Responses to Ted Hughes's "Last letter"

Michael Rosen and a close friend of Sylvia Plath write to the NS.

This week's magazine features two intriguing responses to our publication of a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. First of all, the poet Michael Rosen has written a sensitive, thoughtful analysis of "Last letter", Hughes's only poem to deal directly with the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. You'll have to pick up the magazine to read the full thing, but here's an excerpt:

I suppose nothing concentrates the mind on questions of human agency more than being around suicide. Hughes finds explanations in mechanistics, Hardyesque fate and deterministic mythoi. I sense that he isn't completely convinced by this. From the first line onwards - "What happened that night? Your final night." - the poem is packed with repetitions of words. Within many of the lines and between pairs of lines, sounds repeat too [...] On one level this is the cohesion of poetry. On another, it feels like a special pleading: if I say something twice, you will be more convinced.

The other response comes from Elizabeth Sigmund, who knew the couple in the early 1960s, and became a close friend and confidante of Plath in the months leading up to her death. Below is her letter to the magazine, reproduced in full:

I got to know Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath after they moved to Devon in 1962. So much joy in getting close to such exceptional minds - until the terrible break, until the anguish and chaos and desperate end. Ted's poem betrays guilt, confusion and the howling of a trapped animal.

My escape
Had become a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted
Only wanting to be recaptured...

He had such faith in dreams, that was where he searched for answers and prophecies, and with Sylvia's death she had gone beyond Ted's comprehension.

From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

Attempting to escape repeated agonising events, Ted searched for forgetfulness in other complex relationships, each one involving yet further chaos and pain.

One could only stand by and watch the result of this tragedy. Death after death, young and old, male and female. It has been beyond tears, beyond words, although words are all that are left to us to remember that they were real, living beings. And what words.

Elizabeth Sigmund
Callington, Cornwall

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

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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

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