Who Are the Geniuses Behind Your Favorite Poems?

A new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery unmasks the titans of modern American poetry

Langston Hughes is one of the many poets featured in the National Portrait Gallery's "Poetic Likeness" exhibition.
Langston Hughes is one of the many poets featured in the National Portrait Gallery's "Poetic Likeness" exhibition. Ryan Reed

Soon after he moved to New York City in 1951, Frank O’Hara got a job at the reception counter of the Museum of Modern Art. Every day he’d spend his lunch hour roaming Midtown Manhattan, and every afternoon he’d write a poem about his walk, sometimes between taking tickets and selling postcards. Over the course of a decade he produced thousands of such works, many of which were included in Lunch Poems, the 1964 collection of some of his most accomplished verse.

O’Hara is one of the 51 American poets featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s recently opened exhibition “Poetic Likeness,” with photographs, drawings and paintings of men and women who drove the evolution of American poetry, from spiritual forerunners Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. “Poets hide behind their words,” says David C. Ward, the curator of the show. “One of the things I wanted to do was show how they’d been portrayed.”

Many of the likenesses were created by artists who had collaborated with their subjects. O’Hara, for example, provided poems for a collection of Larry Rivers lithographs published in 1960 as Stones. After O’Hara died in 1966, Rivers memorialized the poet in a collage that’s part of the exhibition. It’s a stark drawing of the poet at the center of a curving stream of his verse: “a poet exhausted by / the insight which comes as a kiss / and follows as a curse.” The poet Kenneth Koch is featured in a lithograph by Alex Katz, his partner on the 1970 book Interlocking Lives.

The most prominent poets are represented by multiple images, reflecting the range of the personas they inhabited. A pastel of Langston Hughes, drawn by Winold Reiss in 1925 (p. 108), at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, captures what many consider to be the quintessential Hughes, deep in thought over an empty notebook. A photograph from the Underwood & Underwood company, also from 1925, depicts Hughes earnestly staring at the camera in his busboy’s uniform. A 1960 photo by Arnold Newman shows him wearing a suit in a New York cityscape, appearing weary from decades of travel.

Seeing Hughes next to portraits of the likes of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Amiri Baraka also highlights the phenomenon that allowed a distinctive American voice to emerge from European traditions. “It was the notion that it wasn’t a closed club,” says Ward. Across the pond, Victorian poetry remained the domain of a parlor-bound aristocracy. Whitman—a typesetter, newspaperman and lowly government clerk—announced himself as “an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them” in Leaves of Grass in 1855. “Whitman took poetry out of the drawing room and put it in the streets,” Ward says. “He wrote about slaves, and soldiers, and the common man.”

The poets who followed came from all kinds of backgrounds—insurance (Wallace Stevens), advertising (Hart Crane), chicken farming (Robert Creeley)—but shared a passionate concern with the quotidian experiences of life. “The modern poet had to respond to the immediacy of modern society,” Ward says. Thus the exhibit walls are covered with poems about street musicians, supermarkets and bootleg liquor.

Although he doesn’t call attention to it, Ward is yet another poet whose writing emerged from an unexpected place. Educated as a historian, he began composing poetry when he was in his late 30s. “On the day Robert Penn Warren died, in 1989, I bought his book Collected Poems,” says Ward, who is now 60. “I sat down and read it and I thought, ‘Hey, I think I can do this too.’” After several decades of writing, Ward published his first collection, Internal Difference, last year. “All you need to be a poet is a pen and a piece of paper,” he says. “That is the story of American verse.”

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