Monday, December 11, 2006

Ted Hughes, "The Thought-Fox"

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.


From The Hawk in the Rain (1957)

This week's theme: titles. That is, poems whose titles play a particularly prominent role, where the lack of the title would leave the reader comparatively adrift. Some may be riddle poems, where the title is necessary for understanding. In others, such as "The Thought-Fox", it may be that the poem is easy enough to follow, but where the title lends an achieved clarity to the whole meaning - sums it up. Or it may be that a title, by implication, catapults a poem from one context to another.
"The Thought-Fox" carries us forward from last week's theme, the ars poetica, as in the conclusion it is made clear that the poem narrates the imaginative experience of its own composition. As such, it might also bear comparison with the Frank O'Hara poem of the first week, both being poems of the present tense, though in highly contrasting voices.
Hughes' poem is remarkable for the union of the ideal (imagination, "Thought", poetry) and the real in the figure of "The Thought-Fox" - the title's very hyphenation a sign of its hybridity. The description of the appearance of the thought/fox, from something dark and obscure to something vivid, immediate, confrontational, is deftly controlled, Hughes pacing the revelation ("that now / And again now, and now, and now") and at the same time keeping the reader's attention rapt with sensory details ("a lame / Shadow lags by stump"). The final stanza is a superb climax and denoument: the vivid sense-words of the first line are reinforced by the clustering of stresses and consonants: "sudden sharp hot stink of fox" - the fox's sudden, physical appearance - which is immediately inscribed in a mental, but no less striking, realm - "the dark hole of the head." The final two lines then take a step back, revealing the narrative to have been a vision, during which time nothing in the "real" world happened, except for the writing of the poem.
The term "cinematic" is sometimes used to describe such effects. Indeed, Hughes controls our vision the same way a director/cinematographer controls our gaze through careful selection of shots. But we should be wary of implying that poetry is imitating film, when tropes similar to a pan or zoom or close-up or establishing shot have been part of poetic form for millenia.

(More about Ted Hughes [1930-1998]:

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