The Great American Poet Series – Charcoal & Pencil
Barry has captured the soul of America’s greatest poets in charcoal and pencil drawings. These formal and yet romantic drawings are so realistic that one feels as if they have actually entered the world of the poets as they view the portraits, read excerpts from their work, and enjoy a brief biography of each poet that Barry wrote to accompany the exhibit. The work features Longfellow, Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Emerson, Lowell, Whittier, Markham, Millay, Hughes, Bryant, and Holmes. Those who view this exhibit are given a glimpse of their personalities, characters, triumphs, and tragedies. One can almost feel the torment of Edgar Allan Poe, sense the intensity of Longfellow, the shyness of Emily Dickinson, and relate to the world of Walt Whitman. Viewers find the poets’ eyes and demeanor of particular interest, for they are the elements that make each poet appear alive and real. The series is only available as a “set” of all 12 originals. (visit the art gallery)
Prints of Walt Whitman and Longfellow are available individually.
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT
William Cullen Bryant was so precocious that at seventeen he penned America’s first great poem, much to the chagrin of a young nation who thought at first it was a hoax. It was not. Thanatopsis, literally “a musing on death,” remains a very great work and somewhat of an enigma, having sprung from the mind of one so young.
Born in Cummington, Massachusetts, to a country doctor, Bryant studied law, continued to publish his poetical works and ultimately became editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post. He held the position for fifty years.
In 1878, after a public appearance, the elderly poet slipped and fell, suffering a concussion from which he never recovered. So at eighty-four, he “wrapped the drapery of his couch around him and lay to pleasant dreams.”
I found some daguerreotypes of Bryant when he was in his eighties. His face had thinned down to a rugged beauty and the hair and beard were grown long and wild. I used a composite of the images to try and express the calm demeanor of this eloquent poet whose quiet musings were laid out in lovely soft-spoken verses.
“The Belle of Amherst”
Emily Dickinson stayed briefly at a female seminary a few miles from home, took a trip to Washington with her father and visited Philadelphia.
She never traveled again.
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she lived all her fifty-six years on her family’s estate in almost total seclusion. Even her closest friends rarely saw her. She was considered the village “oddity” and died as quietly as she had lived.
The good people of Amherst couldn’t have known that through those blank windows of her father’s estate the pale “lady in white” saw with eyes and heart so perceptive, they ranged the whole universe of human experience. Rarely, if ever, had anyone traveled so widely in the realm of creative imagination.
Luckily those journeys remain with us.
Her sister found them tied up in packets and stuffed in drawers, seemingly never intended for publication. They were works of startling originality, so insightful, so dazzling and eccentric that Emily Dickinson’s little poems have taken their place among the world’s great treasures.
I drew this shy recluse as though she were peering around a curtain through a window.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Emerson graduated from Harvard Divinity School only to leave the pulpit at twenty-nine.
He discovered transcendentalism, a philosophy based on the search for reality through spiritual intuition. It imbued his thinking and writing with a metaphysical element, adding even more depth to his already perspicacious work. His essays, lectures, books, and poems made him a much sought after speaker both here and abroad. He is still considered one of the world’s great thinkers.
After several trips abroad, Emerson settled in Concord, Mass., where he swam naked in Thoreau’s Walden Pond, taught philosophy at Cambridge (clothed) and continued to lecture and write with such erudition that he influenced others as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson.
He died at Concord in his seventy-ninth year.
You won’t hear a lot of music in the poetry of this brilliant essayist, but his simple words float like lily-pads over a deep and placid pond of meaning.
I drew him with a regal bearing, as befits the graceful and regal bearing of his works.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
(1809 – 1894)
Oliver Wendell Holmes spent his life in and around Boston. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and wrote an essay on contagion that altered the course of medicine.
When James Russell Lowell established the Atlantic Monthly, he had Holmes write a series of essays which became very popular and marked the beginning of a distinguished literary career.
But most of all, there was music in Holmes. Old Ironsides shamed us so deeply, the poem instantly became an American classic. The Chambered Nautilus was enormously popular as were other collections of his work.
Like most of the poets you will find in this exhibit, Holmes lived a long life. He died at eighty-five.
Creative people always tend to think they’ve not yet done their best work: their best poem, their best painting, song, novel, etc. It seems that the tremendous drive to bring it out becomes an act of will to stay around until it’s been done. So you want a long life? Be a frustrated poet.
Again, I used a composite of old images to try and put you in the quiet presence of this great man.
(1902 – 1968)
To keep from cryin’
I opens ma mouth an’ laughs
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, sojourned in Mexico and Europe, was a teacher and sailor, then got his poetic break while working as a busboy in Washington. He left a few poems at Vachael Lindsay’s table and Lindsay took an interest in his work.
Hughes was influenced by the blues singers of his day and that idiom often showed itself in his rhymes. His lines are effective because of their studied simplicity and roughness. He had a subtle grasp of what makes blues songs work and he added another, deeper level.
After having been a leader in the Black Renaissance of the twenties, he continued to lecture and encourage young people throughout his life.
He died in 1968.
I tried to put a touch of the blues about his portrait.
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
(1807 – 1882)
Born in Portland, Maine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, like many poets, led a rather prosaic life. The thrust and texture of his existence were bound up in the music and creative energy of his mind. He metered and rhymed everything around him (Some critics say too often) and became tremendously popular in his time.
Longfellow’s favorite time of day was late twilight and it shaped the feel of most of his work. He touches us with his tender words and descriptions:
The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
The teacher and scholar could also generate excitement as in his most famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride.
