In September, I started the Writing School, run by The Poetry Business in Sheffield. Initially, we were given the task of recommending a book of poetry, explaining how we first encountered it, then choosing our top three poems out of it. For two of the poems, it was sufficient to say a sentence or two, but the third demanded a slightly longer response. I decided to write about The Remains of Elmet. What I stumbled on, in the process, was a clear link between Hughes’ earlier poem, ‘Pike’, and his poem about loach (in The Remains of Elmet): ‘The Canal’s Drowning Black’. So, for anyone who’s interested, here’s the result!
My chosen book is The Remains of Elmet (poems by Ted Hughes, photographs by Fay Godwin). I live about an hour’s drive away from the Calder valley, which is the area the book captures in both words and images, and it’s a favourite place of mine for walking. Although I’ve always enjoyed the more well known poems of Hughes, I didn’t know this book until Ann Sansom recommended it to me. It’s become important to me because of the strength and authority of Hughes’ voice, the visceral descriptions and the way the poet invests his subjects with a mythic status – he elevates the commonplace (a tree, rock or dry stone wall) to something much more grand and symbolic.
Interestingly, Hughes left this landscape quite early on. He moved to Mexborough with his family when he was seven, and although he returned to the Calder valley after University, he eventually made Devon his home. Why am I including this biographical information? Precisely because it shows that Hughes saw the decline of the Calder valley as stultifying and needed to escape it. And like many writers, the place he needed to escape from was to be a crucial influence on his writing.
Perhaps the strongest poems in this collection are often the ones which are based on childhood experiences. I was lucky enough to go on a walk around Mytholmroyd with the late Donald Crossley (a childhood friend of Hughes) and it was clear that the poems in the collection are heavily influenced by the freedom to observe and track nature which the poet experienced as a boy, set against a backdrop of the mills and the chapel.
As a writer, what I take from this book is the layering of past and present that gives the poems their depth. It’s Hughes’ myth-kitty at work I suppose, and in that sense, it’s very particular to the writer. The poems don’t just describe place; they are informed by its history and Hughes own belief system. There’s a sense of hopelessness, sometimes even dread, which often pervades them, yet as a reader, I find this oddly satisfying and enriching.
Of the three poems I selected, the first is ‘Sunstruck’, which is about a cricket match. It captures the ups and downs of the game but also elevates it to the status of an epic. At the end of the poem, the team are described as being like returning heroes:
‘And the burned batsmen returned, with changed faces,
Like men returned from a far journey.’
The second poem I chose was ‘Mount Zion’. The chapel building stood above the back to back house in Aspinall Street, Mythholmroyd, where Hughes lived as a boy. Godwin’s photograph is of a different chapel. However, Hughes’ poem captures not only the looming building as he remembers it, but also the deadening grip its religion had on the congregation. The natural world of the crickets, which threatens the accepted order at the end of the poem, is Hughes’ world, his poetic territory.
The third poem, and the one I’ve settled on as exemplifying the collection as a whole, is ‘The Canal’s Drowning Black’. This poem captures the boyhood fishing trips Hughes made to the canal in Mytholmroyd. Homemade nets, ‘a mesh of kitchen curtain’, are used to catch loach, which are kept in jam jars.
Fish had great symbolic importance for Hughes. ‘Pike’ is one of his most famous poems about fish, and what I realised on rereading The Remains of Elmet, is that ‘The Canal’s Drowning Black’ undoubtedly references it. The poet Steve Ely has done a great deal of work on the origins and influences in ‘Pike’, locating the pond where Hughes fished as a teenager (after the family had moved from Mytholmroyd to Mexborough) and showing how Hughes’ language was influenced by the fishing books he read. This is important, because despite the sense of the mythic invoked by Hughes’ language (the pond where the pike are has a ‘Stilled legendary depth/ As deep as England’, and the loach ‘flopped out of their ocean shifting aeons’) his poetic influence was also deeply rooted in the actual.
In ‘The Canal’s Drowning Black’, the loach are perhaps less impressive than pike. However, whereas the young pike are ‘three inches long’, the loach are ‘Five inches huge!’. This subtle shift in language from ‘long’ to ‘huge’, coupled with the exclamation mark at the end of what is quite a short line, is surely Hughes’ way of conveying his childhood wonder at the fish. Donald Crossley, Hughes’ childhood friend, has said: ‘If a loach came that was magic’ and it’s this sense of magic that Hughes conveys. The loach are less threatening than pike (compare the pike’s ‘malevolent aged grin’ to the loach’s ‘little cupid mouths’). They are also easier to catch. Nevertheless, Hughes invests these little fish with mythic status; they are the ‘secretive/ Prehistory of the canal’s masonry’.
What the poem shows is nature surviving in the ‘drowning black’ of the canal’s water, just as the congregation of Mount Zion survives under the blackness of the chapel, ‘a building blocking the moon’. It’s not just light that the chapel cuts out, but also any desire to acknowledge or understand the natural world (as shown in the poem ‘Mount Zion’). Industry also blights everything, so that even the windowsill where the loach are kept in a jam jar is:
‘Blackened with acid rain fall-out
From Manchester’s rotten lung.’
So, the poem shows a valley in decline, and the small wonder of nature at the centre of it. When the ‘failed’ fish are ‘lobbed’ back into the canal – and the connotations of those verbs are interesting in terms of Hughes’ attitude to nature as a boy – something has been learnt about the ‘The Monkey god’ (man/ the poet himself) and his fallibility. The dead fish enter a ‘Paradise’ which Hughes shares. Not only is this a rite of passage. It could also be read as offering an alternative belief system to the strict religion enforced by the chapel.
It’s possible that Hughes also touches on his relationship with Plath in the line ‘A mad-house thrill’, which pulls the reader in a different direction (one that I’m not going to explore here). Ultimately, however, what comes across is this poem is Hughes’ reverence for nature and its power to transform the mundane into the miraculous.