- The Back Room
This extract from Looking Through You, poet Gerald Dawe's prequel to In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast (2017), recalls the shock of reading the New Poetry of the sixties in pre-Troubles Belfast.
Reading Sylvia Plath took me to Ted Hughes. The significance of his early poetry and his "presence" in Ireland is often overlooked, particularly on a generation of poets who as very young men and women (in fact, as teenagers) discovered poetry through Ted Hughes. I'm thinking here about how in the early and mid-sixties poetry started to be increasingly seen as a visible form of art practice available on a much wider scale than previously. The reasons for this opening cultural franchise are both large-scale political decisions that were made in the post–World War II United Kingdom. The democratization of education opportunities throughout Britain (and, of course, the knock-on effect in Northern Ireland) was hugely influential, alongside the local impact of widely used anthologies in the classroom that stretched beyond national traditions. There was also the engagement of literary critics in broadsheet newspapers, such as Al Alvarez, who promoted poetry at the same time as cultural institutions like the BBC dedicated educational programs exclusively to poetry. The impact of popular culture included the popularizing of "high" art that saw little distinction between poetry, theater and cinema, and jazz and "pop" music, as much as there was a new energy leading in the late fifties and early sixties into the rejuvenation of popular arts themselves.
Writing such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956), Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), and Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving (1960) comes to mind. By this I mean that to a young generation in the mid-sixties, Ted Hughes and others of his generation were seen as realigning the traditional ideas and practice of poetry for those who were only beginning to be drawn to poetry as a form of expression and endeavor outside the classroom as much as within. In widening the scope and influence of poetry, what it "did," what it sounded like, the excitement of even making poetry, Hughes [End Page 9] introduced new directions while drawing attention to English poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and D. H. Lawrence. Hughes introduced city boys to the realities of nature, of the countryside and country life, of the animal world: "Nature" didn't exist, if you see what I mean.
Hughes conveyed to a generation of cool yet avid literature students studying for their A levels a blast of serious physical encounters that tore into the perceived elusiveness, allusiveness, and high drama of what was considered the grand view of "English" literature. Hughes made us think about creatures and the force of nature not as climate, or cartoon, but as experience. I'm thinking of the tramp and drenched landscapes of "November" but also the hard-edged pitch of diction that opens a poem such as "Pibroch":
The sea cries with its meaningless voiceTreating alike its dead and its living,Probably bored with the appearance of heavenAfter so many millions of nights without sleep,
Without purpose, without self-deception.Stone likewise.
There is a kind of inner ear that young readers bring to the reading of poetry when first it's new, and the un-implied terrain of the opening stanza of "Pibroch" remains as a tracing of something starkly new and exhilarating. "The sea cries" has the sort of rock-lyric echo most conducive to a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old starting out to manage different registers and forms of expression; the local availability of the phrasing, too, hopped off the page. And later phrasing in the poem, such as "probably bored," is one of a number that must have sounded familiar yet estranged in the existential pattern of Hughes's poem: "her mind's gone completely," "minute after minute," "tryout." We were encouraged to read these poems aloud in the classroom; preparing his class for examinations, teacher Sam McCready always stressed the spoken-ness of poetry, as much as what a poem could "mean...