August 14, 2013
Part of Emily Dickinson’s traditional mystique derives from her supposed isolation from the world. The image persists of her as a reclusive genius, living in her big house in the sleepy little western Massachusetts town of tending to her garden, and writing out her hundreds of enigmatic little poems on scraps of paper. Her writing seems to have come from nowhere and her verse was like nothing else both in her own time and in American literature. Yet despite her apparent physical and cultural isolation, careful study has found the tracings of the wider society threaded through her mysterious and elliptical poems. Questions of faith and salvation predominate, but current events pop up as well, none more than the Civil War. Dickinson started writing in the late 1850s and there is a sense of a hush in many of her poems as the impending crisis turned into a full-blown war; studies have linked her writing to the effects achieved in landscape painting by the “luminists” and their sense of a foreboding, American sublime. Later her verse would reflect the battle being joined—she saw the dead and casualties being returned to her town; she may have seen illustrations of the battlefield—and then the awful aftermath. In the first stanza of one poem, she laid bare how the reality of war exposed the hollowness of the rhetoric that was used to instigate and justify it:
My Triumph lasted till the Drums
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They.
Dickinson may have intended her poem to quietly turn upside down the emotional tone of Walt Whitman’s frenetic “Beat! beat! drums! –Blow! bugles! blow!/Through the windows–through doors–burst like a ruthless force.” Whitman concludes with the dead as well, but only to point out how they are ignored when the ferocious war music sweeps us along, out of ourselves. Dickinson shows us the aftermath and the regret not only for the loss of life but of what war does to the living. Dickinson and Whitman show us two ways of working through the problem of how to mourn and how to gauge the effect that the war was having on Americans. Their point of view—Dickinson distant, Whitman near the front in Washington—inflected their writing, as did other factors such as gender: Dickinson’s is a more private grief; Whitman’s is a poem about propaganda. But both small poems reflect how, to adapt Lincoln’s words, “the war came” to American poetry.
Literary historian Edmund Wilson’s influential 1962 book, Patriotic Gore, shows how the war shaped American literature. He writes, in particular, about how the war, in the need for orders to be terse, concise and clear, had an impact on the writing style that would characterize American modernism. To stretch a point, you can trace Ernest Hemingway’s famously terse, descriptive style back to the orders written by generals like Grant or Sherman. But things were still in balance during the war itself as new ways of thinking and writing—the “modern,” if you will—contested with older styles and habits of feeling—the Victorian and sentimental. Yet the boundaries were not clearly drawn at the time. Dickinson inhabited a world of Victorian sentimentality, but infused its musty conventions with the vigor of her idiosyncratic point of view and elliptical style. “My triumph. . .” in lesser hands could have been overwrought and bathetic instead of the carefully calibrated gauge of morality with which Dickinson infused it. Similarly, Whitman, supposedly the preeminent harbinger of modern sensibilities, oscillated between the old and newer cultures. Famously, he wrote two mourning poems for his hero, Abraham Lincoln and they are very different. “O Captain, My Captain” is a fine piece of Victorian melodrama and sentimentality, much anthologized and recited on patriotic public occasions, but read the lines of This Dust was Once the Man:
This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute—under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of These States.
Whitman would recite the poem at the conclusion of his public lecture “The Death of Lincoln,” and he grew weary of it. If “O Captain, My Captain” was rooted in the poetic vocabulary of mid-19th-century conventionality, Whitman’s second Lincoln poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” vaulted American poetry toward the future, creating a decisive break, both linguistically and in its cast of mind, with the time in which he wrote. It is a hallucinatory work that is as close as an American poet has ever gotten to Dante’s journey into the Underworld:
Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night . . .
