Wing Beats-British Birds in Haiku


In recasting “haiku as poetic spell”, I wish to emphasise, firstly, an ideal that is poetic as opposed to prosaic, and secondly, an expression that is more akin to a magical utterance than a mere report of an incident, however consequential or inconsequential.”

Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell*


It matters little that Wing Beats was published eight years ago.  This beautifully produced collection of 323 Haiku, all of which are ‘solidly grounded in actual experience’, has lasting value.  The poems reflect moments in the lives of, we are told, 131 of the 570 species of British Birds listed by the British Ornithologists Union.  This is, necesssarily then, a local project.  One American viewer was baffled, for instance, by the word tormentil (a small yellow flower that is quite common where I live).  As someone who is familar with, and very fond of, British flora and fauna, though, I find that many of the poems work well as evocations.  They brim with what the seventeenth century naturalist Gilbert White called nice (exact, meticulous) observation of our avian neighbours, whilst Sean Gray’s monochrome illustrations depict each species so convincingly that I’ve been quite surprised that some of his birds haven’t flown up from the page.

The medium of haiku -characterised, according to sources to hand, by immediacy, precision, concreteness (no overt use of metaphor or symbolism), restraint, open-endedness, suggestion rather than explication, and an effacement of human emotional response- elicits slow contemplative reading.  This is not a book to be rushed.

For readers unfamiliar with the evolving tradition of English language haiku poetry, or with British Birds, there is a useful introduction and a series of informative appendices on taxonomy, naming conventions, the process of compiling the anthology, and (a substantial essay) on season words (kigo).  The latter includes interesting comparisons between the avifauna of Britain and Japan, where the associations between various birds and particular times of the year are ‘deeply rooted in haiku tradition’.  Matsuo Bashō often wrote about birds.  British cultural tradition is, of course, also rich in seasonal lore, not least that surrounding ‘the old pagan holidays’.

Interestingly, an early conception of the project was for a book of crow haiku (!) “twisting back from the mythic legacy of Hughes to include Bashō’s famous ‘crow’ haiku”.  Although John Barlow and Matthew Paul chose instead to emphasise ‘the real’, ‘to celebrate the commonplace, the local, the everyday’ and reflect ‘the geography, geology, history, and flora of the British landscape’, they clearly believe that the sensory moments they celebrate ‘refresh the human spirit’.  Stephen Moss, in his Foreword, talks about an underlying indefineable connection with wild creatures ‘the true meaning of which is perhaps known only to our hearts’, and writes that the poems help us reconnect in a deeper, more intense, way, -though ‘an element of mystery remains’.

The quotation (epigraph above) from Martin Lucas -who was a colleague and friend of the editors, and a keen birdwatcher- is taken from an essay in which he likened haiku to ‘a poetic spell’, in which words ‘chime’, ‘beat’, and ‘flow’, have power, and when spoken like a charm, cannot be forgotten.  This recalls Ted Hughes’s conception of poetic magic, though Hughes took the idea further, believing that sufficiently well crafted words could summon an animal, or spirit.  In suggesting that there were other kinds of poetic spell, however, Martin Lucas did leave open the question of what form these might take.

I like this book very much, but a critical voice in me found the lack of an author index frustrating, and would like to have seen more than a couple of passing references to the crisis affecting so many bird species.  The scale of the loss of many once common species is perhaps more evident now than it was in 2008? (See, for instance here).  I’m all in favour of celebrating the beauty of the living world.  It seems to me that many of these haiku have the attributes of Martin Lucas’s ‘magical utterances’, that they have been crafted from the numinosity of nature, and crucially for me, they foreground the agency of other-than-human protagonistsBut its now quite widely accpeted, not least in the burgeoning field of ecocriticism as well as amongst contemporary animists, that celebration needs to happen in a context that tells truths about both the impact of human cultures, especially those framed by global capitalism and late modernity, on other sentient species, and attends to the deathward facing/katabatic aspect of cosmic nature.  This is something that Ted Hughes, at his best, arguably achieved.

I borrowed a copy of Wing Beats from my friend Jo Pacsoo, who has a haiku in the book (and several others here).  Elsewhere she has made effective use of the haibun form, in which haiku are embedded in similarly succinct and controlled prose, allowing personal and/or political context to be elaborated.

