Guest Review: Brinton On Hughes

Ian Brinton reviews
by Peter Hughes

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The first thing to be said about Peter Hughes’s adroit lyrics, registrations of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, is how hauntingly beautiful they are.

we suddenly lost interest
in such impossible pasts
lifting our heads towards
the river elsewhere
a new jetty stood beside
the old beyond repair
time mends an idea
slips its moorings
swings out into the current
& a kneeling figure
works on
pausing only to reach
for three more nails
& place them gently
between her lips

In his 1997 autobiographical sketches George Steiner suggested that almost everything said about musicalcompositions by poets or by music critics is inevitably just ‘verbiage’:  It is talk which enlists metaphor, simile, analogy in a more or less impressionistic, wholly subjective magma.

Music, like a ‘primal burst out of nothingness’ (Steiner), comes before language and the fall of man can be seen as a withdrawal into the rational explanation involved in verbal expression. These thirty-two short poems by Hughes are not explanations of Beethoven, they are linguistic responses in which the mind is permitted to travel free and lose ‘interest/in such impossible pasts’. There is an intricate freshness as the ‘new jetty’, associated with its French counterpart as an act of throwing, stands beside the old one which like all past moments is ‘beyond repair’. Words cannot re-call ‘impossible pasts’ but they can recall them as an echo left after the event has gone and Orpheus turning round to lay firm grip upon that which is behind him is left with the image of his lost wife fading back into the world of the dead. In this lovely opening poem Peter Hughes recognises the freshness of the present as time ‘slips its moorings’ and ‘swings out into the current.’ The placing of ‘swings’ at the beginning of the line carries the reader out on the journey whilst holding the rational inevitability that the ‘current’, the running moment, will be replaced by the returning movement of how a swing works. What could be a dream-like moment is given an etched clarity as we are invited to see the kneeling figure whose steadiness in her task is held for us, short line by short line.

The swinging back and forth of movement, the present becoming the past, the feeling requiring cognitive recognition in language, is taken up in poem number 8 as the ‘rhythm of concern’

rocking to & fro
before the knock on the door
with time & a mouthful of nails

The echo of Eliot’s premonition of death with his ‘waiting for the knock upon the door’ precedes Hughes’s acknowledgement that what we value in life is made up of moments, ‘remnants’ which are found

to be more interesting
than the fate of the bulk
of each roll

Peter Hughes is not, of course, the only poet to have suggested to his readers that there is a musical association involved in the sequence of his work: T.S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ and ‘Song’, ‘Rhapsody’ and ‘Quartets’ are among the most celebrated testimonies to the association. Perhaps in the case of Behoven a more direct link might be made with Basil Bunting’s awareness of Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata whilst he was writing Briggflatts. Bunting insisted that at no stage in that poem’s composition was the sonata form in control from the outside and in Peter Hughes’s sequence the words compel us forward with their own liquidity of movement not directly controlled by the Beethoven piano pieces. Given that, there are what might seem to be direct connections between the poetry and the formal structure of the music such as number 14’s relation to its counterpart, the ‘Moonlight’ sonata, where the Allegretto second movement of the Beethoven is only two minutes long and Hughes’s stanza has just one line. However, despite that seeming control from the original, the poem has an energetic life of its own which is fundamentally separate:

a high-tide line
of dead ladybirds
in a world without sound
pulse in a crevice

& words sail
into altered time of dark
red wine for several
hours now years & geese
migrating over
the house

The suggestiveness of that one-line stanza where the word ‘crevice’ connects so seamlessly with the line of where water meets land and the smallness of the insects and then urges the reader out into such expansive movement is sheer lyrical grace.

When I suggested at the beginning of this review that there is a haunting quality to these poems I was almost inevitably thinking of that Orphic sense where the words try to capture ‘an unrepeatable moment’ (24) and it is perhaps appropriate that the sequence should conclude with a glimpse from the dead to the living (32):

here where words

were stars


The light sent out from what may well be the no longer-existent stars still manufactures for the observer a patterned fabric upon which he can build his awareness of the present and I am left wondering if this hand-written final poem was an error of printing or was itself a movement back beyond the technological competence of current book-production. What does remain with me is the sense that the poetry is controlled by the intrinsic needs of each poem’s structure, the ‘behoven’, and as Bunting was to write in 1972 ‘Whatever you think I am saying is something I could not have said in any other way.’

Ian Brinton is a critic and scholar. His books include A Manner of Utterance, a study of JH Prynne.