In Boozo Veritas #18 by Teege Braune
My favorite drinker in the annals of literature is not Henry Chinaski. Neither is it Sal Paradise, Jake Barnes, or Raoul Duke. While these men are all delightful in their way, their appeal is too obvious, accessible. For each, alcohol may be their undoing, but it is also their raison d’être, the fuel for adventures that young men like myself drool over while trapped in suburban sprawl, bored with mundane public educations, and terrified by the nightmarish, half-believed sermons of youth group ministers. Any reader / drinker can appreciate their ability to capitulate fun and misery in the same scenario. The experience is universal, and the men who represent it, who were the icons for my own debauchery will forever hold a place in my heart. Nevertheless, the most fascinating drinker in English literature is different, and what he has to offer us is much darker and harder to understand.
I speak of the titular hero in Ted Hughes’ poem “Dick Straightup,” the eighty year old patriarch of an unnamed tavern in the village of Heptonstall. Other than “Polishing with his backside sixty-odd years” the same barstool of his favorite pub, Dick is known for superhuman feats of consumption, finishing enormous quantities of eggs and ale. Outside of his bar, his adventures consist of little more than passing out in a gutter during a winter storm only to be discovered the next morning, “Warm as a pie and snoring.” While the famously violent winters of Yorkshire make this an impressive nap, it also represents Dick’s enigma, that while his real legacy, at least his commemoration in Hughes’ poem, is represented by his inaction instead of achievement, it is no less significant for that reason.
We do not see the twenty year old Dick’s initiation into pub life; we are not wowed alongside his colleagues by his songs or prowess at dominoes. Our window into Dick’s days is Hughes’ own, a brief snapshot at the end of his life. The man is old but far from decrepit, and the ancient tavern is like a living time capsule whose “darts that glint on the dartboard / Pin no remarkable instant.” Within this cavern of a pub lies an even greater mystery, the well of Dick’s mind, which like Heptonstall’s graveyard is even “bigger and deeper than the village.” These same colleagues that watched their hero become a living legend are all dead and the young men who have taken their places gaze at Dick with appropriate awe. The man once beloved for his gregarious antics is now revered for his silent stoicism. At the end of the poem, as we watch “his white blown head” exit the bar for the last time and step into “placeless blackness, the one / Company of his mind,” we are watching Dick step into timelessness, an infinity ready to embrace him. The doorway becomes a portal to an afterlife that is both oblivion and immortality.
You don’t need to know that Dick Straightup was the nickname of Ted Hughes’ uncle Richard Uttley to appreciate the poem. As it functions as its own dedication, Hughes’ didn’t feel the need to make this obvious. In his own time and place one can only assume that Dick needed no introduction. As readers we are a privileged lot for merely being allowed the opportunity to peak at this man’s late greatness. Featured in the collection Lupercal, “Dick Straightup” is the work of a poet who, barely thirty years old, had already defined himself as one of the greatest living masters of the English language. Full of the stark, harsh beauty of nature, the Obit. at the end of the poem encapsulates everything that is wonderful about Hughes’ early work and is every bit as enigmatic as Dick himself. Gone from this world, he is reborn within hills that “run deep and limpid.” Dead now for fifteen years, Hughes’ has taken his place alongside his uncle Dick, immortal in literature, but “lost in the heaved calm / of the earth” they have entered.
The literature of alcohol tends to focus on drinkers in the prime of their raucous adventures. In “Dick Straightup” a young poet Ted Hughes imagines with preternatural empathy what it must be like to be an old man. The booze, no fuel for bad behavior, functions as a dark glass through which Dick examines foggy memories. It is the nectar of his quiet contemplation, but no Elysian Fields await this hero, only the cold, dark ground. “Dick Straightup” hints at the nihilism that would be the driving force behind Hughes’ masterpiece Crow, but at this point in the poet’s life he has yet to lose two wives and a child. Even before personal tragedy had sent Hughes’ work spiraling down into a immense vortex from whence it would never emerge, he seemed to have this bleak lesson for us all: The future doesn’t exist and the past is a sad, half-forgotten shade, yet it is the weight of this deep, murky history that gives the present its meaning and its well-deserved pride.
Teege Braune (episode 72) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.