19 October 2010

Michael Rosen on "Last Letter"

Published today, Michael Rosen has a long piece on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on the New Statesman's website (and maybe in the periodical itself, but who can find a bloody copy in Boston?).

Read "A Minotaur in the Maze", on Ted Hughes' poem "Last Letter".


panther said...

I like the way Rosen attempts to read "Last Letter" as a POEM, not just as a key to biography. The way he tries to look at it in terms of "he" and "she", as if we don't know that it's Hughes and Plath, or who they were, beyond the poem.

As for the poem itself, I finally got to read it. The bit that strikes me as most vivid, most haunting is the bit that appears to be most speculative: the picturing of SP going to and from the phone-box, calling, calling, receiving no answer. . .But I can't help feeling that Hughes is flagellating himself here (for effect ?) because we really don't know that she did do this. Do we ? And it feels, to put it mildly, a bit self-centred on Hughes' part to suggest that she did.

Catty said...

Some biographies report that Plath used to hang out in her window watching for Hughes to come 'round the corner from the tube, so I could believe this, as well. But poems aren't autobiography, so whether or not she factually did this is irrelevant as I think it works for the poem. It is self-centered because it is about him and his relationship and his guilt, but I don't read that as a negative in this case.

panther said...

Catty, I agree that poems are not straightforward autobiography; poetic licence is always allowed.Having said that, these speculations are probably Hughes' very real mental torments (Did she phone me that weekend ? Would it have made a difference if I'd answered ?) and so they ARE autobiographical.

I think I just feel, deep down, that the poem is too raw, too revealing.I suspect Hughes came to feel this himself, because otherwise he could very well have included it in BIRTHDAY LETTERS. I can't imagine that the publisher would have refused.

But for journalists to leap on this poem as a "clue" to Plath's last weekend is absurd as well as tasteless because the poem isn't about that, cannot be about that (Hughes wasn't with her). It's about HIS weekend against the backdrop of her unravelment.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Yes, I too liked the way Rosen read "Last Letter" and it has been helpful to re-read the poem since (also taking into account Gail's report on the Huws talk in Mytholmroyd (posted on 21 October). I'm slowly churning the engines of my little mind around this poem and have some ideas, but like the poem they are too raw to present at the moment. Looks like Wingdings when I visualize it.

Still, I do find the poem very emotional and like Catty, this works for me. From the perspective of any number of years passing I'm sure Hughes gave much thought about what did happen "that night" or "that weekend". That he did -at leatst in the poem - wilfully avoid his flat that Sunday night is disturbing to me. And admitting it is huge. It also seems unlikely to have actually happened and so therefore seems to me to be poetic speculation.

Panther, it is about HIS weekend and I think that divide is important to recognize. Perhaps we can trust a bit more his actions, thoughts, etc. (with all the caveats inherent in the passing of time, memory, and poetic license); whereas when he writes about her weekend, thoughts, actions, etc., since they weren't really together except for a wee bit of time, we need to read those parts of the poem more carefully. It's a tough thing!

Had "Last Letter" been in Birthday Letters I think far more would have been made of the collection.


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