DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Poetic Likeness

Langston Hughes portrait
When National Portrait Gallery historian David Ward agreed to curate the show Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets he had one major concern. "The people have to be entertained," Ward says. "I was concerned it would be visually dull. You don't want to have a snoozer."

Last week Ward conducted a personal tour of the exhibition he put together, which features the likenesses of more than 50 of America's 20th Century poets, almost all the famous and a few of the lesser-knowns.

Ward said his goal was to create an exhibition that would merge words and images to create a cultural show highlighting American poetry and poets who were creating in the years between 1900 and the 1970s.
The curator said that there were 2 qualifications for inclusion into the exhibit. 1) the poet had to have a particular impact on the world of American poetry and 2) there had to be a visually interesting portrait of the poet available to be placed next to the snippet of poetry and brief biographical sketch that would introduce each writer.

The exhibition begins with Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, 2 very different poets whom Ward contends created the foundation of American poetry. From Whitman came the idea that American poetry should express the aspirations of common people in a distinctive voice appropriate to a democratic culture. Pound emphasized that the new poetry should use well-crafted language that was innovative and captured the present moment, but at the same time, was responsive to poetic traditions.

The Allen Ginsburg inclusion
Other significant poets, which Ward called "makers", also receive multiple portrait treatment. They include Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Marianne Moore. All the other poets are represented by a single portrait. "All these poets were forcing their way through because they were so good," Ward said.

Ward says his interest with poetry started when he began reading the collective poetic writings of Robert Penn Warren, who is best known for his political novel All the King's Men. He said that while the exhibit definitely reveals some of his bias, he tried to let poetic reputation, not personal like dictate who got included. "I felt we should put in Gertrude Stein though I don't even like her," Ward said.

Ward was asked why people should explore this exhibit and the poetry that it is based on. "While challenging, poetry embodies a cultural moment in a way that other disciplines can't," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you like poetry, poets, or intriguing portraits, you should check the Poetic Likeness show at the National Portrait Gallery. It will be on display until April 28.

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