Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath belonged to the last generation of rock star poets. The story of their disastrous marriage is one of our great popular romances. But that story has been told so often, and in so many ways, that itâ€™s hard to approach the truth. The most popular version â€“ that Hughes was a sexist brute who drove his brilliant wife to suicide â€“ is simplistic, but itâ€™s supported by some of the evidence. Other versions have tried to explain Plath in different terms, but theyâ€™ve also been a tricky mix of fact and slant. The Grolier Clubâ€™s public exhibition, â€œNo Other Appetite,â€ is a collage biography of the legend. It presents the poetsâ€™ lives through found texts: letters, diary entries, manuscripts, and tellingly underlined books. Itâ€™s surprisingly intimate, and itâ€™s as close as you can get to a completely impartial joint biography of Plath and Hughes.
The collection focuses on the period of their marriage, which had a critical influence on their work, but it also reaches into the years before and (in Hughesâ€™s case) after their marriage, adding depth to our understanding of the union by offering some insight into the poets as individuals. In an early letter to his parents, Hughes says that he went to a bullfight and was disappointed in its lack of violence; you can see that he was a man who went looking for extreme and frightening experiences. In the glass case devoted to Plathâ€™s childhood, thereâ€™s an underlined, annotated copy of Ulysses, open to Joyceâ€™s description of â€œthe mass suicide of disillusioned women.â€ Thatâ€™s the passage that Sylvia underlined: the one that stood out to her, the one that she thought she could learn from. It includes a description of a woman putting her head into a gas oven.
The exhibition gathers momentum as you walk through it; itâ€™s more or less chronological, so you move through this relationship as the poets did, from the promising beginning to the tragic end. Itâ€™s hard to place praise or blame on either party. Plath is known for her absolute absence of sentiment, but when you read her sappy descriptions of Ted, itâ€™s clear that she idolized him to an alarming degree. Hughes remains enigmatic. His statements about Plath occasionally seem to reflect a chilly narcissism, as in â€œshe is a very fine cook, and a much more certain money-earner than myself,â€ where her virtues are considered only in terms of how they might benefit him. But that statement floats next to a tender note that he sent her after a night together, and across the room, thereâ€™s his first response to the news of her suicide, a heartbroken letter in which a professional man of words can hardly string together a full sentence.
Plathâ€™s death haunts the collection. Many of the strongest and most compelling texts in the collection come from the final years of her life. Ariel, the collection of poems that made her name, is represented in manuscript form. Plath wrote many of her best poems on the empty backs of Hughesâ€™ work; it makes for a startling display, her literary legacy literally written over her husbandâ€™s. Certainly, in spite of the calculated silence that he kept for decades, the suicide shaped Hughesâ€™ life and work. At the end of the exhibit, thereâ€™s a journal entry that he wrote many years later: an account of a dream in which Sylvia came back to life for just one more day. - Sady O.
â€œNo Other Appetiteâ€ will be at the Grolier Club (47 E 60th St) until November 19. For more information, visit www.grolierclub.org.
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.