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Classic Book Review: Crow

Eleanor Toland



The fact that the poetry collection Crow, by Ted Hughes, is a profoundly depressing work cannot be avoided. There are no greeting-card homilies to be found here, or wishy-washy relationship talk. However, this slender volume, available at the university library as well as most second-hand bookshops, contains more wisdom and dark insight than shelves of contemporary poetry.
Crow was published six years after the suicide of Hughes’ ex-wife Sylvia Plath, written in what was presumably one of the darkest parts of Hughes’ life. But it is not a book of self-pity or misery. It is a cosmic tour-de-force. It starts at the beginning of the world, and goes on to retell much of Genesis in a sex-obsessed, sickly funny and deeply blasphemous style: ‘So on the seventh day/ The serpent rested’. Later, it describes the survivors of a nuclear apocalypse and the last flight of death over the scorched land. The poems aren’t really placed in a narrative or chronological order, but overall the collection has an overarching feel, rather like a strange holy book.
Hughes uses a lot of graveyard imagery, repeatedly emphasising the darkness of his subject matter. The word ‘black’ is used fifteen times in the short opening poem ‘Two Legends’. Death and pain surface as subjects in almost every poem, and the quiet misery of everyday existence, as in ‘Once upon a time there was a person/ Almost a person’.
What separates Hughes from the usual death-and-darkness teen poetry, however, is his brilliantly creative use of the English language. Like many poets, Hughes breaks language rules, but unlike many poets, he does so in a way that still makes sense, and sometimes makes more sense than the correct use. ‘Too like being blown to bits yourself/ Which happened to easily/ With too like no consequences.’
And in a strange way, despite all the death imagery, Crow is about life, about the resilience of living things against death. The symbolic figure of Crow himself is described as being ‘stronger than death’.
Crow is definitely not for everyone. This is the premium vodka of the poetry world. If you’d prefer something easy to read and spiritually uplifting, I suggest you try Chicken Soup for the Soul or similar. But there are great insights to be found here. ‘Crow’s Theology’ is perhaps the most honest religious poem ever written, and I have yet to find a poem that conveys the horrors of war more effectively than ‘Crow’s Account of the Battle’.
by Ted Hughes