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Portrait Gallery To Read and Read and Read "Leaves of Grass"

By Jacqueline Trescott

In "Leaves of Grass" Walt Whitman wrote some mighty tongue twisters.

"I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the
soul."

No matter how challenging to speak, the National Portrait Gallery has enlisted about 35 actors to do a six-hour marathon reading of "Leaves of Grass" on Sunday. And producer Jewell Robinson and directed Nick Olcott are inviting the public to step up and read a few verses.

This follows Whitman's legacy as a poet of the people. "He was a great promoter of democracy. We wanted everyone to hear his ideas," said Robinson, the gallery's public program director. "The writing may not be a familiar form for everybody. We expect there will be people who will understand the work and deliver it."

The reading will take place in the Great Hall of the gallery, the location of the hospital ward where Whitman worked as a nurse and volunteer during the Civil War. He lived nearby, and after the war continued to work in the Old Patent Office building for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Whitman called the office, the third public structure in the city, "that noblest of Washington buildings."

The program, scheduled from noon to about 6:30 p.m., is part of a family day schedule, keyed to the current exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." The show, the largest the gallery has staged and the first in a national museum that explores sexuality and gender in American art, has a picture of Whitman. Taken by Thomas Eakins in 1891, Whitman is seated, with flowing white hair and beard, draped in cloth as if to keep off a chill.

So all of the poetry lovers who live for Bloomsday and the reading of James Joyce might have a new diversion.

And some lines of Whitman might just roll off:

"Love, that is all the earth to lovers---love, that mocks time and
space,
Love, that is day and night---love, that is sun and moon and stars,
Love, that is crimson, sumptuous, sick with perfume,
No other words but words of love, no other thought but love."

By Jacqueline Trescott  | November 16, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Museums  | Tags:  leaves of grass, national portrait gallery, poetry marathon, walt whitman  
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