Olin Library lends poets’ portraits to Smithsonian

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is now displaying Washington University-commissioned portraits of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill and the late Howard Nemerov, former U.S. poet laureate and Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English in Arts & Sciences.

The John M. Olin Library lent the circa 1955 Larry Rivers’ painting of Merrill, whose papers are housed there, and the 1991 portrait of Nemerov painted by Marion “Bonnie” Miller for the gallery’s exhibit Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets. The exhibit will be open until April 28, 2013. After that, the gallery will return the paintings to Olin Library.

Nemerov, whose extensive writings are housed at Olin and who was the Distinguished Poet in Residence at Washington University from 1969 until his death in 1991, was the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize for his work The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977).

Merrill’s collection, which was a gift to the WUSTL from the poet after he died in 1995, comprises approximately 35,000 items, including thousands of pages of notebooks, galley proofs and revised worksheets.

Merrill, who was not a member of the WUSTL faculty but agreed to donate his collection to Olin, won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for “Divine Comedies” and two National Book Awards for “Nights and Days” and “Mirabell: Books of Number.”

The Merrill archive is a cornerstone of the libraries’ Modern Literature Collections, which contains works created or collected by some 125 20th-century American, English or Irish writers.

“The university has had many outstanding writers on its faculty, and the library is fortunate to display the portraits of many of these writers; not only do their books fill our shelves, but in many cases, their manuscripts are part of our research collections,” says Anne Posega, head of special collections at Olin.