A List for 2009 – Rain-Charm for the Duchy by Ted Hughes

The first item on my list for 2009 is the poem Rain-Charm for the Duchy by Ted Hughes.  As mentioned in the intro to this list below, not everything I’m going to mention was published in 2009.  2009 is simply the year in which I first discovered it.

I’m a big Ted Hughes fan, but I only read this poem for the first time a few months ago.  That’s because I’ve generally avoided his laureate stuff.  I’m no big fan of odes to kings and queens, so I let myself ignore that part of his work.  Then, I think in September, I found Rain-Charm for the Duchy and other Laureate Poems in The Last Bookshop in Oxford, where every book is £2.  The price tag broke my resistance and I bought a copy.  Now I regret my previous stubborness, because I love the titular poem in that book.  There’s no way to read it online, I’m afraid, but you can get a dose of Hughes at the Poetry Archive and the BBC.

Rain-Charm for the Duchy begins with a description of the storm that broke the drought of 1984.  Hughes does nature like nobody else, and here’s a snippet

“Thunder was breaking up the moors.

It dragged tors over the city –

Uprooted chunks of map.  Smeltings of ore, pink and violet,

Spattered and wriggled down.”

I was two years old when that storm hit Britain, but Hughes has such a gift that I can picture it as vividly as if I could remember.  Then in the second half of the poem he raises his game even further, personifying in turn each of the rivers struck by the storm in Dartmoor.  The waters wake up like sleeping giants, be they, “the Lyn’s twin gorges, clearing their throats, deepening their voices, beginning to hear each other,” or, “the Teign, startled in its den/By the rain-dance of bracken”.  There’s a ritualistic quality to this list of rivers that makes me feel like Hughes knows them as a shaman would his spirits, and is summoning them one by one.  I’ve been thinking about the weather all year – about how not so long ago the weather wasn’t just a backdrop to our daily lives but their giver and taker.  Occasionally rivers remind us that those days aren’t over, as we have seen in the UK in recent weeks, and in the heartbreaking scenes from Boscastle in 2004.

If you track this poem down and like it, I also recommend Alice Oswald’s Dart, which is an amazing book-length poem about, and at times personifying, the river of the same name (which also appears in Rain-Charm for the Duchy).