But enough from my inner critic.  I would wholeheartedly reccomend this anthology to anyone who knows, and cares about, British birds.  There is a lot to be said for the understated phenomenological precision of haiku as a way of responding to, and evoking, the depth and complexity of the living world.  Taken together, the poems in Wing Beats constitute a valuable repository of testimony to human appreciation of, and respect for, wild land and the multi species communities we are fast losing.  Amid an unceasing deluge of apocalytic news, there is, surely, a pressing need for practices and sites of quiet contemplation and celebration.

B.T. 26th of September 2016.

John Barlow and Matthew Paul, eds.Wing Beats, British Birds in Haiku, Snapshot Press (2008).


Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell, a paper delivered at the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, Australia, in 2009.

Jo Pacsoo, Chiaoscuro, and Earth, Time, Water, and Sky, both from Palores Publications, Redruth.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.


(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.

Animism in the Poetry of John Burnside.

Stag Beetle, by Albrecht Durer, on the cover of John Burnside's 'All One Breath'.

Stag Beetle, by Albrecht Durer, on the cover of  ‘All One Breath’.

An entry in the Scottish Poetry Society website introduces John Burnside as ‘a poet and novelist whose work explores fundamental spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth’.  In 2003, he and Maurice Riordan edited an anthology celebrating ‘that most lyrical, and […] persuasively magical of science writers’, Rachel Carson.(1)  Sensing an increasing willingness to speak across the divide between scientific rationality and poetry or magic, they invited poets to work with scientists.

Burnside, who has worked in information systems (and according to one source, botany) calls for ‘a science of belonging’.  ‘Imagine the science (and the poetry) that might have grown up in a society that was not rooted in hostility to, or romanticisation of, the natural world.  A science that had no preconceived ideas about ‘objectivity’, a pagan science in which no crude ‘order’ was projected upon the world’.  A science grounded in reverence for life.  Although (as Wittgenstein asserted) scientific knowledge can have great practical value, it ‘cannot and should not seek to eliminate mystery.  The more we know, the more mystery deepens’.

For Burnside, poetry is a form of ‘scientia’ – ‘a technique for reclaiming the authentic, for reinstating the real’.  Although he rarely uses the term, as far as I’m concerned anyone who writes that ‘a poem (or drawing, or song, or dance movement) that reclaims membership of a wider, more-than-human world is as necessary an enterprise as any I can think of’, is an animist.  In poems such as By Kautokeino, written in Finnmark, Northern Norway, he makes a conscious effort to attune his art ‘to the song of the earth’, which, he tells us, is not a metaphor but an actual sound that can be heard -though it may be necessary to step outside of one’s own culture, and the narrowly human realm to hear …

‘the subtler frequencies of earth and sky, / dead generations buried in the sand, / feeding the ling, feeding the birch trees and willows, / reindeer and Arctic fox and unnumbered men / who made a living here with skill and patience, / their works provisional, / their dreams immense, / their children raised in memory and song …’

He reccomends walking as a political act, because it ‘takes us away from the machine and back into the world …(connecting us)… with the rythm of the earth, the feel of a place, the presence of other animals, the elements, sidereal time, the divine’. (2)

One of the things I most appreciate about John Burnside’s perspective, though, is that as well as engaging with the otherness of what we contemporary animists may sometimes too comfortably call other-than-human worlds, he’s deeply concerned with questions of human identity, community, place and politics.  In a moving autobiographical memoir A Lie About My Father, he describes growing up in a family overshadowed by a violent alcoholic father, and paints a vivid picture of Scottish working class masculinity.  As a teenager he sought refuge in drunken absences, and the ‘sacrament’ of LSD, eventually succumbing to ‘a usually high-functioning, though sometimes catastrophic form of madness’. and admissions to psychiatric hospital.(4)

David Borthwick has written that a process of ‘anamnesis’ (unforgetting?), informs John Burnside’s eco-poetry.  His male speakers can’t cope with difference or accept the notion of interdependence, and are, therefore, distanced from social relations and alienated from their natural environment.  This is an argument that many Eco-feminists have made, of course, but it needs restating, not least in the context of the broad concensus that animism is all about relationship.  Burnside interrogates habits of domination, and feels that ‘every man in the world, down to the poorest man, has the possibility for excercising power, if only over his even poorer wife and children’.  We (men) need to learn to ‘transform ourselves, so that living is an act of grace, a transcendence of any need for power or control.’  His vision of a reconstructed masculinity involves ‘an inward process’ of transformation, rather than ‘visible achievements, or titles bestowed upon the successful’.  Hearteningly he now advocates the prinicple of ahisma – of doing, if not no harm, then the absolute minimum of harm’, and closes A Lie About My Father in the company of his own young son who, he hopes, will read it.(5)

