Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow was published in 1970 and has been called Ted Hughes’s most successful, and even his best-known, work. But who would know? It’s hard to find many under the age of fifty who have read, or even heard of, Crow. And that’s a shame because it is not only Hughes’s best work, but one of the best books of verse of the last fifty to sixty years.
Indeed, given the poems’ sparseness, directness, concentrated visceral nature, and head-long action, it is formally and stylistically unlike anything else Hughes wrote. There are no winding rivers here, no foxhunts, no moments of expected revelation. The book is composed of a fractured, if not incomplete, narrative nearly as unconventional and mind-boggling, in the best ways, as Berryman’s Dream Songs, presenting a kind of violent seditionist mythology. It is a cosmic, apocalyptic fable for a protean, shamanistic, debauched, dismembered, unkillable Trickster figure; a figure which, paradoxically, is both cruel and suffers cruelty for us. Crow, as Christopher Porterfield noted, “is a symbol of the essential survivor, of whatever endures….”
He is both a literal crow, and something more “human,” by turns, a sort of neutral or androgynous character, playing with or puzzling at man and woman as “man’s and woman’s knees melted, they collapsed / Their neck-muscles melted, their brows bumped the ground”; “He bit the Worm, God’s only son, / Into two writhing halves. // He stuffed into man the tail half / With the wounded end hanging out. // He stuffed the head half headfirst into woman / And it crept in deeper and up / To peer out through their eyes”; “And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened. / The two struggled together on the grass.” His primary antagonist is God, a largely effete god, who struggles to insist on his relevance only to be interrupted and disappointed time and again. Yet Crow nearly as often finds himself his own enemy. And it cannot be overlooked that women are often the enemy, and in ways that are, arguably (to say the least) usually problematic.
These are poems that are actually surprising, and their violence, when not overwrought, is literally unsettling and disturbing. Too little writing manages this, though we always hope it will. The reader has the sense that the character possessed the poet, rather than the other way around, the sense that these poems could not help but be written, that they had to be written. Though it is wrong to see Crow as nihilistic, there is, in the book, this botched world of ours, this violence and pain, of the body, of the mind, of the spirit (if you will).
He knew he was the wrong listener unwanted To understand or help–
His utmost gaping of brain in his tiny skull Was just enough to wonder, about the sea,
What could be hurting so much?
And so there is the nagging confusion of what at all matters. Crow hits upon what Fredric Jameson called the failure of “cognitive mapping”, the utter inability of the mind to grasp the vast manifold of networks in which it finds itself inscribed. So, Crow enacts the damned confusion of the question left in the head: how can something that feels so inconsequential hurt so much, and the other way around? In this book simple survival is where redemption lies, and that can’t be dismissed as entirely insubstantial.
–Adam Day, Contributing Editor