Life Class by Glyn Hughes (Shoestring Press)
Reviewed by Ian Parks
I first encountered Glyn Hughes’ poetry in 1979 when I read Best of Neighbours, his New and Selected Poems. I was twenty and looking for a poetry that spoke directly to my own experience. In Hughes I found a clear and uncompromising voice, a transformative lyrical gift and a formal grittiness which immediately set him apart from his contemporaries. It was a seminal moment and some of the enthusiasm that gripped me then returned on reading Life Class, his moving autobiography in verse.A glance at the list of Hughes’ publications reveals that a gap of twenty-six years separates the publication of Best of Neighbours and his next collection, Dancing out of the Dark Side in 2005. Hughes, of course, had been far from silent, establishing a reputation for himself as a fine novelist (Where I Used to Play on the Green, The Rape of the Rose) and writer of autobiography (Millstone Grit, Fair Prospects) the impulse to poetry had remained in his sensibility and in his keen identification with the characters, periods and landscapes he chose to write about. Comparisons with other poet-novelists such as Hardy, Graves and (particularly) Lawrence are inevitable but Hughes is entirely his own man and the poetic temperament presides over everything he’s written. So it’s particularly fitting that Hughes returns triumphantly to verse in rendering his experiences, memories and observations. Whether dealing with his life-long empathy with nature, his childhood in rural Cheshire or his encounter with another culture in Greece, Hughes informs his verse with a sinuous quality and, remarkably, seeks to recreate rather than merely recollect the sights and sounds, passions and pains, triumphs and despairs that have made up this singular life.
From the beginning Life Class raises questions about the validity of memory – its transitional nature and the way in which it creates its own reality from vividly remembered fragments and impressions. The first of eight distinct though interrelated sections opens with a specific memory:
Caring mothers fed us bacon, eggs,
black puddings, sausages, fried bread;
packed egg sandwiches and thermos flasks
for my friend, whom I shall call Farley, and me:
two youths who thought they had outgrown
such tenderness – of mothers also angry,
quivering without utterance
for what in 1950 they dare not say
but soon shifts from the candour of the specific to a beautiful description of a camping trip where the poet encounters nature head on, embedding in his sensibility a deep-seated sense of communion and inspiration. Here, as elsewhere Hughes moves with consummate ease from the particular to the universal, from the physical to the imagined, from the mundane to the poetic. Life as a journey is a hackneyed metaphor. Hughes manages to rise above it by presenting the journey itself and not the destination as the central impulse behind the rendering of experience into verse. and the verse itself is fluid, free in the best sense, sustained, flexible and never leaving the reader in any doubt that poetry is being read and not prose. It’s as if poetry is the only medium available with which to deal with the experiences Hughes wants to revisit and explore.
The memories Hughes evokes in Life Class would appear random and disparate were it not for the fact that the twin themes of love and inspiration inform the whole. There’s a Gravesean preoccupation with the transformative power of romantic love, and though Hughes deals in an uncompromisingly realistic manner with his three marriages his conclusion that ‘there are as many selves as there are lovers’ is as disarming as it is startling. For me the finest, most mysterious writing in the book occurs in the sixth section which Hughes calls Hawthorn Goddess. The Hawthorn Goddess is as much a muse figure to Hughes as the White Goddess was to Graves although for Hughes she is very much the spirit of a particular place: the feminine embodiment of a specific locale: ‘of another time, the one of early mills’ . His encounters with her are fleeting, vivid, mesmerising; episodes when the membrane between the real and the imagined, the past and the present, the body and the spirit is thin and transparent. This is very powerful writing marked by an intense sense of detail and atmosphere of unease. Ultimately, these visitations leave the poet himself in an unsettled state and ‘primed’ as he says ‘for exile’.
The eighth and final section of the poem brings us full circle. Hughes is once again remembering the friendship of youth but discovering ruefully that Paradise is not located ‘beyond the horizon’ but ‘in the flower at my door’. Reading Life Class is like encountering the man entire – and though it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive in its approach it highlights those ‘spots of time’ which were so important to Wordsworth and the Romantics – those seemingly inconsequential moments when the ordinary is invested with a timelessness which makes one want to live after all’:
Though I’m frailer now, will some person catch the gleam
On some days hence, of one starting again
With a happier breathlessness than the one it seems:
Not sickness, but the panting of a boy
Once again waiting for beauty to alight at a station.
Exactly. Life Class is an important long poem by a pure, disinterested poet. It takes us through particular places, situations and times while simultaneously and with incredible grace reminding us of the ‘Particles with no sense of ending, which we are’.
Review reprinted by kind permission of the author and Tears in the Fence magazine