Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Last Letter, Last Word

On October 11th the New Statesman printed a previously unpublished poem by Ted Hughes which discusses the last time he saw his then estranged wife Sylvia Plath alive. While poking around on the internet trying to track down the full text of the poem, I read the comments following a news article which discussed the discovery. The angry author of the post snidely commented that the publication of this new poem should prove once and for all that Hughes was a good guy and vindicate him from the soap-box feminists who condemn Hughes for driving Plath to her suicide.

The Hughes poem, entitled “Last Letter,” describes Hughes running to save Plath after receiving a letter from her implying that she might kill herself. On that day she is still alive, and he leaves relieved. The poem then goes on to describe how Hughes feels torn between Plath and his mistress, then explores what Plath’s last hours might have been like. The poem concludes with a description of Ted Hughes sitting down to work before receiving a call that Plath has died.

Though the poem is heartfelt and mournful, it doesn’t excuse Hughes from whatever role he played in Plath’s death. While Plath suffered from depression before meeting Hughes, I don’t think most people would be cheered if their philandering husbands left them to live with their mistress. However, that’s not really the point. What bothers me more about Hughes and the publication of this poem is the degree to which Plath’s life and work are mediated to us through Hughes and his work.

Though it is not chic to say so, I am a fan of Plath’s poetry. As a confessional poet, it makes sense that Plath’s work often gets conflated with her biography. However, I think her work has a lot more to offer than just a morbid, voyeuristic look into her life with Hughes and her suicide. This new Hughes poem again frames Plath as Hughes’ troubled wife, from Hughes’ point of view. Whatever harm Hughes may have done Plath in life, her oeuvre is done a disservice when she is repeatedly cast not as a dedicated writer, but as someone’s suicidal wife. That is not to say that “Last Letter” is not an interesting discovery for Hughes fans and scholars, but once again, it seems like he gets the last word.

by Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Helen Hajnoczky's work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.


Gillian said...

nicely said, Helen. thanks also for the Plath poem - what a beauty.

voxpopulism said...

A couple things that are ridiculous about this:

1. "Though the poem is heartfelt and mournful, it doesn’t excuse Hughes from whatever role he played in Plath’s death."

That's like telling someone they can't have the job because of whatever role they may have played in their former company's lack of profits. As legal professors would say: baseless and argumentative. It's also wildly mean-spirited to suggest (however flimsily) that the suicide of lifelong depressives are in any way *caused* by the people in their life, thus discounting what it means to be a depressive. I imagine being a husband to Sylvia Plath is a difficult experience. Being Ted Hughes's wife is likely also difficult. Hughes has been beaten up enough by Plath's fans, hasn't he? Not that I don't understand the urge. As a movie I've recently seen said it, Creation myths need devils.

2. "What bothers me more about Hughes and the publication of this poem is the degree to which Plath’s life and work are mediated to us through Hughes and his work."

The entire world knows Ted Hughes as "Sylvia Plath's meanie of a husband". Hughes is probably the most mediated-through-his-life-partner writer of the 20th century. Saying the opposite is like saying the beluga attaches itself to the barnacle, it misses the point. Plath's public star has always been brighter, and his point of introduction to new readers continues to be through the dubious gate of husbandhood.

And if Plath gets some residual mediation in her critical appraisals, so what? It's somehow illegitimate to use the actual domestic life of someone who wrote confessional poems about their domestic experience? Please...

I don't think the poem is vintage Hughes, at all. Sometimes it's best to let these things live on in unvisited drawers. It's a sad work, by someone who feels a great deal of guilt. As such, it should really be adored by people who want to simplify Hughes into the enemy of contemporary literature/marriage/womanhood, people who love simplifications, and hate art.

VanessaP said...

The more salient point here would be that Plath is a far superior poet to Hughes, so in that sense, this is the best of all possible worlds.

Paul Vermeersch said...


That is a simplistic and wrong-headed comment. They are very different writers, and they bring to bear a different approaches to writing in their respective poetics. Plath's poetics are much simpler than Hughes' in a techincal sense, more personal, and his more technically complex, more mythopoeic. Both were accomplished in their ways, but it's apples and croquet balls.

Who's the superior poet? I say Hughes, by a wide margin. But if we're only making arguments for our own tastes, then we're both wrong.

nikki reimer said...

Ah yes, "simplistic," "ridiculous" and "wrongheaded!"

To which I say this:

voxpopulism said...

tigerbeatdown....I like the name of that site.

The style of the post is more of that "Encircle legimitate evidence and argument from another point of view with my own sarcastic witticisms" school. As, it would appear, was Nikki's introduction to it.

People wearing headbands again, and dissing Ted Hughes on the basis of his being A. Mean to Sylvia and B. Not Sylvia. Must be the eighties? Snore snore snore...

nikki reimer said...

I blame American Apparel

Lemon Hound said...