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poet and academic Mark Ford has written about the recent publication in the New Statesman of Ted Hughes's previously unpublished poem "Last letter", which describes Hughes's movements and thoughts in the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.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

Warner Bros
Show Hide image

Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage: how fanfiction got me into writing

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself.

The source of the noise was clear. Some kind of monster was emerging from the wood.

"Easy, Harry," counselled Hagrid, "Easy.”

Nervously, the bespectacled wizard approached the hulking beast cautiously. What was it? It had red leather skin, like a sofa, was bigger even than Hagrid and had a pair of cruel horns.

You may not recognise the above passage from any of J K Rowling’s seven entries in the Harry Potter series. That’s because it’s not by Rowling at all, but is taken from Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage by awideyedwanderer, the alias under which I, with the addition and subtraction of a few dashes and underscores depending on the platform, wrote fanfiction from 2000 to 2006.

To deal with the obvious questions, no, it was not about the Labour party, and no, I don’t think anyone ever had sex, except perhaps very briefly towards the end of the story. (As such, it was a fairly accurate reflection on the life of its author during that period.)

Fanfiction often gets a bad rap, in my case deservedly. One former editor of the New Statesman used to say of one of his staffers that he was “the Fred West of prose”, and my fanfiction was not much better. I hacked my way through the universes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Final Fantasy and Star Trek. I also perpetrated my own, highly derivative “original” fiction, featuring a character called Mr Jones who was basically Doctor Who with a gun.

My fanfiction was influenced by whatever novel I was reading and whatever the current state of my politics were, which meant that as the Noughties wore on it became increasingly dominated by thinly-veiled allegories for the excesses of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

What got me started? Well, it’s all J K Rowling’s fault. I was an early adopter of the Harry Potter books, and though the first three books came out every year, there was a three-year gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. So without a new book, Potter fans had to write their own, of which Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage was one.

At this point in this sort of article, it’s usually customary to defend fanfiction by pointing out that some of it is actually very good, while some of it has made a great deal of money. My fanfiction was neither good nor financially lucrative, but I always think this misses the point a bit. Very few people think they are producing high art when they write fanfic – people are doing it to have a good time, to expand a world they’ve enjoyed.

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself. (In its defence, I think my fanfiction has aged better than Evanescence, a band which provided the soundtrack and most of the chapter titles to my fic.) But I had a great time writing it, and if nothing else, it taught me never to begin a sentence with “nervously” and end it with “cautiously”.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.