The terms in which Burnside talks about violence will be very familiar to animists.  ‘Violence arises from the tendency to objectify others -humans, animals, terrain and so on […] – and spiritual enlightenment begins, I feel, in a first recognition that there are no objects in the world, that there is no possibility of being meaningfully ‘objective’.  Thus violence is the symptom of a spiritual failure, a failure to recognise the fundamental imperative to respect and honour ‘the other’. (‘Burning a Woman’. Swimming in the Flood, 36–41).

Much of John Burnside’s poetry has been concerned with exploring the liminal and numinous (though he says that in Black Cat Bone, he wanted to deal more directly with solid real-life things).  This preoccupation emerges in recurrent references to Halloween, reflections of the nature of souls, and references to ephemeral phenomena that appear in twilight or mist.  The Light Trap begins: ‘Homesick for the other animals, / at midnight, in the soft midsummer dark, / we rigged a sail of light amidst / the apple trees beyond your mother’s lawn / and counted moths.’  The poet expresses an animist’s concern that in the process of naming other animals ‘we cannot help but treat them as our own /[…] though they are far from us, and rapt / in other frequencies, / like waves or stars …‘.  In Of Gravity and Light, seagulls drifting in mist are slowed ‘to something like a standstill / – only the barest / wingbeat troubles the air, the pearl and the grey /of light becoming flesh, then vanishing.’

At liminal moments we’re susceptible to change.  Identitybecomes less fixed, more open to possibility.  At the beginning of A Lie About My Father Burnside writes: ‘I have celebrated Halloween all my life.  Most years, if I can, I stay at home.  I make an occasion of the day, a prviate, local festival of pennance and celebration in more or less equal measure.  I think of my own dead, out there among the millions of returning souls …’.  Some of his most moving poems are personal.  In All One Breath there’s a poem about his father’s Funeral that opens with an epigraph describing ancient funerary practices, and the lines ‘We wanted to seal his mouth/with a handful of clay…’.  Another poem entitled Instructions for a Sky Burial includes a request to ‘carry me out of the house, unwashed and naked, /and leave me in the open, where the crows /can find me.’  After the dogs, rats, flowers, larvae, crows, and ants have taken what they need, ‘.. something / inexact and perfect forms itself / around the last feint wisp /of vein, or tendon, something like a song, / but taking shape, implacably itself / new breath and vision, gathered from the quiet.’

Burnside’s responses to the enigmatic notion of ‘soul’ are characteristically careful, tentative, and often elusive, but in An Essay Concerning Light he rejects the injunction in the Bardo Thodol (and implicitly in other transcendent religious traditions) that the departed soul should try to avoid returning to earthly form.  Having included other-than-human beings in his deliberations, he says: ‘Me, I would take the back road, out by the loch: / a moorhen in the reeds, the flush of dawn, / and no-one behind me, calling, again and again, / go into the light /nobly born / go into the light’.

Readers familiar with the work of Ted Hughes, another eco-poet with a strong interest in this metaphysical terrain, will find some curious paralells between their lives.  As a boy Hughes escaped into the countryside surrounding a small working class town under the mentorship of a much older brother with a fondness for shooting the wildlife.  Burnside escaped into the woods and fields around the small mining town of Cowdenbeath in the company of his ‘bright, funny, and utterly merciless’ cousin Kenneth, who ‘knew every bird in the woods, every fish in the loch’.  Both boys fished and trapped wild creatures (see John Burnside’s poem ‘Stickleback‘), and witnessed horrible cruelty to animals.  At the age of seven Hughes’s family moved to a mining village in South Yorkshire.  At the age of ten Burnside’s family moved to the steel town of Corby in Northamptonshire.  There are significant differences too, of course, but the convergences are fascinating.

