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.