There is something almost paradoxical about an exhibition devoted to portraits of poets. One imagines poets, of all the creative types, to be the most inward, cartographers of the disembodied landscape, and not given to advertise their material presence in the world. Is there a poet who hasn’t written on this basic dualism?
But the National Portrait Gallery’s engaging exhibition “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” presents the great American poets of the past century in the flesh, recalling an era, perhaps irretrievably lost, when poets had an audience, rose on occasion to the status of celebrity and were considered essential props at major public affairs. The pleasure of the show is its critical edge, its focus on serious poetry during a specific period of time — from the form-shattering genius of Walt Whitman to the culture-shattering crisis of Vietnam. Curated by David Ward, whose last major show (with Jonathan Katz) was the critically acclaimed exhibition of gay and lesbian portraiture “Hide/Seek,” “Poetic Likeness” feels idiosyncratic yet canonical, a subjective but deeply considered attempt to define a pantheon of worthy poets, without regard for the trivialities of fame or reputation.