Ted Hughes's "Last letter": the response

A month on from our publication of Ted Hughes's lost poem, and the critics are divided.

In an article in this month's New York Review of Books, the poet and academic Mark Ford has written about the recent publication in the New Statesman of Ted Hughes's previously unpublished poem "Last letter", which describes Hughes's movements and thoughts in the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.

Ford suggests in the piece that the emotional power of the poem is "closer to that of an uncontrolled diary entry than of a speech by King Lear or Macbeth." He gives a comprehensive overview of the literary excitement and debate caused since the poem appeared in the New Statesman in early October, looking in particular at Daniel Huws' arguments that the events of those three days as described by Hughes in "Last letter" are factually inaccurate. Ford seems to accept that Huws is correct on several of these points - namely that Hughes probably didn't really sleep in his and Plath's "wedding bed" with Susan Alliston as asserted in the poem - but points out that "if the poem does indeed take "liberties" with the truth, these liberties seemed designed to intensify ... Hughes's coruscating sense of his own guilt." Michael Rosen, however, writing in the New Statesman, points out that there is something slightly suspect in Hughes's continual use of repetition and alliteration in the poem. As Rosen puts it, "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."

In the NYRB article, Ford also refers to Al Avarez's article in the Guardian, published in the wake of the poem's appearence, in which the critic and friend of Hughes judged that "the poem is a confession: he is a guy in the witness box pleading guilty. It's very strong stuff, but it ain't finished." Ford concludes his piece in a similar spirit, suggesting that the real value of "Last letter" comes from the portrait it gives of the poet's visceral emotion rather than its literary merit: "Hughes wrote "Last letter" because he needed to, rather than because he thought he could make a good poem out of this impossible material."

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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