“…Of everyone, friend and foe, like a million earthworms / Tunneling under this structure / Till it falls” Diane Di Prima said, finishing her poem “Revolutionary Letter #7” which she had been reciting to me through the phone. Placing the phone back on the receiver, I ended my call with the 1970s via John Giorno’s “Dial-A-Poem” and reentered the Smart Museum of Art’s show “Smart to the Core: Poetry is Everything.”
The exhibition includes an array of work ranging from a fragment of Homer’s “Iliad” on papyrus dating back to circa 150-199 CE to an Incantation Bowl from Nipper, Iraq to contemporary video works including Sky Hopinka’s “Lore.” The exhibition is an essay wherein poetry’s omnipresence is largely argued through the range of objects in the show that span the categories of culture, place, time and artistic mediums.
This theme of “everything,” or at least the gesture of blurring boundaries and bringing seemingly disparate things under one umbrella, applies also to the curatorial rationale behind the exhibition. As part of the “Smart to the Core” series, the exhibition is inspired by and meant to bolster the learning objectives of the University of Chicago’s yearlong course “Poetry and the Human” while fostering greater connections between the university’s intellectual community and the broader public. Series like this highlight the unique role of university museums as hybrid spaces connected to the worlds of private academia, art institutions and the communities they serve.
When I began to feel dizzy with all the everythingness, I walked to the table where visitors were given a chance to draft their own poetry. Not for the first time, I felt adrift in our world of constantly expanding concepts, blurred spaces where meaning comes from multiplicity rather than demarcated categories. Pencil in hand, I hovered it above the paper. I drew a border around the edge of my paper and decided maybe that’s a poem too and it’s good enough.
Then I remembered that maybe everything was blurring with everything because I was in the “Reverberation” section of the exhibition and went to explore the other sections the show is organized into: “Beginnings,” “The Matter of Poetry,” “Crisis,” and “Convergence.” While my favorite piece remains “Dial-A-Poem,” I found the Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara collaborative lithographs “Stones #1-13” delightful and felt grounded by the materiality of Mary Ellen Solt’s work. The show also speaks to Chicago directly with the works of Sun Ra and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Riot” along with the behind-the-scenes look at the records from Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.
It’s clear that Berit Ness’ curation, along with the involvement of students and faculty instructors, has succeeded in creating a space to contemplate the questions that the exhibition-as-essay asks of its audiences, such as: Does poetry create, or does it break? By the end of my time in the exhibition, I found myself questioning the everythingness. Perhaps it is better to think about poetry, and for that matter the university museum, as a tunnel, as suggested by my experience with the Di Prima poem. I suppose “Poetry is a Tunnel” isn’t quite as good a title as “Poetry is Everything” though.
“Smart to the Core: Poetry is Everything” is on view at the University of Chicago, 5550 South Greenwood through February 4, 2024.