January 17, 2013
In this week of the Presidential Inauguration, it must be said that poetry serves another function when deployed in public: it is classy, it adds tone and the aura of high-minded literary prestige. This is where poetry gets into trouble: when it gets stuffy, pompous, and stiff.
All of these characteristics, the Inauguration has in spades. Inaugurations have gradually gotten bigger and more complicated over time. Certainly, we are far from the day when Jefferson walked over to the Capital from his boarding house, was sworn in, and then walked back to have lunch with his roommates at the communal table. My recollection is that the ceremonies used to be fairly simple, followed by a parade. Now the ceremony itself is lengthy and studded with musical interludes, prayers and invocations, and an inaugural poem—as well as the parade. It’s not clear that the elaborateness of the inaugural ceremony is an improvement over brisk efficiency. The inauguration, which is now an all-day event, tends to bring out the kind of stiff pomposity, both physical and rhetorical, that Americans mock in other areas; the solemn tones of the newscasters with their nuggets of “history.” Inaugural addresses are nearly always forgettable let-downs because the rhetoric is pitched too high as the speaker competes with some ideal notion of “posterity.” Who remembers President Clinton’s awkward rhetorical trope: “We must force the spring,” an admonition that puzzled analysts finally decided was horticultural not hydraulic. One suspects that presidents and their speechwriters are paralyzed by the example of Lincoln and his two majestic Inaugurals.
President Clinton brought back the inaugural poem perhaps seeking a connection with his youth as well as the ideals he hoped to embody since it was President Kennedy’s inaugural that saw perhaps the most famous example of public poetry in American history. Famously, the 86-year-old Robert Frost, a rock-ribbed Rebublican, agreed to read. A flinty, self-reliant New Englander, the poet had been beguiled by the attractive figure of the young Bostonian Democrat. Kennedy, shrewdly courted the old bard—undoubtedly America’s most famous poet—and convinced Frost, against his better judgment, to compose a poem to read at the swearing in. Frost, battening on to the Kennedy theme of a new generation coming to power, struggled to produce an enormous and bombastic piece on the “new Augustan age.” He was still writing the night before the ceremony.
Amazingly, Frost was unable to deliver the new work: facing east into the noon day, he was blinded by the glare off the snow that had fallen over night and could not read the manuscript of his newly completed ode. So Frost, from memory, recited “The Gift Outright” his paean to America’s foreordained triumphalism: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”
If the speaking platform had faced west as it does now, all this drama and inadvertent symbolism would have been avoided as Frost could have delivered his giant pudding of a poem. Accidentally, “The Gift Outright” jibed perfectly with JFK’s call to arms and a call to service that troubled only some at the time. But Frost practically was forced to recite “The Gift Outright” once he lost his eyes. It is the only one of his poems that would suit the public needs of the occasion. Imagine the consternation if he had recited the ambiguous and frightening lines of “The Road Not Taken” or the premonition of death in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Reading from “Fire and Ice” at that Cold War moment would have gotten the Kennedy Administration off on the wrong foot: “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in Ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire,/I hold with those who favor fire.” This could have caused panic if not incomprehension among political observers.
The Inaugural poet does not, then, have an easy task, balancing the public, the private—and above all else the political. President Clinton brought back the inaugural poet tradition with Maya Angelou, whose voice and presence redeemed a poem that is not very good. The others have been competent, nothing more. We will see what the newly announced poet Richard Blanco has to say. He is under tremendous pressure and the news that he is being asked to write three poems, from which the administration’s literary critics will pick one is not reassuring. Kennedy at least trusted his poet to rise to the occasion. Things are rather more carefully stage-managed these days. I wish Mr. Blanco well and remind him to bring sunglasses.
As both a historian and poet himself, David Ward will contribute monthly musings on his favorite medium. His current show “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” is on view through April 28 at the National Portrait Gallery.
This is, fittingly, Ward’s inaugural post for Around the Mall. This blog, he writes: “has the modest goal—or at least this blogger has the modest intention—of discussing various aspects of American poetry, both contemporary and from past time. Poetry exists in a particularly salient place in the arts because if it is done well it combines opposites: form or structure with personal exuberance, for instance. Above all, it permits the most private feeling to be broadcast to the largest public. Poetry is one of the few ways that Americans permit themselves to show emotion in public, hence people resort to it at funerals – or weddings and other important occasions. Poetry is a way of getting to the nub of the matter; as Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” There has been a tremendous boom in the number of people who read and write poetry precisely because we see it as a way of opening up ourselves to others in ways that are sanctioned by a tradition that goes back centuries. Among its other dualities, poetry always balances past and present.”
December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
October 15, 2012
“I, too, sing America,” begins the arresting poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Using the simplest of metaphors, Hughes indicts a bigoted American society. But he does not simply rid himself of it. He writes, “They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed–/ I, too, am America.”
