Exclusive: Ted Hughes’s poem on the night Sylvia Plath died

The New Statesman publishes a previously unseen work by the late poet laureate.

The New Statesman publishes a previously unseen work by the late poet laureate.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, which has been guest-edited by Melvyn Bragg, we publish a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. "Last letter" is a poem that describes what happened during the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. Its first line is: "What happened that night? Your final night." -- and the poem ends with the moment Hughes is informed of his wife's death.

Hughes's best-known work is 1998's Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that detail his relationship with Plath. Though the published poems make reference to Plath's suicide, which occurred in February 1963, when she and Hughes were separated but still married, none of them addresses directly the circumstances of her death. This, then, would appear to be the "missing link" in the sequence.

The earliest draft of "Last letter" held in the British Library's Ted Hughes archive appears in a blue school-style exercise book, which is believed to date from the 1970s. The book contains drafts of several poems that appear in Birthday Letters. A more refined draft of the poem is found in a hardback notebook. After drafting poems by hand several times, Hughes would usually type out poems when they were near completion, adding notes in the margin where necessary.

Below are images from various drafts of the poem:

Add. 88918/1/6, f.1

The image above is of the first page of the earliest known draft of the poem, which went through many revisions before the final version appeared

2010+40ted poem 2

The image above is the first page of a later draft of the poem (date unknown)

Add. 88918/1/8, f.11

This image is from a draft of the poem contained in a hardback notebook. As is evident, Hughes would extensively rework phrases and add lines throughout the various stages of drafting. When a poem was finished, he would usually type it out, annotating with comments where necessary

In a letter from 1998 to his fellow poet Seamus Heaney, Hughes says that he first started to write simple verse "letters" to Sylvia Plath in the early 1970s. Hughes began writing them piecemeal; later he tried to do it in a more concerted way but found that he couldn't, so he went back to writing them occasionally. Some of the Birthday Letters poems appear in the 1995 New Selected Poems, but in correspondence with friends (also held by the British Library), he says he had found some of the other poems too personal to publish at that time.

Tonight Channel 4 News covered the story and recruited the actor Jonathan Pryce to read a section from the poem.

To read the poem in full, pick up a copy of Thursday's magazine.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Is new Netflix drama To The Bone glorifying eating disorders?

We spoke to people with experience of eating disorders about To The Bone, a film about anorexia coming to Netflix next month.

A gaunt and thin girl sits at a stylish breakfast bar in an all-American, middle-class home. A plate of bland food is placed in front of her: pork, noodles, green beans and a bread roll. In a flash, she identifies the calories in each foodstuff from memory, raising a fist in triumph when her sister confirms she is correct. “It’s like you have calorie Asperger’s,” the sister says with an eye roll.

This is the opening few seconds of the trailer for Netflix’s To The Bone, a film which will be released on the streaming service this July. It premiered at Sundance this January, and has all the indie hallmarks you’d expect – quirky supporting family members, jangly music, dark jokes, an eccentric British love interest, sarcasm, and rousing emotional speeches. It also features lead Lily Collins (who has been open with her struggles with eating disorders in her teenage years) at a starkly low weight counting calories, performing surreptitious exercise regimes, weighing herself, and avoiding food.

The trailer has been watched over a million times since it was published less than two days ago, and has provoked a divided response from viewers who have experienced eating disorders. While some praise the film for its representation of anorexia, others feel that the film’s light-hearted tone and detailed depiction of the extreme food-avoidance behaviours are a dangerous combination that could be both glamourising and triggering.

17-year-old Maya*, a Lily Collins fan from France, told me she was pleased by the trailer. “I love Lily Collins, and I know she knows the subject well because she talks about her own experiences in the book she wrote last year.” She adds, “It seems to be a movie with a ‘happy ending’, and I think it’s important for people with anorexia to be given a little hope, like, ‘Yeah, you can survive this.’”

But even she is reluctant to comment on whether or not a portrayal like this is helpful as a representation of eating disorders more generally. “I’m not a doctor, nor a psychologist,” she says. “I don’t think only one film could represent all the different kinds of eating disorders, but I think we will get to see one example.”

“I actually cried when I first watched the trailer,” says 18-year-old Tony, a fan of Lily Collins and someone who has struggled with eating habits they describe as “similar to the ones that Ellen [Collins] has in the trailer”.

While Tony acknowledges that it might not represent everyone’s experiences, they remain hopeful about the drama. “What matters is that it’s a representation that feels authentic to both Lily Collins and the writer/director Marti Noxon, both of whom have been very open about their struggles with anorexia in the past. It also feels like an authentic representation of my own personal experiences, and that gives me high hopes for it.”