After he had wandered all his ways, this great American poet died in 1882 at age seventy-five and a marble bust of him was added to the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
I wanted you to see him as if he were in the midst of a reading of his great narrative Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere ….
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
Very much like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime. He even succeeded his fellow-poet as professor of modern languages at Harvard. As all the dark forces of nature had seemed to proscribe the life of Poe, so the forces of light seemed to dance merrily around Russell.
Not that he didn’t deserve it.
He was a thoughtful essayist, a competent editor, and because of his unimpeachable honesty, sent by President McKinley as minister to Madrid, then again to London.
He still speaks to us, however, in meter and rhyme.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a distinguished New England family, Russell was influenced toward the muse by his mother, then later by his wife, who was also a poet. He traveled, returned to the beautiful home where he was born, continued to be popular, and lived to a ripe old age. (It is not true that he was then shot by a jealous husband.)
I attempted to show the deep kindness and thoughtfulness in his face.
Edwin Markham grew up in California at a time when social consciousness was rising and the complexities of Europe were gun powder for the coming explosion of the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution. When he saw Millet’s famous painting Man With The Hoe, he was so shaken he was compelled to write about the social implications of the painting in a poem which he gave the same title. The stirring composition, containing Millet’s broken apparition of what Markham called “the landless workman of the world,” deservedly swept across the globe.
Though Markham was a prolific writer, he only rose to the height of his masterpiece one other time, when he penned Lincoln, the Man of The People. It was selected from among hundreds of works and read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.
Edwin Markham lived into his eighty-eighth year, and died on Staten Island in 1940.
I drew him as he might have looked as he contemplated the Millet painting.
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
(1892 – 1950)
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, graduated at Vassar, but got her education at Greenwich Village. You can watch Ms. Millay progress, through her writing, from a happy flippant young lady with little talent, to a mature, disillusioned, depressed, and brilliant poet.
One of the first to support herself strictly off her poetry, the least of her rhymes are well-crafted and the best of them reach rare heights. Her sonnets, particularly, are outstanding.
I drew her with an impish trace of a smile beneath the gravity of her eyes.
EDGAR ALLAN POE
To accompany the portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) Barry Wrote:
Poe was born in Boston of actor parents. His father abandoned him when he was one and his mother died two years later. He was adopted by John Allan, a prosperous merchant from Richmond, VA.
Most of you know his story of conflict, poverty, and depression. I won’t review it here.
When I’m thumbing through an art book or walking through an exhibit, a well painted still-life stops me in my tracks. Human artifacts, under certain conditions, have more pathos and more emotional impact than any other subject. The silent relics we leave behind us retain a ghostly, almost tangible aura of a human presence.
A friend of mine (a native Virginian, Steve Buckingham) and I stumbled on a museum one rainy day in Richmond, in a charming old two-story house that was built in 1737. It belonged to the family of Robert Stanard, Poe’s best boyhood friend. Poe spent a lot of his youth there and fell hopelessly in love with Jane Stanard, the boy’s mother. He composed his first great poem for her: To Helen.
At the end of the short tour you are shown a glass case with some old yellow manuscripts, a pair of boot-hooks and a walking stick …. The last of Poe’s worldly possessions. It affected me the way great still-life paintings affect me. I stared at those sad artifacts for a long time.
I think that Edgar Allan Poe was America’s greatest literary figure. I think, also, that he was the least rewarded. And I think I revere this desperate, ragged poet more than any of the rest.
I tried to capture the upright pride and dignity of a strong man shining through the anguish and dissipation of the face.
In the exhibit of Barry’s poets this is followed by the Poe Poem: Alone
The Good Gray Poet
Walt Whitman was born near Long Island and spent his early years in the bustling, expanding city of New York.
He saw the long-shoremen, the steel-workers, the bridge-builders, the tavern keepers, the street-hustlers and all the brawn and sweat and determination of a new and growing country. He saw its future in the whip-cord tough mothers standing barefoot in doorways with their hardy brood around them and in the hungry faces and resolute footsteps of the immigrants as they poured from the ships in the harbor.
In his thirty-seventh year, this mosaic would explode into one of the strangest, most compelling and on-going books of poetry ever published: Leaves of Grass. After its publication, Whitman became a compassionate wound-dresser during the Civil War and saw the slaughter up close. He admired Abraham Lincoln to the point of worship. The sanguine experience of war and the death of Lincoln added war poems and this nation’s greatest elegy to the next edition of the book.
By the year 1891, Leaves of Grass had grown to over 300 poems, and though it would become an influential and popular book it would not be accepted in its own time. Walt Whitman died in poverty at seventy-three.
I show him at the age he would have been during the war years, wearing his famous hat; one of the truly great poets the work has yet produced.
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
So began the defining moment of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poetical career. Biographical and alive with bucolic, descriptive passages, Snow-Bound was his highest achievement.
The Quaker and fiery abolitionist spent his first eighteen years on a farm near Haverhill, Massachusetts. His family had little money for education, so he paid his own way through two years at Haverhill Academy as a shoemaker. (An ironic trade for the man who would write The Barefoot Boy.
He later served in the legislature and edited a newspaper, but it was through the magic of his pen that he gained recognition. After a lifetime at a feverish pitch, he began to mellow in his old age, lived in seclusion with his sister and died at 85.
One of the most provincial of American poets, he is rural New England personified. It is in his poems, his eyes, and the set of his jaw. I tried to capture the endogenous fire in the countenance of this magnificent radical.