christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Ted Hughes

Two moons and the planet Theia

Thoughts on science and cosmology have been scarce on this blog, and I suspect things will not change, but did you know the Earth once had two moons? It seems somewhat far fetched, but perhaps no less so than our own existence.

Most scientists now believe the moon was formed as a result of a spectacular collision between Earth and smaller planet, called Theia. The theory even has a true Hollywood sounding name: Giant Impact Theory. Theia, it is supposed, was roughly the size of Mars and lingering in an unstable orbit between Mars and the Earth. Gradually, it was pulled towards us resulting in a terrific crash. I used to have a teacher whose peculiar threat to enforce discipline was ‘I’ll bang your two heads together.’ The idea was similar.

Parts of the Earth and parts of Theia shot into space, and the matter was then captured in Earth orbit. Within a week or so, the bulk of this matter had coalesced into what we now call the moon. However there was still significant debris hurtling around the Earth, rather like the rocks that circle around Saturn. Eventually this debris joined together like the left over dough when you’re making scones, and ever so gently, caught up with the half formed moon, attaching itself to create the whole moon. Study of moon rocks has proved that the far side of the moon is indeed different in composition to the near side.

But can you imagine what all of this intergalactic turmoil looked like standing in a field in Suffolk four and a half billion years ago? Rather disconcerting, I’d say. However until this week, I had not given any thought to how the moon was formed and I suspect you hadn’t either, which is why I thought it was worth sharing.

The moon has never ceased to full us with wonder and aspiration. And what better cue for Ted Hughes’ marvelous poem: Full Moon and Little Frieda. The night and it’s silence is evoked in the most skilful way, and it has things to say about creation, how language forms and the simple miracle of existence.


The Crow Diaries

I was rereading Ted Hughes’ Crow poems in the Faber Collected Poems and was amazed again at the brutality and originality of this extraordinary sequence. The language is of the body; disease and disorder: ‘Black the liver, black the lungs/Unable to suck in light’. It is an anti-creation myth – a harrowing sketchbook of of depression and a conversation with the very darkest part of his mind. There is a very real sense that Hughes was haunted by this bird-devil; the only way to exorcise him was to write and publish the poems. Here is a new piece from my sequence of 69 poems about 1969.


That year
Crow followed me
everywhere –

ink spilt
on paper;
a rain cloud
to a white sky.

He was the heavy night
and the morning after;
the dark mood
that refused to lift.

He was the black hat
of a widower.

On a bench
by a winter sea
I watched him
watching me.

Fixed by a single eye
I caught his sly,
sideways hop
while one black wave
followed another.

I clocked
his bulk of meat and feather;
the diamond cutter
of his beak.

While he waited for his crust
I pounced

and pressed him
between two covers.

The Poets Join the Tour

One of my great childhood memories is watching the Tour de France on Channel 4 with my elder brother. We’d sit inside while the blazed outside, eating Skips, listening to the pop-snyth perfection of its theme tune, watching the beautiful French countryside roll past and the rake thin cyclists climb hills in terrible agony, all accompanied by the nation’s ‘true poet laureate’ Phil Liggett.

Known for the unusual lyricism of his commentary, a chap called Doug Donaldson eventually compiled a book of poetry based on his quotes: ‘Dancing on the Pedals,’ after hearing the commentary: ‘He’s dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way.’ Here are a few more from the great man.

“Once you pull on that golden fleece, you become two men..”

“There’s no reason to rush into hell.”

“Its only a mountain, one of many you can see on this French Country morning, but for 171 young men it would be a place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness”

It all got me thinking about how the great poets would fare in the Tour de France, with the following results:  


The former Laureates make up an early breakaway pack

Robert Bridges at the head of the Peleton, a canvas satchel

of sardines and eggs bouncing softly behind his back.

Betjeman and Hughes have yet to reveal themselves

preferring to let their thin jackets flap in the streets of Dunkirk.

At the end of the first stage R.S.Thomas is the unlikely

wearer of the yellow jersey; less plausible still in that

he has yet to discard his duffel coat or red woollen tie.

He glares at the spectators lining the curbs of Gant.

The race is not without scandal; Manley Hopkins enlists

the support of some Jesuit priests who bundle his bicycle

into the back of their Citroen hatchback ply him with

altar wine and roll him out the other side of Tignes.

At stage four, the Liverpool poets are the last ones out

after a long evening on the Brie and Cavernet Sauvignon

while running an impromptu workshop on French rhyming slang.

The prospect of the Champange valleys of Joiny is enough

To revive them, although Elizabeth Barrett Browning

shines in the sprint, bolt upright in her bonnet and ruffles.

The journalists report her embroided cuffs and lupine eyes. 

In the support vehicle, Robert Browning throws her hankies

dipped in lavender and flasks of hot, Camomile tea,

Last in is Tony Harrison in a woollen jumper with holes

at each elbow; he doggedly steers an old Triumph Twenty

pressing down on one knee, his other hand steadying

a volume of Philip Gross laid open on the handlebars. 

Through the leafy woods that cool the scorched roads

from Chablis to Autun and the riders reach the hills.

Nonetheless, buoyed on by the wind, MacNeice makes

an attack pressing at the heels of William Carlos Williams,

who has been impressive from the start; then at the crossroads

at Gimont, Philip Larkin emerges like a sunbeam from a cloud

and cuts a line between them tucked into the wind. 

Up in the peaks, Motion and Muldoon battle for the Polka-Dot.

The stretch from Cognac to Angouleme is almost too much:

beautiful sections of unbending road, allowing liberal

sampling of the produce; in the woods of Plaisac, some

reported the ghost of Ern Malley up ahead in the heat haze.

By the Cheauvreuages Valley the favourites have made

themselves known, although Thomas Hardy squanders

an early stage lead by taking tea and cake in Bonneville.

As the leader enters Paris, a hush falls on the crowd like rain

on the Loire; then as the river mist recedes, he appears

grinning wide, John Betjeman on a Raleigh Sprinter, his arms

outstretched, riding naked down the Champs Elycees.