Burnisde’s eco-poetry rarely becomes overtly political, though he does express his concerns fairly directly from time to time.  In Travelling South, Scotland August 2012, he passes through ‘miles of tract and lay-by on the way / to junkyards and dead allotments, / guard dogs on tether’, and regrets the loss of wolves, bear, and other wild creatures.  ‘We’ve been going at this for years: / a steady delete / of anything that tells us what we are…’.  The old gods are ‘buried undead beneath the rural sprawl / that bears their names, or wandering the hills / of Lammermuir and Whitelee, waiting out / the rule of Mammon, till the land returns / -with or without us – ‘.  Another of the All One Breath poems, Earth, is dedicated to David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, who was killed while protesting the clear cutting of Californian Redwoods in September 1998.  Don’t expect the poems to contain a point by point manifesto though.  Like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, he has engaged more directly with the issues in prose, but feels that poetry must ‘stand of fall by its music’.

My feeling is that, given the insistence of traditional/hegemonic masculinities on simple, and ultimately brutal, certainties, and on being rational, and in control, and given the pressing need to find ways of practicing respectful relationship, the alert tentativeness of John Burnisde’s evocations of other-than-human animals, and of the strange beauty of ‘the real’, this ‘actual’ flesh and blood (and liminal and numinous) world, may, in itself constitute a significant political contribution.  When I first encountered his poems -they often have untranslated epigraphs in other languages- I thought they might be the work of another establishment voice.  I’m really glad that I read A Lie About My Father.  Contemporary animism needs to attend to the voices of ‘survivors’, especially those as attuned as John Burnside is to the perils of alienation from the living world.

Brian Taylor, 13/5/14.


1) John Burnside and Maurice Riordon, eds. Wild Reckoning; an anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Central Books, 2004.

2)  John Burnside“A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology,” Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed. Robert Crawford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 91–106

3) Poetry and a Sense of Place an informal essay, with the hauntingly beautiful sequence ‘ Epithalamium’ appended.  Proceedings of the Writing and a Sense of Place Symposium, Tromso, August 1996.

4) What Makes You Write Poetry?  Interview in The Economist, 5/3/12.

John Burnside, A Life in Writing  Sarah Crown, The Guardian 26/8/2011.

A Lie About My Father, Jonathan Cape, 2006.

5) Borthwick. D The Sustainable Male:  masculinity, ecology, in the poetry of John Burnside, pp63-85, in Masculinity and the Other, Historical Perspectives, Cambridge Scholars Publications.

John Burnside Masculinity; the Problems of Power and the Possibility of Grace, Edinburgh Review, 100 (1999).

John Burnside’s nature writing column in the New Statesman.

Swimming in the Flood, Jonathan Cape, 1995,

The Light Trap, Jonathan Cape, 2002.

All One Breath, Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Poetry as Ecology

Travelling South Scotland, August 2012

Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe?

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

As well as being a poet of the highest order, Ted Hughes was an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, an environmental campaigner, a pagan animist, and an astrologer.  He is celebrated as an influential eco-poet whose work combines exquisite naturalistic observation with an encyclopedic knowledge of lore, mythology, and esoteric traditions.  He also happens to be an important ancestral presence here in the Calder Valley, where I’ve spent the whole of my adult life.  So I often find myself walking in places he wrote powerfully about.

Ted Hughes’ life story has, of course, been tangled in controversy since the suicides of Sylvia Plath, and then of his subsequent partner, Assia Wevill.  When I worked for a psychiatric survivor led voluntary organisation I had a copy of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Hanging Man’ on the wall behind my desk.  Ted Hughes endorsed her description of her encounter with modernist psychiatry as a grotesque parody of shamanic initiation, refused to medicalise her distress and madness, and supported her through the night terrors of its long aftermath.  I count myself amongst those readers who empathise with both Hughes and Plath, whilst recognising that both were human-all-too-human.  The hubbub of partisan biography shouldn’t distract us from appreciating and critically responding to Ted Hughes’s considerable achievements as an eco-animist poet.(1)  Nor should it prevent us from acknowledging that not all of his enormous ouvre is wonderful, and that there are a few problematic moments.

