Three weeks ago, I offered you a poem by Ted Hughes called Hawk Roosting, and Lee suggested to me that I read the final chapter in Hughes' book Poetry in the Making. I picked it up from the library last week, but I've only just got around to reading the suggested paragraph (I read the entire essay in fact, but more on that in a moment) and I want to quote a part of that paragraph to you:
[...] it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will [...] express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. [...] And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that same moment make out of it all the vital signature of a human being - not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or a heap of lenses - but a human being, we call it poetry. (p. 124)
This is a fantastically poetic piece of prose - I've actually left out some of the best of it because I couldn't really quote the whole lot - but I heartily endorse Lee's recommendation to read this paragraph - in fact the whole essay "Words and Experience" is utterly fascinating. Hughes is talking about the difficulty of using words to convey our experiences of our lives:
It is when we set out to find words for some seemingly quite simple experience [he gives the examples of as seeing a crow flying across the sky, or a tramp walking away] that we begin to realise what a huge gap there is between our understanding of what happens around us and inside us, and the words we have at our command to say something about it. (p. 119)
And this is from a man who was a Poet Laureate ! Hughes goes on to talk about how one might describe the flight of a crow:
There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow's flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a general directive. But the ominous thing in the crow's flight, the bare-faced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstroke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness [...] And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying. (pp. 119-20)
Such descriptions may be rubbish compared to watching the crow fly, but aren't they beautiful without the crow's flight to watch ? Don't they manage to convey the crowiness of the crow ? (I love that word !)
Lest you think I've forgotten about the poetry itself, here is a poem called Winter-Piece by Charles Tomlinson which Hughes includes elsewhere in Poetry in the Making:
You wake, all windows blind - embattled sprays
grained on the mediaeval glass.
Gates snap like gunshot
as you handle them. Five-barred fragility
sets flying fifteen rooks who go together
silently ravenous above this winter-piece
that will not feed them. They alight
beyond, scavenging, missing everything
but the bladed atmosphere, the white resistance.
Ruts with iron flanges track
through a hard decay
where you discern once more
oak-leaf by hawthorn, for the frost
rewhets their edges. In a perfect web
blanched along each spoke
and circle of its woven wheel,
the spider hangs, grasp unbroken
and death-masked in cold. Returning
you see the house glint-out behind
its holed and ragged glaze,
frost-fronds all streaming.
I picked this poem from the many that Hughes included in the book, because for me it conveys exactly the wintriness of winter, just as Hughes' earlier phrases conveyed the crowiness of the crow: "the bladed atmosphere" - where the wind is as cold as a very sharp knife; "ruts with iron flanges" - the ground is so frozen it could be made of iron, not earth; "in a perfect web,/blanched along each spoke/and circle of its woven wheel" - I can picture the frost-laden spider's web clearly in my mind's eye.