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What's a poem? Sometimes the question doesn't matter

I was in Britain when a newly discovered poem by Ted Hughes was published in the New Statesman, and it was massive news. The poem, titled Last Letter, was apparently the last one he wrote for Sylvia Plath and was not included in Birthday Letters, the suite of poems addressed to her, published in 1998 shortly before his death. Every television newscast carried an analysis or description of the new poem, and parts of it were read on the BBC by a respected actor. Because the poem describes in concrete detail Hughes's hours just before Plath's suicide, it has been called the keystone and the heart of Birthday Letters, even the "missing link" in the collection.

But even in literate Britain, the focus was more on the autobiographical content of the poem than on its literary merit. The story of the philandering Hughes and his suicidal wife has long dominated discussions of his oeuvre and has always been more titillating than his sombre reflections on the savagery of nature in collections such as Crow.

Three handwritten drafts of Last Letter, in notebooks thought to date from the early 1970s, were found by the writer Melvyn Bragg in the British Library's archives; he was directed to them by Hughes's widow Carol Hughes, who had not wanted them to be known until now.

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The handwriting is tough to decipher in parts. It's a long poem, and the entire final draft in typescript is difficult to find online. (Some literary bloggers have printed it without permission - try one called for a reliable version.) It is, like many of the second-person addresses in Birthday Letters, a prosy poem, part diary, part straightforward narrative, punctured with flashes of vivid metaphor. The two women in Hughes's life, Sylvia and Susan, are described as twin needles embroidering his internal organs: "... piercing and tugging/ At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo/ Somewhere behind my navel."

It's no wonder most commentators have focused on the narrative: It tells a terrible story. Apparently Plath sent a letter to Hughes just before she died; he was to receive it after her death. But by a momentary efficiency of the postal service, Hughes received the letter a day early and rushed over to rescue her. She was alive and stable and burned the letter in front of him. Thinking she would be all right, Hughes went back to his lover. In the last night of Plath's life, his phone rang and rang, and he didn't answer it. The final call, early in the morning, he did answer; it was someone telling him she was dead.

The narrative is dramatic and awful; the poetry mixed. It is not as worked and polished as Hughes's best-known work. There are some really odd line breaks: "That would have been electric shock treatment/ For me." Or: "I cannot imagine/ How I would have got through that weekend." These breaks seem arbitrary; the lines themselves are unmusical. In this aspect, Last Letter is an interesting case study of modernist poetry, a genre of free verse that has always raised the question, "What is a poem?" What actually requires these lines to be broken up in short lengths?

In the end it is impossible to separate the grief-inducing story from the poetic talent in this poem. It is impossible not to be moved by it - particularly by its devastating last four lines: "Then a voice like a selected weapon/ Or a measured injection,/ Coolly delivered its four words/ Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.' "

Indeed, this is a poem so bloody with emotion, so wrenched and anguished, it makes irrelevant these attempts at distinction between form and content, between technical analysis and biographical gossip. It does, in whatever way, what the best poetry does. Perhaps it is okay to be unable to be objective about art as real as this. It does not, I think, make one a weaker intellectual to feel the idea enunciated by Britain's poet laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, that reading it is like looking "into the heart of the sun as it's dying."

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