In her recent book The Bioregional Economy, Molly Scott Cato uses Max Weber’s influential critique of the disenchantment of the world.  After the protestant reformation God became wholly transcendent and otherworldly, and magic was banished from everyday life.  Once the world had been constructed as mechanical it could be rendered as raw material for capitalist exploitation.(2)  Reviewing Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution in 1970, Ted Hughes made much the same argument.  “The fundamental guiding ideas of our Western Civilization … are based on the assumption that the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use.  The creepy crawlies which infest it are devils of dirt and without a soul, also put there for his exclusive profit and use.  By the skin of her teeth woman escaped the same role”.  The mediumistic artist, however, may be able to see ‘the draughty radiant paradise of the animals’, even Pan, ‘the vital, somewhat terrible spirit of natural life, which is new in every second.”  Some of what he wrote in that review, more than forty years ago, could easily be mistaken for the work of a contemporary animist: “…while the mice in the field are listening to the Universe, and moving in the body of nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other, and all are interdependent, the Developer is peering at the field through a visor …”.(3)

Not surprisingly, many critics describe Ted Hughes’ work as biocentric, and discuss his belief in ‘the shamanic healing power of poetry for a species alienated from its natural home’.(4)  When Hughes was appointed poet Laureate, his friend Seamus Heaney proclaimed him ‘shaman of the tribe’.  As a young man, Hughes had a visionary dream in which a theriomorphic fox figure came to him.  He recounted this experience in The Thought Fox, and may well have understood it as a threshold call.

The remarkable Cave Birds sequence evokes a male protagonist’s spirit journey through an underworld where he’s confronted by his own past, experiences judgement and dismemberment, marries a female figure who is both his ‘anima’ and the Goddess as Nature, and is eventually reborn.  The extra-ordinary power and beauty of these poems came into focus for me when I read some of them to my friend Peter during the last year of his life.  Terry Gifford regards Cave Birds as an exemplar of post-pastoral poetry, a key feature of which is that it attends, with a sense of awe, to the destructive as well as the creative aspect of Nature.  This perspective contrasts with that of some earlier critics who discuss shamanism in transcendental and dualistic terms.(5).  I’ve been re-reading Ted Hughes’s poems to see whether some of his underlying assumptions, notably his adoption of Jung’s essentialist conception of generic feminine and masculine principles, and his veneration of a Gravesian Goddess, get in the way.  For me, they mostly don’t seem to.

Ted Hughes said that angling connected him with ‘the stuff of the Earth, the whole of life’.(6)  Leonard Scigaj talks about Hughes’s ‘ecological animism’ in relation to the hydrological cycle.(7).  If you read Flesh of Light, The River, or October Salmon, you’ll see why.  Although Hughes may have been influenced by Mircea Eliade, his take on shamanism was always grounded by his fascination with, and respect for, flesh and blood animals, and by his concern with human healing.  His belief in the ‘real summoning force’ of poems, the capacity of carefully charged words to reach out and connect with non-human animals, resonates closely with David Abram’s account of shamanism as a process of relationship with more-than-human worlds.(8)

From my own practice I can confirm that such ‘showings’, as I like to call them, do happen from time to time.  Hughes may have exaggerated the power of poetry per se, but he was certainly not succumbing to the ‘pathetic fallacy’ (falsely imagining that Nature was responding to his inner states).  His own poetry drew upon an exceptional pool of life experience, and was often crafted with specific ‘spiritual’ and/or magical intent.  Ann Skea refers to his shamanic poetic magic, and locates him in the British bardic tradition.(9)  Jeanette Winterson writes: “the wild creature circling the tamed world comes as unknown energy, sensed but not seen.  The bound of the animal out of instinct and into consciousness, its ‘hot stink’, is what makes the poem happen.  For Hughes, poems happen in this meeting/mating between very different measures of energy – the raw feral of the instinctual life, and the channelled potency of consciousness.”(10)

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes’s poems can be difficult, sometimes because of their complexity, sometimes because of their unflinching directness.  Alice Oswald comments “the disruption of comfort, the chance to concentrate utterly on what’s there, to see it in its own way and to say so without disturbing its strangeness is what Hughes’ offers”.(11)  Terry Gifford reports that he’s seen people in the audience faint when February 17th is read.  Transcribed from Ted Hughes’s farming notes, it records an occasion when he had to cut the head from a lamb that had been strangled during birth, in order to save the mother.  I’m reminded of Graham Harvey’s pointed query as to why, when there are so many urban workshops on shamanism, there are none on Pennine shepherding, or its associated religion.(12)

I recently went to an event in Ilkley commemorating the inaugural performance of Cave Birds there in 1975.  Keith Sagar, a literary critic and friend of Ted Hughes, who had been in dialogue with him during the writing of Cave Birds, and who was to have given the talk, had just died, so the event became a fitting tribute to him.

