Hear widely acclaimed poets John Koethe, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Paul Muldoon read their work on Sunday, April 21, at the National Portrait Galley.
NPG Historian David Ward is the curator of the current exhibition “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” (through April 28, 2013). Recently he spoke with us about a poetry reading featuring three award-winning poets to be held at the Portrait Gallery on April 21, 2013.
Q: John Koethe, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Paul Muldoon are coming to town. These are three distinct and powerful voices—first, can you tell us how you managed to reel in these poets for this event?
DW: They are great poets, aren’t they? Our immediate relationship with them is that I had asked them to be among the twelve contemporary poets that we commissioned to write a new poem for Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present, which NPG is publishing this fall. So we wanted to have an event this spring to both close the “Poetic Likeness” exhibition and pivot to anticipate this forthcoming publication. So I asked them if they’d come down and debut their Civil War poems and read their own work.
I had a prior relationship with these three poets (and some of the others who appear in Lines of Long Array) because I had put on a program in New York for a celebration of the Hudson River. Since that event, sponsored by the Port Authority of New York, went pretty well, I kind of had a foot in the door to get them to participate in these projects. Also I’ve found if you ask people to do things for the Smithsonian, they’re inclined to oblige!
Q: These poets each go in different directions—language, philosophy, traditional themes, nontraditional themes. Do you see any common denominators among them other than their shared excellence and artistic merit?
DW: Hmmmm. I’m not sure there is any immediate connection between them, either in terms of style or subject, except that they’re all about the same age so they exemplify contemporary poetry at its best. They all are very skilful and move back and forth from formal to free verse across a range of subjects.
All three are very smart—I mean really smart—and they all have a powerful command of the literature; I’d liken them, in a way, to chess grand masters in how they’ve accumulated knowledge for their own use, for their own “game,” as it were.
One thing I like is that they are all pretty eclectic and write about a lot of different things; you can’t pigeonhole any of them. They also span cultures in a number of ways. Paul Muldoon is from a Catholic family in Protestant Northern Ireland and now lives in New Jersey; Yusef Komunyakaa came back from Vietnam and changed his name from James William Brown to honor his grandfather and the African diaspora; John Koethe is a philosophy professor as well as a poet—I think there’s a bit of his work on Wittgenstein in his poetry: the dilemma about how the world can be wholly known, if it can at all.
All of this knowledge is worn lightly, so all three of them are weighty without being leaden. The other thing is that they all are really good readers of both their own work—and the work of others. And they’ve all done us proud with the poems they’ve written for Lines in Long Array. It’s worth coming out just to hear these new works!
Q: This event will coincide with the closing of “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets,” an NPG exhibition that you curated. What would you like the NPG audience to take away from these experiences?
DW: Enjoyment, first of all. I want the poetry reading to be fun. I don’t like the idea that poetry is Something Very Serious and an arcane branch of knowledge. I think there’s a general conception that poetry is very difficult—almost incomprehensible—and that it can’t be understood without a lot of struggle.
Poetry is a different language but I don’t think it’s a difficult language. Poetry is like driving a stick shift: you have to do two things at once—in poetry’s case, pay attention to the meaning of the words but also the rhythms and sounds the words make, and in turn how that inflects the meaning. And one of the ways of getting into this is to hear a really good poet read his or her work.
And as I said above, all of three of these guys have a really strong stage presence when reading. If Yusef reads his poem “You and I Are Disappearing”—and I’m going to ask him to—people are going to fall apart because it’s so powerful.
Also, I have to say that I’ve been gratified at the reception to “Poetic Likeness,” and I think having an event like this to close it out is a nice way to celebrate an exhibition that has meant a lot to me. It also will be an appetizer for the Civil War book in the fall, for which I will be putting on another, larger, public event, a combination of poets reading and scholars talking, I think, although I’m not sure yet of the exact lineup. Plus I want one more big weekend for attendance!