Dickinson and Whitman were two of the most sensitive intelligences in the making of American poetry. That they were conflicted and pulled between the past and the future, only indicates the complexities that were in flux due to the war. Among other writers, from established authors to Americans who turned to poetry as a form of solace in a time of need, older patterns of expression continued to predominate. The over-stuffed furnishings of Victorian literature was a recourse and a comfort to people in great need. Later, Mark Twain, among others, would lampoon that culture and kill it dead in the 1884 “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” (The wreck of the steamboat Sir Walter Scott in the novel is Twain’s pointed comment on the end of the sugar-spun world of the romance.) The violence of the war sloughed off all the over wrought, emotionally dramatic Victorian proprieties that evaded the immediate impact of the thing itself. As Americans recoiled from the reality of war, there was a sense of taking stock that in our literature and poetry would result in a more chastened and realistic language, one better suited to assess and describe the world that the War had created.
As part of the Smithsonian Institution’s coverage of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, David Ward is co-editor of “Lines in Long Array. A Civil War Commemoration. Poems and Photographs,” a book that combines new poems, written by contemporary poets, with poems written during the war, including those of Dickinson and Whitman.
June 28, 2013
In 1846, shortly after the daguerreotype, the earliest first photographic process, made its way from Europe to the United States, Walt Whitman visited a picture studio and declared photography a fundamentally democratic art. “You will see more life there—more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty . . . than in any spot we know,” he wrote.
To honor Whitman’s vision, as well as to celebrate the 30th anniversary of a photography collection that has grown to approximately 7,000 images, the American Art Museum opened “A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” an exhibition of 113 photos that showcases photography’s central and evolving role in American culture from Whitman’s time to the present.
“If democracy is about creating equal access to information, photography is a very basic form of communication,” says Merry Foresta, the exhibition’s curator. “It goes two ways: It’s about access to the ability to take photographs, but it’s also access to being able to see many pictures, and to have many pictures to see. Photography captures the democratic idea of sharing and equalization.”
The exhibition’s four themed sections– “American Characters,” “Spiritual Frontier,” “America Inhabited” and “Imagination at Work”–show photography’s development as an art form in America, from a basic tool for family portraiture to a means of abstract expression. As American photographers became more self-aware and experimental in the medium, they pressed photography’s boundaries to capture the country’s shifting urban and natural landscapes, and ultimately learned to manipulate conventional photographic methods to produce complex layered or distorted images that not only reveal American places and identities, but challenge them.
For those who love photography, Foresta believes the exhibition, which runs through January 5, 2014, offers a concise look at the art form’s hand in shaping the American experience in a period of rapid cultural and technological change. For those unfamiliar with photography’s history, she says, “If the exhibition does nothing more than put a question mark in their head and make them look again at a picture, that’s terrific.”
To learn more about American photography, check out the exhibition’s website, which includes the photos on display along with a timeline of events in the history of photography, a glossary of photographic terms and access to other pictures in the museum’s permanent collection.
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.
March 19, 2012
Events March 20-22: Walt Whitman and the Civil War, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and Big Bang for the Buck
Tuesday, March 20 Walt Whitman and the Civil War
Leaves of Grass devotees, explore another side of Walt Whitman in this seminar led by Dr. Kenneth Price of the Walt Whitman Archive and Civil War Washington. As he wrote his seminal collection of Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps, Whitman was also caring for thousands of soldiers in Washington hospitals and working as a low-level government clerk. Dr. Price will unpack Whitman’s experience of Washington and its influence on the American icon. $35 for general admission, $25 for members, $22 for senior members. 6:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. S. Dillon Ripley Center.
Wednesday, March 21 Pray the Devil Back to Hell
This award-winning documentary tells what the Los Angeles Times called “one of the truly heartening international political stories of recent years,” about a group of revolutionary women in Liberia who came together in 2003 to stage a silent protest demanding the end of a bloody civil war that had shattered the country. After the film, Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies will lead a discussion about the conditions in Liberia. Free, reserve a spot at 202-633-4844. 7:00 p.m. Anacostia Community Museum.
Thursday, March 22 Big Bang for the Buck
The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy (WMAP) Explorer space mission measured the age, history and contents of the universe by mapping the vestiges of the Big Bang. Join Dr. Charles L. Bennett, who led the WMAP mission, for a lecture on the largest scale of the universe. Following the lecture, head to the observatory and take a new look at the night sky. Free tickets required; request tickets here. 8:00 p.m. Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, Air and Space Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.