Sunday, July 20, 2008



Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutterals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

"Thistles" by Ted Hughes from Collected Poems.© Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
from The Writer's Almanac accessed 7/20/08

Learn more about Ted Hughes and get a second opinion at Ted Hughes.

This poem caught me immediately this morning. I'd never read Hughes' poem before, but years ago I wrote a poem that included thistles in a similie. I don't have the full poem, but the part with the thistles was as follows:
Let's visit again the nation of heroes
along the flooded Yangtze
where thistles thrive like prayers in noble hearts
acknowledging enough, enough and too much ...

I like the similie, but instead of 'noble' a word like 'stoic,' 'trusting' or 'naive' would be better. Maybe even 'innocent.' It's hard to put an adjective in there without implying some sort of judgment of the people there. But then, the 'nation of heroes' phrase has really already done that, hasn't it. Clearly this is the work of an inexperienced poet.

But back to Hughes' poem. Apparently thistles are regarded in the UK much as they are in the US. That is, they are weed-like nuisances that are better left marginalized at the sides of railroad tracks, highways and other places that don't get landscaped. And thistles are reputed to be rough to the touch, and their flowers are not as lovely as for instance roses, chrysanthemums, fleur-de-lys, etc. But they are hardy and, as Hughes points out, they keep coming back, much like weeds, despite our efforts to remove them from our landscapes. It is this 'background knowledge' of thistles that enables the success of this poem. Someone who doesn't know anything about thistles might wonder at the violence Hughes associates with the plant in this poem. What, for instance, is 'blue-black pressure,' and do the plants really 'crackle'? I like the notion of the cow eating the thistle. The mammal, a species much different than the plant, casually destroying the 'revengeful burst/Of resurrection', the 'grasped fistful/Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up' as it inexorably grazes its way through lunch - this could be elaborated on in a number of directions.

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