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22 November 2010

Ted Hughes’s “Last letter“: the response

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

By Lucian Robinson

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poet and academic Mark Ford has written about the recent publication in the New Statesman of Ted Hughes’s previously unpublished poem “Last letter”, which describes Hughes’s movements and thoughts in the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.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