WRITING AND READING WITH TED HUGHES AND BILLY COLLINS: 'THE THOUGHT-FOX' AND 'WOLF'
Ted Hughes and Billy Collins have both been Poet Laureate and both are well worth looking at when it comes to examining the writing and reading processes…
‘The Thought-Fox’ first appeared in the collection The Hawk in the Rain and has gone on to be one the most anthologised of Ted Hughes’s poems, an intimate first-person account that details the difficulties associated with the writing process. Though this focus may not be immediately obvious, with most of its six stanzas apparently detailing the actions of a fox in the dark outside the narrator’s window, paying close attention to the title will indicate this is not a poem dealing strictly with the natural world, while the first and last stanzas bookend the poem to provide its full meaning.
It seems to be a lonely job, writing. The personification of “the clock’s loneliness” reveals the narrator’s mood, with “loneliness” repeated shortly after in the next stanza as well, but the real problem seems to be some kind of writer’s block, as suggested by “this blank page where my fingers move”. Does this movement of the fingers tell us that he tries to write but produces nothing, or is it a restless drumming of the fingers while he waits for inspiration? Both are possible readings, but the latter seems more likely. Luckily, the thought-fox comes along to solve this problem.
The clue is in the name: thought-fox; a compound that combines the abstract with the concrete. This is not a real fox but a metaphorical one, inspiration given animal form for the sake of the poem. The first line prepares us for such fantasy with “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest”, while the final stanza forces such a conclusion when the thought-fox “enters the dark hole of the head”, but all the while in between it seems quite real. There’s a calm and quiet quality to its initial appearance, a cautiousness of movement “that now / and again now, and now, and now / sets neat prints into the snow”, but even here some of its role as writing metaphor is apparent; there’s a repetitive rhythm, mostly monosyllabic and broken by caesura, that arguably mimics the sound and process of typing, and if the snow represents the white page then there is something of a pun in each print set upon it.
As it crosses the clearing (or the page), the thought-fox becomes “bold”. Whereas before its nose touched twig and leaf “delicately”, sniffing its way, now the focus is on the “widening deepening greenness” of its “eye”, a slower pace suggesting a confident certainty of action now that the fox is “concentratedly, / coming about its own business”. Perhaps the writing is becoming easier for the narrator, or an idea for it is forming at least, because this is when “with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox” it enters the hole of the head. There’s something very primal about this hot stink, a naturalness that suits a poet like Hughes whose fondness for nature is well known, and though there something reminiscent of pain in that sudden sharpness and the accompanying hissed sibilance of the entire line, at least now the work is done. “The clock ticks”, no longer lonely, indicating the passing of time that has seen the blank page from the opening stanza become the printed one at the poem’s end.
In being a poem about the difficulty of writing a poem, there’s something rather post-modern about ‘The Thought-Fox’, a kind of meta-fiction, and it’s difficult not to admire the pleasant irony of seeing writer’s block produce a poem instead of preventing one.
‘Wolf’, by Billy Collins, is also concerned with literature but rather than the writing of it, this poem focuses on reading. It begins with the unlikely statement “A wolf is reading a book of fairy tales” and so immediately we are in some sort of fantasy world, it seems. Though we are not told which particular story the wolf is reading in this intertextual reference, the reader’s assumption is likely to be Little Red Riding Hood or perhaps The Three Little Pigs, associating the wolf with the villain from the outset, and yet Collins spends much of this poem arguing quite the opposite. Indeed, despite the wolf’s ability to read, Collins assures us “this is a real wolf” and there is certainly nothing “cartoon” like about him.
Reading, for such a wolf, is not easy. On the one hand, there are physical considerations; he does not sit down “for the words / would be too far away to be legible” and “it is with difficulty that he turns / each page with his nose and forepaws”. But there is evidence to suggest the content of his reading material also proves difficult. In performing this literally ‘close’ reading, the wolf interprets the story in a way that distresses him. He “thinks about what he has read” while laying in pine needles (a natural enough image, but we can’t help but imagine discomfort at the word “needles”) and a striking simile follows, “the stories passing over his mind / like the clouds crossing the moon”.
The moon image is rich with significance. In the first stanza, the moon is a metaphorical lamp, much like you might find on a bedside table for reading, and as a source of light it may also represent knowledge or understanding (a form of enlightenment). Now, though, according to the simile, the moon represents the wolf’s mind. It’s a suitable symbol for a poem about a wolf, of course, but here we see the stories obscure its power, the wolf’s mind ‘clouded’ having read these fairy tales, which is to have serious repercussions for this wolf. As something that waxes and wanes, the moon also represents change, and in a sense, considering the strange blurring between the real wolf and something more anthropomorphic, you could even argue we have a kind of werewolf character here, in which case the moon signifying change is even more appropriate. Either way, we now see the wolf transform…
He has had time to think about the stories, as indicated by the two-line stanza about the wind and the owls, and having reflected upon what he’s read the wolf becomes agitated. He “paces restlessly in circles” and eventually “he is absorbed / by the power of its narration”. It might be tempting to interpret this as a positive effect, Collins showing us the power literature has as a form of escapism, the way it can pull the reader into a story, but the stanza continues by showing us the wolf become a mere illustration, “a small paper wolf, flat as print”. The combination of pre-modifiers and simile here belittles the wolf, reducing him in stature from the interesting character he once was as an individual to something lacking depth. He has conformed to society’s expectations, becoming the wolf from the fairy tales, which is to say he has become the villain who “knocks over houses with his breath”. Arguably this is at least empowering, and perhaps, occurring “later that night”, it is merely a dream, but considering he is also “lost” in this final stanza it seems we are meant to feel sympathy for this wolf. Perhaps, like the original fairy stories themselves, this poem is a cautionary tale of sorts, one that warns against judging a book by its cover. Or perhaps its warning concerns the power of literature and its ability to change the person (or wolf) who reads it.
Either way, as these two poems illustrate, writing and reading both come with their own difficulties, but each has its own rewards, too.