One of the most powerful performances on my old Faber cassette tape of Ted Hughes reading his poems is ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’. Written as an alternative creation myth, the poem is, according to the Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes, ‘a rare moment of mutual love and pleasure between a man and a woman, though in admittedly reified circumstances.’ This is well said, but somewhat undersells the poem’s idealised, incantatory and weird mixture of myth, sex and ‘reciprocity’.
The poem ends with the ‘two gods of mud/ Sprawling in the dirt/…bring[ing] each other to perfection’. As the Cambridge Companion has it ‘neither triumphs over the other’. Even the most cursory acquaintance with Ted Hughes’s life and oeuvre tells you how rare this is.
But what a vision it is.
What if the goal of our poetry-lives was not to self-promote, do down others and pursue career interests, but to ‘bring each other to perfection’ instead?
What if we really listened to each other, deep down, the best version of ourselves fully attuned to the best intentions of the poem or poet in front of us, and abjured the temptation to look over their shoulder, as at a slightly tedious party?
What if we corrected each other’s poems in workshops not by changing ‘car’ to ‘Ferrari’ but by asking the real moral question beneath the whole enterprise, about why the poem has come about? And what if we were able to do this with love in our eyes and our body language and voice, not hateful desire to see the other squirm?
What if the seeking of perfection of the other meant attaining, or appearing to attain, slightly less perfection for ourselves? What would we do then? How would we react?
What would it cost us to behave like this? Even for a day, even for one review, even for the reading of one poem, to seek the best for the other, out of reach though it may be, even as we sit on our hands?