about a pretty or joyful subject, or to leave the reader with positive sentiments. For many, who are already living a bleak existence or painfully aware of the more odious aspects of life, such words can be validating and bring about powerful feelings of empathy and connection. Poems can and should, I feel, not always be inoffensive: it is the place of art more generally to disturb and to agitate or even upset. If audiences do nothing but clap and smile with decorum, the medium is, I think, moribund or already dead.  

◄ The Write Out Loud Poem of the Week is ‘Waking up to Snow’ by Peter Taylor

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