“My first reaction was that it looks like a fairly decent portrayal of a particular type of anorexia and would like to watch it,” Liv, 25, told me – but adds, “It looks like it’ll be representative of a certain type of eating disorder which the media and society thinks is what anorexia is – they’ve chosen an ‘accessible’ eating disorder involving an obsession with calories, being thin, being in control.”

Putting aside the fact that jokes relying on autism stereotypes perhaps don’t signal the best start to a supposedly sensitive exploration of mental health, eating disorder charities like Beat now advise that the media avoid specifics of behaviours around food in the depiction of eating disorders. This is both because they put an emphasis on food, rather than the emotional issues that lie at the root of most eating disorders, and as they can encourage audiences to adopt the same techniques. Numbers – be they related to weight lost or gained, days gone without eating, or calories consumed, are considered particularly triggering – as are images of people at a very low weight. To The Bone heavily features all of the above.

“I am cautious to divide any form of mental health representation into ‘good’ and ‘bad’,” says Bethany Rose Lamont, the editor-in-chief of mental health journal Doll Hospital. “It’s simply too reductive and encourages a sense of moral panic that does not support those struggling, whilst still fanning the flames of fear.”

Nevertheless, she does have deep concerns about To The Bone, which, she argues, is grounded in thinspiration aesthetics. “As someone who has struggled with anorexia for over a decade I’m intimately aware of the interplay of images and illness. Often the consumers of mental health screen culture are struggling with their mental health themselves – there’s a reason why Cassie from Skins is so popular on thinspiration tumblrs!”

“We talk about recovery from deprivation of food, disordered eating and so on, but it’s also important that we talk about recovery from thinspiration images,” she continues. “Thinspiration has a distinct language and aesthetic: youth, whiteness, model looks, great make-up, knock knees, shining hair, oversized shirts to accentuate one’s smallness. It is also highly addictive and was my drug of choice for many years.”

She adds: “Whatever the earnest intention of this film project might be it is important to discuss how the images we have seen runs parallel with the language of thinspiration. Images have power, images of ‘thinness’ particularly, as anorexia itself is such a deeply visual illness. It is very easy for a film highlighting the horror of this devastating illness to unintentionally fall into this visual language or play into the ‘anorexic gaze’.”

Sadhbh O’Sullivan, who struggled with disordered eating throughout her teenage years and was diagnosed with anorexia at 19, had a similar reaction. “This mental health/tragedy porn is so so irresponsible,” she tells me. “Because when you’re anorexic you surround yourself with visuals like this trailer, which is so reminiscent of thinspo. You feel a compulsion to keep looking at it; to surround yourself with jutting bones and gaunt faces.”

In fact, images and quotes from the trailer, which features close-ups of Collins’s underweight body and the repeated mantra “I’m in control”, have already begun to appear in thininspiration communities on social media (which I won’t link to, for obvious reasons). “Honestly, Lily Collins looks so freaking good in it, I’m just using it as thinspo,” one user writes. Others discuss over the widely-reported amount of weight Collins lost for the part. Another writes they are “thinking about Lily Collins doing sit ups, wondering why I am just laying here”.

Liv notes her concerns that Lily Collins has been presented as still beautiful at a dangerously low weight. “She has clearly had her hair and make-up done to make her look prettier. That sort of gothic hollow look is what I would have aspired to look like when I was a teenager, but in reality when I was in hospital with other anorexics no one looked good. Everyone was really hairy with lanugo, had very hollow faces, and couldn’t really talk much as we didn’t have the energy. This side of anorexia isn’t really portrayed in the trailer.”

“The fact is that the reality of an eating disorder is really, really boring,” says Carrie Arnold, author of the book Decoding Anorexia. “Oh look, someone is counting calories again. They’re weighing themselves for the eleventy billionth time. They haven’t left their room in days except to purge.”

“It’s also not representative of the experience of an average person with an eating disorder,” she adds. “Most people with EDs are average or above average weight. They’re not necessarily young, affluent, or white, either.”

This is something that particularly troubles Sadhbh. “My anorexia never looked like Lily Collins’,” she tells me. “Though I desperately wanted it to.”

For many viewers, watching the trailer alone has been a triggering experience. “I’m not surprised,” says Arnold, citing the screen’s “long history of glamourising eating disorders”. From Skins and Gossip Girl to Pretty Little Liars and Black Swan, eating disorders seems to only exist in TV and film when it’s being experienced by a strikingly beautiful, vulnerable young woman.

“When this pops up without warning it can trigger something that sends you spiralling,” Sadhbh adds. “Though I’m technically recovered, anorexia never really leaves you.”

“This trailer has been a horrible, painful reminder of that.”

 

*Some names have been changed.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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