February 13, 2013
The great writer Ralph Ellison, in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, gave a literary grandeur to what was a commonplace theme in American society and race relations: African Americans were invisible to white America and eventually, tortured by this predicament, would begin to doubt even their own existence. If blacks were not “seen,” neither were they heard. It took a long time, and the heroic efforts of people like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and countless others, for black voices to be heard in the public square; and tragically, it was as likely that those voices would be extinguished with their speaker’s passing. The strange case of Phillis Wheatley, an 18th-century poet, and her meteoric career, raises many questions, not just about literature, but about the cruel predicament of race in America.
Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was an American literary sensation whose only analogue is possibly the young English poet, Thomas Chatterton, for the precocious brevity and novelty of her career. For Wheatley was a slave, captured in Gambia, brought to Boston in 1761 and sold to a wealthy merchant named John Wheatley. Her master John Wheatley provided a letter which was published with her poems, introducing Phillis and accounting for her sudden appearance:
“PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between
Seven and Eight years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education,
and by only what she was taught in the Family, in sixteen Months Time from
her Arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger
before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred
Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.”
Soon thereafter she started writing poetry as well, apparently on her own initiative, and by 1765 she was publishing serviceable, neo-classical elegies and other poems on subjects ranging from daily life to more elevated moral themes. Such was the oddity of an African-American slave girl writing verse that her first published book of poems was prefaced with a testimonial from prominent colonists, including the governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson as well as John Hancock, that the book was actually “written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa.”
Her poem “To Maecenas” was doubtless self-referential for Gaius Maecenas had been the cultural adviser to the emperor Octavian and the patron of Roman poets. The subject reflected colonial American sentiment. Soon to be revolutionaries, the Colonialists looked to ancient Rome and Greece for classical precedents and models for right behavior:
Maecenas, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Wheatley was taken up into the world of Anglo-American Evangelical Protestantism, meeting the great preacher George Whitfield about whom she wrote a widely republished elegy:
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.
The poem contained a direct tribute of Whitfield’s patroness, the Countess of Huntingdon, who was friends with the Wheatleys. It was through this connection that Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773. A portrait by the Boston slave Scipio Moorhead (the only surviving example of his work) became its frontispiece.
Indeed, Wheatley traveled to London to meet the Countess and prepare the volume for publication. Having published the first book by an African American, she was lionized by society and later that year freed, “at the desire of my friends in England.” Thereafter, tragically, her life unraveled. She continued to write but never published a second book and she died in poverty, possibly in childbirth.
Wheatley’s is an extraordinary story about which we know too little. Once she was freed, her letters hint that she felt betrayed by her erstwhile patrons as well as by her former owners. Having found herself as a poet, she discovered that she and her voice became appropriated by a white elite that quickly tired of her novelty. She is now taken as a symbol of African American and feminist creativity and resistance. One suspects that her actual history is more interesting—and tragic—than her typecasting by both her contemporaries and posterity. In particular, one wants to know more about her masters, the Wheatleys. By what process of mind and calculation did they purchase a slave, permit her to become educated and published, and then, having capitalized on Phillis’s fame, discard her on the granting of her freedom? In a story that would recur again and again in America, the achievement of African Americans would be greeted first with incredulity and then with a silencing. She had written in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
Some view our race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
Centuries later, African American poet, Langston Hughes, would write, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The question lingers—and haunts.
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.