Coffee with the Curators | National Poetry Month: More Fantastic Beasts

Allysa B. Peyton, Assistant Curator of Asian Art
April 30, 2021

The history behind April as designated National Poetry Month has all to do with the IRS and our collective April 15th tax deadlines. No, really! To commemorate National Poetry Month on past tax days, the Academy of American Poets distributed free copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at selected post offices across the country to taxpayers rushing to make the April deadline. The connection? “April is the cruelest month…” begins the first line of Eliot’s signature modernist poem. It closes with the Sanskrit mantra “Shantih shantih shantih,” a closing prayer to suggest healing and peace. 

 

To mark National Poetry Month at the museum, I’ve turned to the Harn Poet-in-Residence Debora Greger. She has been writing about the Harn’s collections since 2010 and mentoring undergraduate and graduate interns ever since. Over the last few months, we have been spending time with the Harn’s Korean collections and especially the newest exhibition Everyday to the Extraordinary: Highlights from the Korean Collection.

 

Debora has been inspired by the shape poems created by the poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918). While serving in the French army during WWI, he perfected what he called the calligramme, most of them created in the trenches with his army-issue pencil and trench pen.

 

The fantastic beasts found in the Korean art gallery supplied the outlines for this new poetic exploration:

 
 
 
Debora Greger, Harn Poet-in-Residence
Seok Mo Ro-In, Tiger (detail), late 19th Century, Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, Museum purchase, funds provided by The David A. Cofrin Fund for Asian Art, 2011.41

 

The intersections between text and image seemed especially apropos since we have been examining the liminal spaces between the mundane and the spectacular in the exhibition. The shape poem study also germinated a collaboration with the Harn Education Department to bloom into their family guide for the Korean art gallery. 

 
 
Above: South temple, Hwagyesa, Seoul. As Buddhism spread in South Korea, folk beliefs were incorporated with Buddhist practice. Mountain gods are included in temple complexes and are considered deities protecting the teachings of the Buddha. Photo: Allysa Peyton. 

 

During object study, we don’t limit ourselves only to the formal and art historical properties of the objects before us. Like the exhibition Everyday to the Extraordinary, we aim to make connections to other aspects of the arts, daily life, the sciences, botany, religion, and more. 

 

Tigers are a popular subject in Korean art, mythology, and folklore. Associated with the guardian spirit of the mountain, the tiger plays a protective role, and rituals are held regularly in mountain villages to ensure harmony in and around the community. In the creation myth “Dangun,” tigers also represent the Korean people, as the mountainous landscape was popularly known as the “Land of Tigers.” Sadly, because of and despite this reverence for tigers, they have been hunted to extinction on the South Korean peninsula. Debora addresses this tragedy through a hand-written shape poem: 

 
Debora Greger, Harn Poet-in-Residence
 

Each Fall and Spring semester, we work with undergraduate and graduate students to develop new creative content based on the collections. We would like to dedicate this blog to the truly exceptional Harn interns that we have worked with over the years: Anna Mebel, Angela Li, Elaina Mercatoris, Cary Marcous, Eileen Rush, Emily Merritt, Giavanna Landicini, Danny Duffy, Corinne Titus, Angie Chirino, Mirjam Frosth, and Emily Hill.