Published earlier this week by Bloomsbury, ‘The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes’ sees Mark Wormald fish in the poet’s footsteps. Rob St. John reviews.
In 2012, Cambridge literature academic Mark Wormald first encountered Ted Hughes’ largely-overlooked fishing diaries in the British Library. This archive of notes, letters, sketches and illustrations details fishing trips across the world: Iceland, Scotland, Devon, Alaska, Ireland. Whilst Hughes’ love for angling is relatively well-known, Wormald makes a deep and sustained claim for the link between Hughes’ poetic thinking process and the act of fishing. This double exposure to the world offers ‘a means of raiding, or persuading, or ambushing, or doggedly hunting whatever it is that lies within or below our surface selves,’ to ‘learn whatever kind of skill or trick it is that enables us to catch those elusive or shadowy thoughts.’
Wormald is himself an angler, and The Catch circles on an axis of his trips to fish the pools and pots of Hughes’ diaries. In retracing tributaries of Hughes’ angling life Wormald places fishing at the centre of the poet’s experience of the world: a means of channeling the poetics of our subsurface selves; a quasi-shamanic summoning of more-than-human life. Hughes’ liberally-quoted poems are placed within the landscapes that birthed them: tumbling West Country salmon rivers; litter-strewn Yorkshire ponds; vast, shimmering Irish pike loughs. Specific pools and glides are located from Hughes’ fishing logs, their names (‘Island Run’, ‘River Barrow’, ‘Fox Pool’) offering a familiar twinned pragmatism and poetics. Throughout, Hughes’ archive is made active, alive through Wormald’s casts and retrieves, revealing the geographical contours of his literary remains.
The Catch is more than a new survey of Hughes’ life, however. Wormald’s own prose is sprung and striking, where fishing is framed an act of ‘Putting you in your place. You feel your way. You deepen. You remake yourself. You become, as long as you can make it last, a part of the river’s life.’ And the carrying streams of this book are not only those of Hughes’ life, and those of his family and friends, but of Wormald’s too. The Catch becomes a subtle mediation on what it is to be a father, a son, a brother. It reflects on the spaces opened by the act of fishing to let these thoughts unfurl. ‘We become creatures of light for rare moments, if we are lucky, for rare days: as sons as readers, as fishermen. There was, and always will be, unfinished business. Always another reason to go fishing,’ he writes.
‘The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes’ is out now and available here (£18.60).