April is National Poetry Month, so to honor the words and songs of famous poets, the Wednesday List is all about poetry. Scattered across the Smithsonian museums, here are a few of the most influential and famous poets you already know, as well as a few newcomers whose work you may want to get familiar with. (Posted in chronological order by their birth, not by relative awesomeness)
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
Most famous for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Emerson's more notable works include Nature, Self-Reliance and The Poet. Emerson, who spent his career lecturing and writing, published 10 collections of poems and essays and corresponded with other famed poets such as Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Daniel Chester French sculpture of Emerson is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
2. Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849)
Best known for his poem “The Raven,” Poe's poems were often about death and mourning— dark subjects and imagery— compared with the optimism of the early culture in America at that time. Although "The Raven" became a popular sensation after it was published in The Evening Mirror in 1845, Poe died a poor man. But diehard Poe fans don't have to wait another year to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death. Instead, see a portrait of the man in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
3. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819-March 26, 1892)
Often called the “father of freeverse,” Whitman is most famous for his book Leaves of Grass. Though many viewed his work as obscene and profane at the time, Whitman is regarded by many as “America’s poet” for his ability to write in a uniquely American character. His portrait by John White Alexander is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
4. Celia Thaxter (June 29, 1835 – August 25, 1894)
Born in Portsmouth, New Hampsire in 1835, Thaxter became the hostess of her father’s hotel, the Appledore House, where she entertained and welcomed famed poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Sarah Orne Jewett. Her first poem called "Landlocked" was published during a 10-year period where she lived away from her beloved islands and on the New Hampshire mainland. Her poems appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and she later became one of the country’s favorite authors. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a painting by Childe Hassam depicting Thaxter in her garden is found on the East wing of the second floor.
5. Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906)
Dunbar was a poet who gained national recognition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with his poem “Ode to Ethiopia.” His parents escaped slavery in Kentucky and fled to Dayton, Ohio where Dunbar grew up the only African-American student at his high school. After publishing two books of his standard English and dialect poems, he combined them to form Lyrics of a Lowly Life and rose to international literary fame. The portrait of Dunbar by William McKnight Farrow is also located in the American Origins exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery.
6. E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894-September 3, 1961)
E.E. Cummings became famous for his poetry during the first half of the 20th century after working as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine. Though Cummings’ body of work includes about 2,900 poems and various forms of writing such as plays and novels, his drawings and paintings are seldom explored. Located in the Hirshhorn’s online collection, you can view many of these overlooked works.
7. Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011)
Malangatana Ngwenya is an artist best known for his brightly-colored murals and canvases. In his work, the Mozambiquen painter depicts powerful subjects like the trauma of armed conflict and revolution, as well as the small pleasures of daily life and the triumph of the human spirit. One such painting, Nude with flowers, 1962, on display at African Art, also reveals Ngwenya’s “hidden” talent as a poet. On the back of the painting, he has handwritten “Poema de Amor,” a love poem which is a little too racy to print in these parts.
8. Joane Cardinal-Schubert (1942-2009)
You may have to dig deep to find the poetry of multimedia Blackfoot (Blood) artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert, her poems encompassing but a part of her artistic repertoire, which included writing, curating, directing videos, painting and drawing. You can see some of Shubert's work, which focuses largely on Native history, social injustice and environmental concerns at the American Indian Museum exhibition "Vantage Point."
9. Nora Naranjo-Morse (b.1953)
While you're at the American Indian Museum, make sure to check out the clay pottery of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, on display in the landscape area along the Maryland Avenue side of the museum. Born into a family of mostly women potters and visual artists, Morse focuses her work on the connection between pueblo people, their land and the clay they use to build on that land. Morse is also a sculptor, writer, film producer and poet, whose collection Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay combines poetry with photographs of her clay figures.
BONUS! 10. Phillis Wheatley
Born in Gambia, Senegal, Wheatley was enslaved as a child and grew up in Boston, where she learned to read and began writing poetry. In 1773, Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first published black woman poet. The book also made Wheatley famous and her success led to her eventual emancipation. A bronze life-size bust of Phillis Wheatley, by celebrated artist Elizabeth Catlett, is part of the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, though not currently on display. Created in 1973, the bust marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Wheatley’s book and Catlett’s interest in the feminist movement of the 1970s.
--With additional reporting by Arcynta Ali Childs