The words and feelings, plain as they are, gain their urgency by directly addressing contemporary life. According to historian, curator and poet David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, that is what all good poetry does. “The poet had to respond to the immediacy of modern society–which I think is the core characteristic of modern poetry.”
Now these great poets of America will get the chance to once again confront the public, only this time instead of words, it will be with their lesser-known portraits. “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” opened October 12th at the National Portrait Gallery and features more than 50 poets, including Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton and Allen Ginsberg.
The show spans the Modern era from the late 19th century through the 1970s and provides a personal glimpse into the history of a national art form. The story begins with Walt Whitman’s iconoclastic Leaves of Grass, published in 1855. Whitman’s book of poetry was noted for its free verse and focused on the daily experiences of working class Americans. “Whitman kicks down the doors, and brings the street into the genteel world of American poetry,” says Ward.
As the years progressed, poetry became an increasingly democratized space. Some of the poets in the show even held other occupations and did not come from the esteemed halls of learned language. Wallace Stevens, for instance, was vice president of an insurance company. William Carlos Williams–now remembered for his sparse poem about eating the plums in the ice box, This Is Just To Say–was a physician.
A handful of the poets on display, including Walt Whitman, receive special attention as makers of America’s modern voice. Ezra Pound is likewise spotlighted with a photograph taken by Richard Avedon, as well as with a sculpture in bronze, a sketch and a print. A vivid pastel of Langston Hughes compliments the sepia-toned gelatin silver print also on display.
The works themselves are often produced by well-known artists, as is the case with the Richard Avedon photograph. “There’s an artistic combination,” says Ward. “These people all tended to know each other.” Ward liked the way visual artists tried to capture their verbal counterparts.
With more than 75 portraits and evocative quoted material from the poets’ work, the show casts a contemplative mood, showing both the range and lineage of the modern American voice.
“Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” runs October 12, 2012 through April 28, 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery.
Tuesday, October 16: Poetic Likeness
Known for their innovative use of language, America’s modern poets are less known by their likenesses. Thanks to a new show at the National Portrait Gallery, “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets,” maybe that will change. After all, many of the poets were friends with well-known visual artists including Richard Avedon. A collection of more than 75 portraits, from photographs to sculptures, capture well-known and lesser-known voices from American poetry, from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Marianne Moore. The show was curated by the gallery’s own David Ward, who is not only a historian and curator but also a poet himself. Free. Daily. 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. National Portrait Gallery through April 28.
Wednesday, October 17: “Drugs From the Sea”
Ever since the juicy exposé of underwater life, The Little Mermaid, people have wondered what might be happening under the surface of the sea. Some people have even been studying the matter. Enter Dr. Shirley Pomponi, who has been researching why and how sponges operate as “miniature chemical factories.” Pomponi has also been exploring how these sponges might help labs synthesize biomedical materials. Perhaps soon we’ll be taking our medicines with a side of tartar sauce. Pomponi will fill visitors in on the details at a free discussion. Free. 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Natural History Museum, Baird Auditorium.
Thursday, October 18: Brian Settles Quartet
Thursday offers another great evening of art and music brought to you by the Take 5! series. This time, the crowd can partake in a free drawing workshop while enjoying original music by the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman as performed by the Brian Settles Quartet. The Texas native was best known for his free jazz performances with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. Though he was known for his improvisational abilities, he was also a talented composer. Witness the legacy of his creative genius and get inspired to produce some of your own genius on the drawing pad. Free. 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. American Art, Kogod Courtyard.
October 11, 2011
The National Portrait Gallery’s historian David C. Ward is a biographer of Charles Willson Peale and has written extensively about such figures as Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. He has curated exhibitions on Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, as well as last year’s controversial “Hide/Seek. Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Over the past two decades, however, he has occasionally turned from history to verse and has recently published a small volume of poetry entitled, Internal Difference, from Carcanet Press. “Ward’s carefully plotted chapbook describes American social spaces, past and present, and the links between them,” writes critic David Kinloch in the June/July issue of PN Review. In one poem, the historian amusingly offers a poet’s take on the imagined inner world of Andy Warhol, an artist attempting to escape the confines of his own accelerating celebrity.
In 1987, aged fifty-nine Andy Warhol bored
and played out in the modern life he made
(after the first lunch with Jackie O/there is no other)
faked his own death—routine gallbladder procedure:
gone awry—slipped quietly from the hospital
back into his mother’s house, his Pittsburgh boyhood
home. Wig gone, black suit and fancy glasses trashed,
he donned the clothes and life of a nondescript ordinary
working man, took a bakery assistant’s job making crullers
and cakes, introduced himself as Stosh from somewhere
vaguely somewhere else, and joined the local bowling
league. He learned to polka at the Legion Hall, amiably
fending off the local widows, and grew quietly old alone.
