Plath & Hughes
Newly released by the British Library archive, and published in the New Statesman, Ted Hughes’ poem “Last Letter” recounts the three days leading up to his wife Sylvia Plath’s suicide, ending with the moment he is informed of it. Fervent Plath fans, of the kind who vandalized her tombstone to remove his name from its inscription, may or may not receive his anguish well, for he is commonly blamed for her suicide, given that their break-up (initiated by him) immediately preceded it.
It is dangerous when fans, readers, and critics meddle in the private lives of writers, for their biographies, poetry, and nonfiction are all a kind of fiction; we can never know them, let alone judge them, the way we can never know ourselves. For anyone who thinks words, of any sort, lead to truth, I say: look outside. It is odd how Ted Hughes can finally be vindicated, as if such a pardon was ever needed. He had a severely depressed wife who killed herself, much like Leonard Woolf, except the former was also famous, so more meaning was attributed, relished, to their drama. Biographies are highbrow soap operas.
After Tao Lin’s reading, someone had mentioned how disturbed by Haley Joel Osment she was, how she now — key word “now,” meaning a revision had been made — had difficulty respecting Tao Lin as a person, given the implicitly “autobiographical” novel. (Short of a spoiler, let’s just say there are many overlaps between Richard Yates and the Plath-Hughes story.) Blurry categories such as memoir, non-fiction, “creative” non-fiction, fiction, biography, and autobiography are breeding grounds for presumption and judgment.
Aesthetics end inside an oven, at the edge of a razor or building, a shotgun hole in the face. Suicide — not talking about philosophers or cultural theorists who happily pontificate it during a panel discussion — is, essentially, not philosophical but psychiatric. Plath suffered from bipolar depression, and that is why she killed herself. The feminists who blame Hughes, ironically, give him too much influence and power over her. Of recent controversy, Ted Genoways is probably a dick, but Kevin Morrissey killed himself because of severe depression. Nothing that happens to a person’s life can make them kill themselves; it is what happens, biochemically, inside their brain. Biochemistry does not need a narrative. Science is amoral.
Ted Hughes’ draft of “Last Letter” shows a deft and worried hand, finally crossed out with a harsh X, the way transpired days are marked in the calendar. Perhaps he was just trying to brace himself for the next day, as we all are.