I’d been wondering whether the 1975 performance might have been, in some sense, a shamanic event.  Michael Dawson, who had commissioned Cave Birds, explained that the poems were read by actors who picked the running order ‘randomly’ from a box on the stage.  When a recording was played, I found that their declamatory Thespian style, booming across the years, didn’t work for me.  Something seems to have worked for one audience member at the time though.  Suddenly the reading was interrupted by a protracted and full blooded scream, emitted by a woman at the back of the auditorium, who, we were told, also vomited in the foyer.  The performers on stage assumed this had been a theatrical stunt, so continued as though nothing had happened.

The woman in question, who turned out to be one of Keith Sagar’s adult education pupils, reportedly laughed about it afterwards, and said the ‘involuntary howling’ that came upon her gradually had been triggered by one of the Leonard Baskin bird figures that were being projected on stage.  Ted Hughes later wrote about Baskin’s prints that it was ‘as though a calligraphy had been improvised from the knotted sigils and clavicles used for conjuring spirits’.  This trace element in his draughtsmanship suggested a psychic proclivity, ‘a passport between worlds usually kept closed to each other’.(13)  It also seems likely that the text of Cave Birds, evoking, as it does, the primal mysteries of birth, embodiment, death, and an afterlife, and our attendant human fears and disorientations, contributed to her reaction.  Strangely, the opening poem in the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds is called The Scream, and ends with a vomited screamThe poem had already been written at the time of the 1975 performance (14), but I’m not sure whether it was read on stage at Ilkley that evening.

Whilst this occurrence undoubtedly attests to the potential power of the poems and images, the event clearly hadn’t been, and almost certainly couldn’t have been, conceived as a shamanic performance (where provision would have been made to assist participants in negotiating their experience).  Following the 1970 publication of Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream, ‘therapeutic’ screaming was in the Zeitgeist at the time.  As someone who used to faint in cinemas, and on one occasion (in the late 60’s) refused an invitation to stay and discuss my needle-phobic reaction with an entire audience of film-goers, I have some sense of the difference between artistic and therapeutic environments, and of the ethical considerations that arise in respect of the latter.  Whatever happened that night in Ilkley, I can vouch for the consciousness-deepening and healing effect of many of Ted Hughes’s poems, when read in conducive circumstances to the right person.  When my friend died last year, I read A Green Mother, over and over.  It had been one his favourite poems.  Often tears came before they’re mentioned in the last line.   I was, of course, reading it from an earth-centred animist viewpoint, for someone who would have been excited to become a flower, a bird, or a worm.

B.T 7/11/13.

Here is a link to the final draft of Shaman of the Tribe, Ted Hughes and Contemporary Animism that appeared in the Journal of the Ted Hughes Society in 2014.

See also a series of posts entitled Notes From the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley.

Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2003.

Christopher Reid, ed. The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 2007.

Ted Hughes, Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama, Viking Press, 1978, with drawings by Leonard Baskin.

Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes, Gaudete, Cave Birds, and the 1975 Ilkley Festival.

Other Sources:

1) Neil Roberts, The Plath Wars, in Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

2) Molly Scott-Cato, The Bioregional Economy, Earthscan/Routledge, 2013.

3) Ted Hughes, The Environmental Revolution, (1970) in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose,, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

4) Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

5) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, 1999.

6) quoted in Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

7) Leonard Scigaj, Ted Hughes, 1991, quoted in Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

8) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage, 1997.

9) Ann Skea Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994, and website.

10) Jeanette Winterson, Foreword to Great Poets of the Twentieth Century, No 5, Ted Hughes, The Guardian / Faber and Faber, 2008.

11) Alice Oswald, Guardian, 3/12/05, quoted by Terry Gifford, ibid.

12) Graham Harvey, Listening People, Speaking Earth, Contemporary Paganism, Hurst and Co, 2007.

13) Ted Hughes, The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, Note for a Panegyric Ode on Leonard Baskin’s Collected Prints, in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

14) Ann Skea, pers comm.