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.