Monday, October 11, 2010

The releasing of the previously unpublished poem 'Last Letter' by Ted Hughes has caused a fair bit of interest in the news over the last week. Anything that can shed light on those final days before Plath's death is of great interest to Plath fans though it may seem a little voyeuristic to some. Anyhow I thought I'd give some of my thoughts on the poem as a biographical document rather than as a poem.

The main surprise is that on the Friday before her death, Plath had posted a letter of goodbye to Hughes which he had received earlier than she'd expected -

"Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning"

..."That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office"
So she posted the letter in the morning possibly assuming he would receive it the following day. Instead he got it that afternoon and rushed around to her flat fearing the worst. She was getting ready to spend the weekend with friends. The insinuation is that her plan was to let him stew in panic over the weekend not knowing  whether she was dead or alive and if alive no idea where she was -

..."Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you."

"How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?"
Yet Hughes arrives at her flat, Plath burns the letter and Hughes is seemingly reassured enough after seeing her to leave her alone with their children and go off for the weekend with no further contact with her.

"My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile."

..."But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you"
The poem tells us that he spent the Sunday night with Susan, who turns out to be Susan Alliston, a poet who died in 1969 of Hodgkin's disease. Hughes wrote the introduction to her book of poems. Another surprise - Assia wasn't the only other woman he was having an affair with. The strangest part is that they spent the night in the same room / flat on Rugby street where Hughes and Plath had spent their wedding night, the very bed even -

"Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day."
There is also the suggestion that Plath phoned Hughes several times during that last Sunday night and early dawn on Monday. Hughes being the only one privy to her last diary entries, she may have recorded such fruitless attempts to get in touch with him -

..."How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver"
"Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again."
The poem is another bizarre addition to the mystery of events. Clearly, to my mind, Hughes wanted this poem published posthumously otherwise he would have destroyed it instead he entrusted a typed copy of it to his wife, Carol.

I've got to say, I like our present poet laureate but her response to the poem as "a bit like looking into the sun as it's dying" is surely the most hyperbolic twee I've ever read!


Titus said...

Thanks Marion, I've read about it but not read it, so this is my first sight/insight. Raw and terrible, yes, but these extracts of historic interest but no huge poetic merit, to me anyway. Maybe when I see the whole thing.

Need more time for Autumn Leaves, so back later. In the week, I expect...

Titus said...

Autumn Trees. Sorry, it was the leaves that stuck with me.

Titus said...

Now I'm thinking about "Strange Fruit", the Billie Holiday song. Not a bad resonance...

Rachel Fox said...

The whole thing is on C4's website, read by an actor (J Pryce). I'm afraid, unlike CAD, my response was less poetic and more along the lines of 'oh heck, it don't half go on...'

Also have we not heard enough about this business yet? There was so much else of interest going on this National Poetry Day...did we really need more Ted'n'Sylv Eastenders-style drama to fill the screens and the papers (big spread in the Observer yesterday)? It almost makes me want to kill another poet just for a change in the stories. Yawn.


Elisabeth said...

It is sad the way people love to speculate endlessly about these two poets, flawed and talented as they were.

I'm with you and Rachel - too much hype and twee.

Marion McCready said...

thanks titus, autumn leaves would probably be a better title!
I felt the same way about Hughes poem at first, but the more I read it the more I'm appreciating it as a poem, not that I think it resembles his best work, I never thought The Birthday Letters was his greatest work.

Rachel, I thought the Pryce reading was far better than the Bragg reading! I agree it was unfortunate that it dominated National Poetry Day, it had obviously been saved up for such an occasion. The drama will continue for as long as the Plath/Hughes estate continues to dribble out such releases.

Elizabeth I agree with you up to a point, but this new wave of sensation was instigated by the Hughes estate. They must have know the furore in the media it would cause. But yes, there is no excuse for CAD bringing twee to such a new level!!

Rachel Fox said...

Dribble is the perfect word!

panther said...

Rachel Fox, I agree with you. Felt frustrated and sad that all sorts of stuff was going on for National Poetry Day. . .and what we got on the TV screens and in the papers was this voyeuristic harping-on about "Plath's last weekend" etc. Which is also erroneous : the poem is not, and cannot be , about her last weekend because Hughes didn't spend it with her. It is about his weekend against the backdrop of her unravelling.

CAD's remarks hyperbole, completely. I find the whole thing quite unpleasant. And if Hughes had wanted this poem to be published before (presumably in BIRTHDAY LETTERS) it would have been. Maybe he felt it was just too raw, too personal.