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.
The focus on Whitman and Ezra Pound as the progenitors of a 20th-century tradition means that many famous poets are not included. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who doesn’t entirely deserve the critical oblivion into which he has fallen, was too backward looking, too much interested in singing “the little songs of the masses” (to borrow Whitman’s assessment), to be part of the show. And more recent celebrity poets such as Maya Angelou, who recited at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, aren’t included either, falling outside Ward’s self-imposed cutoff in the mid-1970s, a cultural moment defined as much by the death of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell as by poetry’s turn to a more confessional and often politicized voice.
“I couldn’t do a survey of all American poetry,” Ward says — it would be too large to manage. The exhibition also draws almost entirely on the National Portrait Gallery’s own collection, making it impossible to take an encyclopedic approach. Ward readily acknowledges the many lacunas.
And even inclusion in the exhibition doesn’t mean endorsement. Ward’s wall texts are deliciously indulgent, filled with subjective responses and critical assessments.
“Sandburg’s writing and his public persona suffer from an excess of ingenuous sincerity,” Ward writes of Carl Sandburg, a good poet but vastly overshadowed by the greater talent of Robert Frost.
“I expect to hear from the Sandburg fan club,” Ward says.
E.E. Cummings is dealt with fairly and charitably. “Edward Estlin Cummings is particularly attractive to people discovering poetry for the first time,” Ward writes, but Cummings’s apparent rule-breaking, the free-form punctuation and grammar, is only superficial and “begins to pall with repetition.”
“The remarkable thing about Gertrude Stein is that she is one of the most influential literary modernists, yet no one reads her anymore,” Ward writes of the famous-for-being-famous self-promoter. Near a 1931 George Platt Lynes photograph of Stein is a snippet of her typically infantile doggerel: “Very fine is my valentine./Very fine and very mine./Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.”
“If I submitted that to the New Yorker I wouldn’t have to wait for the return mail to know the response,” Ward says.
Spoken like a poet, which in fact Ward is. He credits a chance encounter with the poems of Robert Penn Warren, remembered more for his novel “All the King’s Men” than for his poetry, as a transformational moment in his relation to verse. Warren’s directness and clarity ignited an interest in the form that had faltered in Ward’s undergraduate years after an encounter with the sometimes-chilly metaphysical poets of the 17th century. Reading a volume of Warren’s poems, bought on the day the poet died in 1989, made Ward think that poetry wasn’t “completely beyond what I am able to do.” He’s published one volume of poetry and is editing another volume of verse from and inspired by the Civil War, including newly commissioned poems for the occasion.
So the choices are deeply personal. Hart Crane is represented by five images, in a room given over to more elemental figures, including Whitman, Pound, Frost, Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore.
“I put Hart Crane in not because he was influential but because I love him,” Ward says.
Crane was a likely suicide, at sea — one of several poets, including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who died of their own volition, too young and haunted by demons. Yet it is Crane’s exuberance that Ward admires.
“He really enjoyed the 20th century,” he says.
Crane is seen in a drawing by the sculptor Gaston Lachaise (from around 1923) and looking weary and spent in a photograph by Walker Evans (circa 1930).
One room, devoted to poets seen in multiple images, allows the visitor to track a tendency to self-mythologizing pioneered by Whitman, who took great care with the images used in his books. Publicity and poetry went hand in hand, albeit uncomfortably, throughout the period. Hughes is also seen in multiple images, most of them with racial identity foregrounded. A 1925 photograph shows the young Harlem Renaissance writer in a bellhop’s uniform, emphasizing humble origins, and a subservient status; a later photograph by Carl Van Vechten juxtaposes Hughes’s head with the silhouette of a primitive African caricature.
A Richard Avedon photograph of Pound, made shortly after his release from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, shows the poet with deeply furrowed brow and eyes squinting shut. It’s a powerful image, of a man perhaps shutting out the world, or refusing to see what’s plainly in front of him, that makes an ambiguous comment on Pound’s embrace of Fascism during World War II. A 1952 photograph of Wallace Stevens shows the old insurance executive in a formal suit, framed by the brick wall of a building. Study the brick pattern and it’s clear the building must be a contemporary, modern edifice, a sly comment on the dual lives Stevens led as both a successful and innovative poet and a conservative businessman.
Many of the names included are now fading into obscurity, even former poets laureate Howard Nemerov and Richard Wilbur. The exhibition may give a brief new lease on some of the more obscure figures. But in its subjectivity, and its acknowledgment of the vagaries of reputation, “Poetic Likeness” emphasizes something essential about poetry — that it is dynamic and ongoing, and that its fundamental appeal is to the part of our brain that likes fine distinctions. If “Poetic Likeness” gets people arguing about whether Ward made the right choices for his version of the pantheon, it will have accomplished far more than a dutiful tour through the famous names and established figures.
is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through April 28. For more information, visit npg.si.edu.