Poetry Tour Explores D.C.’s Literary Heritage

Posted January 12, 2010 at 3:22pm

It’s almost inevitable from time to time in this town to get lost in the echo chamber of sound bites, sloganeering and headlines. Relentless press briefings, Congressional hearings and lobbying often obscure the other elements of Washington, D.C.’s rich culture.

President John F. Kennedy knew this. In a 1963 speech at Amherst College, he said, “When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.—

That sentiment is precisely what the Poetry Foundation had in mind when it put together the D.C. Poetry Tour. Washingtonians and visitors can download a free MP3, print out an accompanying map and guide themselves through a rediscovery of the District, exploring the city’s poetic past and bringing to life landmarks in the way only a bard’s verse can.

“D.C. has a very vibrant and diverse poetry scene,— said Anne Halsey, spokeswoman for the foundation. “It has played a critical role in the development of the art form for more than a hundred years but is too often overlooked as an American literary center.—

The audio is composed of interviews with poets and scholars, along with original recitations by the authors and narration to bridge the gaps. Elizabeth Alexander, a District native and poet who read her “Praise Song for the Day— at President Barack Obama’s inauguration last year, is the tour guide.

“Washington is not just a city that’s about government buildings and Mrs. Johnson’s beautiful flowers,— Alexander said in an interview. “We have a very, very serious literary legacy. Emanating from the city is a sense of the importance of the arts.—

The tour is broken up into two parts, the first of which centers on the National Mall. It begins at the Library of Congress, where Archibald MacLeish, poetry consultant under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shaped his appointed post that was in 1985 renamed poet laureate and has supported dozens of prolific poets in the District.

Because of that appointment, Halsey said, the choice of which poets to include was difficult. But the group, in consultation with poets, editors and academics, tried to narrow it down to the writers most closely associated with the District or those who spent an influential period of time in their lives in the city.

“Of course, the project isn’t definitive and there were many more poets we would have liked to include,— Halsey said. “For instance, we could have had an entire tour comprising only former U.S. poets laureate.—

But for the most part, there are no notable omissions. At the Capitol steps, those on the tour can relive an aged Robert Frost’s endearing recital at Kennedy’s inauguration. His eyes failing him and the sun shining bright, Frost couldn’t see his written remarks. Lyndon Johnson and Jackie Kennedy jumped up to help, but Frost declined and rattled off “The Gift Outright— from memory to rousing applause.

There’s William Carlos Williams’ iconoclastic take on the Capitol, “It Is a Living Coral.— And Yusef Komunyakaa’s tearful elegy inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “Facing It.—

Elizabeth Bishop and Ezra Pound both had stints in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Anacostia. And Walt Whitman once travelled with gifts and verse from one military infirmary to the next during the Civil War, lifting the spirits of dejected soldiers.

“Because of the government, Washington has always been a place from which people come and go,— Alexander said. “The part of Washington that made it a magnet that drew [Whitman] here also made it a very important nurturing ground for him.—

The second half of the tour takes observers by U Street, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant, where a vibrant African-American poetry scene emerged in the early 20th century.

“These neighborhoods tend to concentrate creative people,— Alexander said. “You can make your way in D.C. as an artist, and that is always true.—

Jean Toomer was born here, and part of his 1923 book, “Cane,— is set on Seventh Street Northwest. Langston Hughes was discovered by the famous critic Vachel Lindsay while working as a busboy on 12th Street Northwest, where there was once a YMCA.

But the tour also makes note of contemporary artists. In the U Street Corridor stands the hub of D.C.’s modern poetry scene: Busboys & Poets restaurant, named, of course, in honor of Hughes.

“There are extraordinary poetry readings, performances and lectures happening in the city every night of the week at local institutions such as Busboys & Poets,— Halsey said.

A native Washingtonian, Thomas Sayers Ellis was inspired to write by the 1970s go-go music scene. He recites “Take Me Out to the Go-Go— and “Or.— And poet/blogger Reb Livingston, who runs the Web site No Tell Motel, reads “Seven Spell,— providing a soundtrack for a stroll through Adams Morgan. The tour ends in Dupont Circle.

Sure, armchair bookworms can visit poetryfoundation.org and take the virtual tour. But when the weather clears up, why not take an afternoon and let those most proficient with articulating life’s beauty guide you through the city so you can see it anew?