He cooked for one and after dinner would sit and watch
as the neighborhood wound down from dusk to night.
He developed a real fondness for baseball:
it was so slow.
Ward is currently at work on an upcoming exhibition entitled “Poetic Likeness,” scheduled to open at the Portrait Gallery in November of 2012. We asked Ward to discuss his multiple muses—poetry and history.
I started writing poetry in my late 30s, just over 20 years ago. I think at that time I needed a creative outlet that was different from my professional work as an historian who works in a large institution. Also, around that time I was starting to do more as an historian so feeling more creative in that may have made me open to the odd idea of taking up poetry. The immediate trigger was the death of Robert Penn Warren. I had never read his poetry so to pay tribute, I bought his Collected Poems and went through it and something in the way he wrote about America and American subjects clicked with me. I can remember thinking, “hmm. . .I should try this.” I batted out a poem called “On A Recently Discovered Casualty of the Battle of Antietam”—it’s very “Warren-ish”!—and it was published and since it would look lame if I only ever had one published poem, I had to keep writing. I also was lucky enough early on to develop a connection with a very good poet, editor, publisher, Michael Schmidt in England who has been very supportive of my work. I am self-taught as a poet but Michael has been an excellent tutor. And friend.
Where do you find inspiration?
Let me turn this question around: now that I’ve demonstrated to myself that I can get individual poems on random topics published, I’m trying to write poems around themes or subjects so that I can have a group of at least loosely linked work that will add up to something. I do find it helpful to set myself a topic and just make myself write on it. For instance, this year I’ve started writing about my family history, re-imagining it in a way that derives somewhat from Robert Lowell. I have some political poems going as well as some on art and artists—I had been resisting writing about art because it’s too close to my work at the Portrait Gallery, but that seems kind of foolishly self-denying. In general, I think my poems have tried to explore the disjunction between ideals or dreams and the reality of life: how choices or accidents ramify in unintentional or unseen ways and you end up somewhere that you didn’t expect to be. The challenge is to do that in a clear- eyed way and not to devolve into self-pity.
How and when and where do you write?
It’s kind of hit or miss, which I suppose is a sign of the non-professional poet. I’d like to be more disciplined and set aside a fixed time, especially on the weekends, to write poetry. But I don’t keep to that resolution, maybe because I need poetry to be creative play instead of the routine of work. Either that or I’m lazy. So topics and poems tend to show up rather randomly at rather random times. For instance, I wrote two political poems when I woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly thinking of opening lines, and how I could make a poem work from those starting points. Obviously something was working in my subconscious and jelled into realization. That tends to be how things go, although not usually at 2:30 a.m. The problem is that relying on your subconscious suddenly popping out a starting point, let alone a whole poem, is kind of chancy and I can go for a long time without writing anything. Once I get a “hook,” I can write a poem pretty quickly. I am trying to make myself revise and re-write more.
Do you draw any parallels between your day job as an historian scholar and your poetry?
Well, I think they are self-reinforcing in the sense that both involve intellectual application through the creative use of language. I should say that I also write a fair amount of literary criticism (actually, I’m a better critic than poet) and that work helps to bridge the two disciplines as well. I have certainly improved as an historian from writing poetry (and criticism)—a better writer, and I think more questioning and imaginative. Without being too hard on myself, though, I think that being a historian limits my poetry: I’m aware that my writing tends to be observational or distanced from its subject, like a historian objectifies a problem. (For instance, “Camouflage Self-Portrait” came out of my exhibit Hide/Seek and thinking about how Andy Warhol just seemed to disappear as his passing was so undramatic, and I came up with the conceit that he faked his death precisely because he was tired of all the drama.) Some of that distancing, I’m sure, derives from my upbringing and personal temperament, but regardless, I can’t merge my poetic voice with the subject in the way that Emerson suggested was necessary for the poet. I find it nearly impossible to write poems about emotions themselves, although I can show how emotions are acted out in behavior.
In the poem, “Angle of Deflection,” you write of the “ironic voice” that “works well for scholars,” what then is the poet’s voice?
As I suggested earlier, I think my poetic voice is overly ironic! That I retain the “scholar’s voice” in writing verse in a way that shapes my poetry in ways that can become restrictive in all sorts of ways. “Angle” was as much about me as it was about my father who was also an historian. But what I’ve tried to do as I’ve moved along is to develop a self-awareness about the way that I write, so that I can take what I think is a weakness and turn it into a strength. I am always going to be an historian first and my temperament will always tend toward the detached and skeptical—ironic, in both senses of the word. But I think there are a lot of interesting things to find in voicing the gap between self and subject. At least I hope so.